Grub’s up? Lab-grown insect meat could be the future of food production

Ikea Test Kitchen's Bug Burger
In 2018, IKEA’s innovative Space10 lab introduced the Bug Burger, featuring a patty made from a mixture of beetroot, parsnips, potatoes, and mealworms (described as “larval form of a darkling beetle”). The burger appeared in Space10’s Future Food Today: A SPACE10 Cookbook. Space10/IKEA

Would you switch to an insect flesh diet for the good of the planet? As far as future foodstuffs are concerned, it’s not out of the question.

It’s no secret that our current practices of livestock farming are causing untold damage to our planet. With larger and larger areas taken over for rearing livestock to feed our ever-expanding population, such farming has become an increasing cause of land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, and climate change. Some of the attempts to diminish these effects include lab-grown meat, in addition to the rise of plant-based diets. Both of these have their problems, however. Culturing beef or pork cells could wind up using more energy than livestock farming, while certain plant crops can be as thirsty for water as a field of cattle.

But there’s another possibility that’s on the table, too. And we mean that quite literally. Welcome to the world of lab-grown insects.

Vertical farming allows for crops to be cultivated with up to 95% less water and, due to the vertical stacking of the tanks, in a far smaller space.

No, it’s not “a thing” just yet, but researchers from Tufts University recently made a convincing case for its transformative possibilities. In a paper for the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food System, titled “Possibilities for Engineered Insect Tissue as a Food Source,” they laid out arguments for how and why lab-grown insect meat might turn out to be the answer to a whole lot of our culinary problems.

“[This aspect of our research involves] using insect cells as the biological component to generate meat-like foods,” David Kaplan, Stern Family Endowed Professor of Engineering at Tufts University, told Digital Trends. “The rationale is that the cells are very nutritious and, importantly, they offer much simpler conditions for growth into tissues for meat-like features. The simplicity means lower costs to generate such foods, which is a key hurdle in the field of cellular agriculture.”

The researchers suggest a setup that’s not far removed from the vertical farming method currently used to produce crops, such as herbs, around the clock, 365 days a year. Vertical farming allows the “farmer” to artificially control the temperature, light, and humidity that goes into producing crops. These are grown in a special growth medium in giant, vat-like tanks. The promise of vertical farming isn’t just to create fresher produce, regardless of the season; it also allows for these crops to be cultivated with up to 95% less water and, due to the vertical stacking of the tanks, in a far smaller space.

future of food vertical farming 6
Vertical farming.

Insects could potentially be the next “crop” to be harvested in this manner. Compared with mammalian muscle cell culture systems, which require cells to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface, many insect cells can be grown, free-floating in high-density tanks. Insect cell cultures also have lower glucose requirements than cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells. That means that they have fewer energy demands.

“In principle, the cell systems we are using are very scalable,” Kaplan continued. “Thus, thinking ahead to larger production and consumption should be realistic.” While he notes that the research is still hypothetical — meaning, you don’t have to worry about your local cafeteria switching out beef for bugs without your noticing — he believes that it could be a realistic, cost-effective, and healthy option for the field.

It would also, as noted, have potential benefits for the environment.

The startups move in

The researchers believe that lab-grown insect meat, fed on plants, could be genetically modified to ensure maximum growth, nutrition, and flavor. Right now, Kaplan said that there is no one using the technique. “I am not aware of companies pursuing this path [of] cellular agriculture using insect cells,” he said. “[Because of that,] a new entity would be required, unless an existing company decided to get involved. Or both.”

Our products contain all the essential meat derived nutrients the body needs.

But just because there’s no lab-grown insect meat doesn’t mean that there are no players in this space. Even if, right now, they’re still using the traditional method of food production.

“Over two billion people already eat insects and 80% of countries are represented,” Joe Shouldice, founder of cricket harvesting business Yes Crickets, told Digital Trends. “North America is the fringe here. I see no reason why this won’t become entirely commonplace in North America. I point to the example of sushi, which not too long ago was considered scary and disgusting. I actually think the turn toward entomophagy will happen much more quickly.”

Part of the challenge, he acknowledged, is public perception. “The first bug is the hardest,” he continued. “[However, right now in the United States there is a] lack of tradition or history, and knowledge, of exactly what to do with some insects.”

Yes Cricket is doing its part to change that with the production of various, protein-based snacks made from the crickets it harvests on its farm in Canada. Another company, Burgs Foods, produces an insect meat burger, which it hopes has mass appeal.

Lab Grown Insect Meat Daily Recommended Intake Graph
David L. Kaplan

“It’s not a novelty and we do believe this will be in the staple diets of Western countries,” said Sander Peltenburg, co-founder of Burgs Foods. “By combining crickets with plant-based ingredients, we’ve created a product that contains all the essential animal-derived nutrients at a fraction of the impact on the environment. We offer ecotarians a sustainable source of protein or meat. Our products contain all the essential meat derived nutrients the body needs. The flexitarian [or] ecotarian diet is typically low in B12 and iron, two nutrients that crickets contain higher percentages of than beef, chicken, or pork.”

There is even a drinkable product on the market in the form of Beetles Beer, a beer that, well, you get the idea!

Changing the way we eat

Will these companies be among the first wave of a whole new culinary craze? Are the Tufts University researchers right in believing that the current bottlenecks in meat production could be solved by investing in bug-based farming? We’ll have to wait and see. No matter how you slice it, though, the idea of chowing down on bugs doesn’t seem as implausible as it once did. Heck, it might even be creeping its way into “necessity” territory.

One thing’s for sure, if we’re going to manage to successfully feed a population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050 (which includes having a planet able to feed them on), we’ll have to reconsider the ways we currently produce food. That includes finding more efficient ways to produce food, while eliminating the harmful effects of high-density animal farming.

In other words, perhaps it’s time to serve a much-needed dose of cricket with our chicken. Grub’s up!

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