The compound eyes, wings, jointed legs and chitinous exoskeleton common to insects are hardly appetizing.
But the protein found in insects – and their ability to gobble up organic waste – could be key to addressing global concerns about food supply, greenhouse gas emissions and land and water use. .
Still, determining the best way to raise insects for food and feed will require research.
Enter IUPUI, part of a three-university effort funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
The IUPUI School of Science, Texas A&M Agri Life Research and Mississippi State University are working through the new Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming – or CEIF – to make advancing new knowledge and technologies that directors believe will fill existing gaps in scientific and industry-related knowledge. .
The problem that researchers are trying to solve is huge.
By 2050, traditional agriculture is expected to miss around 40% of the world’s food supply, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. CEIF officials say farming insects can provide a practical, economical and sustainable route to producing high-value protein and reducing agricultural waste to address this concern.
To maximize efforts and capitalize on the strengths of the three research centers, each university will engage professional, regulatory, and governmental bodies while conducting laboratory and field experiments.
The IUPUI site will focus on genetics associated with mass-produced insects, including genome generation, resequencing efforts, and engineering. Texas A&M will look into field trials and insect production optimization. Mississippi State will explore microbiology and quality assurance issues in food and feed insects.
“Our expertise here is more on the insect side,” said Christine Picard, an associate professor in IUPUI’s department of biology and one of the university’s leading researchers. “We look at things at the genetic level.”
To help fund its work, the center also partners with companies in the United States and abroad, including major food suppliers such as Mars and Tyson Foods, and pioneers in animal husbandry. insects like Aspire Food Group, Protix and Beta Hatch Inc.
“The funding for the center itself came [from the grant] in August, but the research is funded by member companies,” Picard said. “They pay an annual fee, which entitles them to real-time access to research and data.”
CEIF Industry Liaison Cheryl Preyer, a former fast-food marketer, serves as a point of contact for industry members and oversees business-related administration.
“Having worked in people’s food before, I was shocked when I realized in 2013 or 2014 the extent of the food waste we are creating in this country,” she said. “At that time, as I began to research and learn more about insects, I was amazed at the level of nutrients that could end up in a landfill and how we could potentially use them to feed animals. people.”
CEIF researchers hope their findings will serve as the basis for continued exploration of the use of insect proteins, with regulatory approval, as food for humans and animals.
“The ability of insects to convert agricultural by-products into protein has the potential to reduce or eliminate organic waste in agriculture,” Picard said. “And, as we all know, insects have an incredible ability to reproduce. There are many and it is to our advantage. So if we are aware of the potential, why are we underutilizing insects for this purpose? »
Many insects are sources of protein and nutrients. In fact, chef Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs Inc. and self-proclaimed edible insect ambassador, is working with CEIF to help spread awareness of the benefits associated with eating insects.
Yoon actively promotes awareness of edible insects through lectures, workshops and public demonstrations.
“I recognized the need for someone to be the bridge between the science and practice of eating insects, so I became that person,” Yoon said. “We need to get past the perception that insects are pests and just sting people and eat crops.”
Crickets, for example, have all nine essential amino acids and they also have lots of different vitamins and minerals, he added.
“With cricket powder, we can provide 30 grams of protein and mask it with another dish,” Yoon said. “We can incorporate it into any type of food and easily make that item much more nutritious.”
Picard has already adopted this practice in his own kitchen.
“I incorporate cricket flour into some of my baking at home,” she said. “My daughter doesn’t know yet.”
Anne Carlson, founder and CEO of Jiminy’s, which produces sustainable dog food and treats made from cricket protein, also believes in the nutritional value of insects.
“Cricket protein is pre-biotic and the cricket exoskeleton provides fiber,” she said. “It feeds the good bacteria in the gut for good digestion. It’s also hypoallergenic, has twice the iron of spinach, three times the protein of beef, and 10 times the B12 of salmon. is a lot for the money.
Jiminy’s also incorporates larvae into some of its treats and food products.
“The larvae are black soldier fly larvae and they’re smaller than crickets, so they’re even more durable,” Carlson said. “An acre with cattle will produce 192 pounds of protein after a year. That same acre with larvae will produce 1 million pounds of protein. There is no comparison. Insect proteins are a serious solution to the serious problems of dwindling water and land resources.
According to Yoon, insects represent an almost limitless food source.
“There are over 2,000 species of edible insects with just as many different flavors and textures. And we’re just the tip of the iceberg with research into what we can do to manipulate the nutritional value of insects,” he said.
Environmental sustainability is an important point for CEIF researchers.
“Human population growth is a concern, but another factor is climate change,” Picard said. “A lot of the protein factors that we currently rely on depend on a stable climate, so as the climate fluctuates, that causes problems.”
As a result, the protein that much of the world relies on is not sustainable, Picard said.
“We have issues with greenhouse gas production, land use and waste generation,” she said. “It’s a vicious circle and we need alternatives. We cannot continue as we are. »
Preyer believes that the work of CEIF and insect farming in general meets many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including those related to poverty, hunger, good health, economic growth, climate action , life under water and life on land.
While currently working on a five-year grant that should be up for renewal, those connected and working with CEIF ultimately hope the center will become self-sustaining.
“The overall process can take a few years, and many of the projects we offer are very modular,” Picard said.
“Traditional academics would envision big experiments for big results, but we break them down because we want to make sure useful results are generated,” she said. “Negative results will also be made available as this information is equally useful.
“We’re certainly learning things, and the industry is moving forward as well.”•
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