The impact and risks of large-scale insect farming are still unknown.

Credit: picture alliance/Getty Images

When prepared properly, meat tastes delicious. Even as a flexitarian who has been consciously limiting my meat intake for ethical and environmental reasons, I fully concede that point. Likely, meat’s flavor is a major reason many people seem to be willing to overlook its downsides. Edible insects, on the other hand, have the opposite problem: For years, we’ve been hearing about all the potential global benefits of tapping insects as a source of protein; and yet, unlike other parts of the world, many Westerners aren’t convinced that crickets and other bugs are some sort of undiscovered culinary treat.

With that in mind, a new opinion article published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution penned by researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences takes an interesting stance: If environmental sustainability is the key selling point for getting people to eat insects, the industry should focus on proving and accentuating those benefits first. The paper doesn’t quite take this next step, but you could also argue that there’s no reason to convince more people to eat bugs if edible insects won’t turn out to be the panacea they promise to be.

"As the global demand for protein grows, insect mass-rearing can play an important role in the future of food,” Asa Berggren, a conservation biologist and the paper’s lead author, said in a statement. "We know that we can't keep doing what we're doing in terms of producing food and utilizing the land."

However, as the paper highlights, currently, the subject of raising insects as food apparently isn’t particularly well researched, leaving an “overwhelming lack of knowledge” about both the benefits and costs of production. As a result, Berggren argues that it’s important for the industry to further study these gray areas. “Otherwise, we risk replacing one environmental issue with another,” she continues. “Though the industry is in its infancy, some companies are getting bigger, and doing well, and the risks will come along with that.”

Importantly, overall, Berggren and her team appear to be very bullish on edible insects’ long-term prospects. “Insects have the potential to be a good, sustainable, useful food source, but it's not as simple as rearing them and then that's it,” she said. “There is a lot of effort that needs to be put in to research.” Specifically, the paper mentions a need to look into possible issues like bugs escaping into non-native ecosystems or even the ethics of mass farming insects.

“We cannot expect that large-scale insect rearing will be environmentally sustainable without it being guided by strong research and its implementation into policy and industry goals,” the paper concludes. “With authorities and the public interested in the possibilities that this new food system can provide, scientists have an opportunity to aid in the creation of a way to feed the future human population without further deteriorating the environment we rely on.”