SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Future of Food: Burgers… or bugs?

Edible insects were on everyone’s lips (both literally and figuratively) at a Brighton Fringe event attended by over 70 people. The venue buzzed with excitement as the audience prepared their questions for the speakers and their taste buds for the imminent insect canapés.

Co-hosted with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), the event on Wednesday 18 May 2016 featured academics from both organisations – Professor Erik Millstone (SPRU) and Dr Dominic Glover (IDS) – alongside representatives from two other local food initiatives: Dan Stott (Bug Boys) and Vera Zakharov (Brighton and Hove Food Partnership).

Chaired by Tom Clarke, Science Editor of Channel 4 News, each speaker had five minutes to answer the question: “What could the future of food look like?” before the floor was opened for questions.

Engaging with the audience from the offset, Dr Dominic Glover asked for quick hands-up surveys to count the vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters in the room, before discussing reasons for reducing meat consumption – health, welfare and the environment were among the crowd’s responses.

Professor Erik Millstone continued, warning about the issues and concerns which should be considered with new food alternatives or substitutes.

Vera Zakharov followed, contributing statistics of overconsumption, surplus and waste, and arguing for a need to address and change our current food culture.

Dan Stott concluded the speaker sessions with compelling endorsements for including insects in our diets, from financial to environmental benefits.

Attendees were provided with plenty of food for thought:

  • Insects already feature in human diets around the world
  • The energy conversation ratio of insects is much better than that of beef, and they require 2000 times less water to produce
  • Some food substitutes can be counterproductive: artificial sweeteners increase the appetite and often therefore contribute to overeating rather than weight loss
  • In the UK, we waste 243,000 tonnes of meat a year – that’s 55 portions per person
  • The UK population is consuming and wasting three times more meat than we should be eating
  • 45% of Kenyan beans grown for UK consumption are rejected before they reach our supermarkets
  • As well as providing high levels of protein, insects contain more iron per gram than beef, as well as many other essential vitamins and minerals

Questions from the eager audience were diverse, including:

  • If we’re consuming more protein than our bodies require, where is the need for an alternative source?
  • Why replace animal with insect protein? Will scaling-up production have the same environmental impact?
  • How can we ensure insects are fed with ingredients that won’t compromise the safety of human consumption, as in the case of BSE, when cattle were fed waste?
  • How can insects be produced ethically? Will there be insect factory-farming or can they be farmed “free range”? How are they killed?
  • How can we look out for insect-based ingredients in our food, or “How do you spot a fly in your soup?”

Closing the discussion, Tom Clarke introduced a tasting of the culinary offerings made by Silo's chef, which included cricket croquettes and chocolate-covered grasshoppers. Descriptions included “interesting” and “slightly crunchy”, with one taster commenting that he’d “want to taste more”, having expected a stronger flavour.

How and what we eat, the journey it’s been through and how much is left over has a huge impact on the world’s resources. With population growth, climate change and huge inequality in the food system, we really do need to take a fresh look at what’s on our plate.

Celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year, both IDS and SPRU have spent the past half-century working to address contemporary major challenges in development, sustainability and science, technology and innovation. This important milestone offers the opportunity to reflect on the past and look to the future - in terms of challenges and solutions to these problems. It is not only businesses and governments who are key stakeholders in future policies, but also consumers as users need to be involved, as well as citizens and civil society.

Further information:

Listen to the full Future of Food discussion on Soundcloud, as well as sound bites from the tasting session.

View a photo gallery of the event and the Future of Food Storify.

The event was covered by Brighton & Hove News and Brighton & Hove Independent.

Professor Erik Millstone, co-author of the book The Atlas of Food, gave an interview about edible bugs on BBC Sussex Radio (02:55 hours in).

Dr Dominic Glover is the author of a recent research report: ‘Edible Insects and the Future of Food: A Foresight Scenario Exercise on Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) and Global Food Security’.