Farming crickets for food is a better bet for the environment than raising chickens, according to scientists at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
However, the researchers, led by Afton Halloran, add that scaling up cricket farms to meet expected demand might decrease social and economic benefits to people in the farming communities.
According to the United Nations, about 20% of the world’s population currently eats insects, with the cricket being the most popular species.
As the global population grows, and as poverty and the exigencies of tackling climate change inevitably force tighter restrictions on mammal, bird and even some plant-based food-growing industries, insects are predicted to feature more and more frequently on shopping lists around the world.
Estimates of the current size of the insect food market are sketchy – much insect consumption, after all, takes place on a small scale, widely distributed, rural basis – but economics research company Global Market Insights (GMI) estimates that in 2015 it was worth around $US33 million.
The company predicts the industry will grow at a rate of 40% per year, providing both human and animal feed.
From some perspectives, the environmental and economic appeal of insect farming seems obvious. GMI estimates that a single hectare of farmland can produce at least 150 tonnes of insect protein annually.
Halloran and colleagues decided to test whether the apparent benefits were real, by conducting a whole-cycle analysis of cricket and broiler chicken production in northeastern Thailand – a region that boasts about 20,000 cricket farms.
The team looked at farms that bred two species – the field cricket (Gryllus bimaculatus) and the domestic cricket (Acheta domesticus). Two end-points were identified: the environmental and energy costs of producing a kilogram of edible mass, and a more highly processed kilo of edible protein.
The research showed that in both cases, cricket farming was notably more energy efficient than raising chickens.
At small local scales, the differences are considerable. However, they decrease as cricket farming techniques change to meet the challenges of larger scale operation.
In particular, the provision of food for the insects was identified as an energy-hungry hotspot as farmers moved from feeding crickets on foraged green waste and switched to commercially grown soy and maize.
Monocultural farming of plant food crops requires hefty inputs, and represents the biggest contribution to the energy costs of both cricket and chicken operations.
“While crickets consume plant matter in the wild, farmers started to use commercial chicken feeds because they saw that the crickets grew faster,” says Halloran.
She adds that entomologists at Thailand’s Khon Kaen University are looking at alternative feed sources for insect farmers.
In addition, the Copenhagen researchers found that if cricket farming is further scaled up to high-intensity levels to meet projected demand then the food-input costs drop relative to similarly ramped-up chicken production.