Will edible insects be the food of the future?

04 June 2019

Environmentally friendly, engineered insect tissue has the potential to become a future food source.
Tiffany Hionas

Livestock farming is one of the primary reasons behind land and water degradation, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. Over the last 30 years, meat and dairy consumption has tripled in low to middle income countries due to rising populations, prosperity and urbanisation. With meat demand forecasted to increase, the strain to be able to feed the growing population with Earth’s limited agricultural land is becoming a pressing issue.

Many solutions have been debated and discussed, alot of which include plant-based diets, insect farming, lab-grown meat and genetically modified animals. However, the challenge lies with deciding which potential solution would be best.

A superior option for high volume, nutritious and flavoursome food production has been suggested to be lab-grown insect meat. However, environmental issues including land and water degradation, deforestation and biodiversity loss cannot be relieved by genetically modified (GM) livestock, despite the benefits of producing less methane or disease resistance.

Insect farming requires less space and has a significantly lower requirement of water, but unsurprisingly, insects are not a consumer’s favourite delicacy.

Although cultured meat technology is currently in the early stages of research and development, scientists say that the meat produced via cellular agriculture will be safer, and more beneficial for the environment relative to animal farming.

In contrast to mammalian cell cultures, lead author Natalie Rubio from Tufts University, US, said: ‘Insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen and osmolarity conditions.’

Insect cells can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media, suggesting the potential for the cost-effective mass production of these cells. This is in comparison to most mammalian cells, which have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface, and therefore complicate the process for mass food production.

When introducing a new gene, insect cells can be made to contract in response to light, making them more readily to accept genetic modifications, which is required to develop a ‘meaty’ texture.

Eventually, insect labriculture will have the potential to produce some familiar flavours, but despite this potential, research is still ongoing to master two key processes: turning insect cells into muscle and fat and being able to combine them in 3D cultures with a meaty texture.

DOI: 10.3389/fsufs.2019.00024 

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