Insects might not be popular at the cottage but they’re steadily gaining ground in the kitchen. Touted as a low-cost, high-protein solution to feeding the world’s growing population, they’ve even been called the next new superfood. The downside? Genetically modified insects could create a plague of superbugs.
Enjoying bugs as part of your diet, even as a delicacy, is nothing new. The ancient Greeks snacked on insects, and this National Geographic article explains how Paiute Indians hunted for crickets. Insects are a complete source of protein (they provide all of the essential amino acids), and some species even provide more protein per ounce than popular choices like beef or chicken. they’re also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Squeamish about crunching on a fried grasshopper? You can even get your bug protein in the form of powder. And if That’s not enough to tempt you, consider some of the facts from The Farmed Insect site. A hundred grams of termite gives you 35.5 grams of iron while the same amount of hamburger offers a paltry 1.9 grams.
“Mini-livestock” farming also uses far less of the planet’s precious resources. It takes over 7,500 litres of water to produce 500 grams of beef, while producing the same amount of edible insects requires just five litres of water.
It sounds like a win-win, especially when you consider that there are close to a million known types of living insects, and an estimated 200 million insects per person in the world.
But there’s something else to consider, and That’s our propensity for tinkering with nature. Genetically modified crops are a hotly debated topic, and many regions have either partial or complete bans on the import or cultivation of GMO foods. For instance, Russia banned the growth of GMOs in 2014 and restricted imports until 2024, and Milan, Rome, and Tuscany are just a few of the regions in Italy that have banned GMO crops.
Yet the GMO push continues, with everything from corn to castor beans having its DNA altered in a lab. Science hasn’t brought GMO beef to the table yet, but many of the crops that your bacon or steak are raised on have been genetically modified.
And insects aren’t immune to having their genes altered. As The Atlantic reports, the company Oxitec has released some 70 million genetically modified mosquitoes into neighbourhoods in the Cayman Islands and Brazil, with Florida their next intended target.
The mosquitoes have been bred with a “kill switch” to make them sterile and prevent the transmission of tropical diseases. A good idea, but there’s simply no telling what the unintended consequences might be.
And you can bet that more GMO insects will be created if demand for the creepy crawly crops goes up. Crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches, and countless other varieties could be bred to grow faster or larger, with more insect-meat to satisfy consumers. They could also, like the Oxitec mosquitoes, be given feed that contains common antibiotics like tetracycline.
That’s because, whether It’s a cattle farm or a cricket farm, any operation that mass produces thousands or millions of animals in close quarters has to contend with disease, and antibiotics have long been used in animal feed to prevent or combat the problem. And That’s helped create antibiotic-resistant superbugs, as this NPR article explains.
Could insects truly be the superfood of tomorrow? You bet. But there are very real issues of GMO insects in our food chain. So before you reach for that package of chipotle-flavoured cockroaches, check the label. You might just want to choose the organic oak slug instead.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.