Insects: The Future of Sustainable Protein

By Molly Melnick

April, 29 2024

In a world with ever-warming temperatures, the future of protein lies in the antenna of our favorite backyard critters. 

America: land of the free, home of the burger.

The United States is an especially carnivorous country, with one of the highest meat consumption rates per capita, and the average American eating 149 lb/year. Steak, burgers, chicken and turkey are an ever-consistent staple in the diet of many Americans. 

While meat is a protein-rich and tasty choice, it is also unfortunately a product of one of the largest producers of greenhouse gasses in America. Through the processes of feed sourcing, manure processing and agricultural land upkeep, the meat industry accounts for a whopping 15% of global emissions. The Economist reports that if every American and Brit cut their meat consumption for two-thirds of meals, carbon emissions could be cut by 60%. 

Fortunately, younger generations of Americans are less conflicted with saying goodbye to small luxuries for the sake of the planet. After all, the death of plastic straws, the reusable water bottle craze and the ever-increasing use of beeswax as a food wrap have all occurred within Gen Z’s lifetime. 

Similar to these small swaps, there is an incredibly resourceful, sustainable and tasty alternative that could take meat’s place for a fraction of the cost: insects. 

Consumable insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms and beetles are rich in minerals, cheap to produce, incredibly sustainable and surprisingly tasty! According to Time, insects are one of the best alternative non-vegetable sources of protein, iron and vitamin B-12

The mental roadblock of consuming insects is the biggest deterrent for most people. However, it’s important to note that entomophagy, the act of consuming insects, has been around for thousands of years, showing up in several prehistoric archeological exploits. 

Culturally, many people around the world consume insects on a day-to-day basis. Certain regions of Mexico serve ant eggs doused in butter and chocolate-covered larvae on a stick. Termites are a staple in Ghanaian cuisine. Thailand fries grasshoppers. China consumes silkworm moths and roasted bee larvae. 

Cooked crickets, cooked larvae and cricket dust are three of the most common ways that insects are prepared for consumption in the United States. Cricket powder can be used in protein bars, as dish garnishes or seasoning and as an alternative protein powder. If prepared properly, roasted crickets are a delectable snack, resembling something like a well-cooked brussel sprout. 

The Food and Agricultural Organization reports that agricultural production worldwide will have to increase by 70% in order to feed a global population expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. Yet agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of natural destruction, threatening 86% of the 28,000 species most at risk of extinction.

This natural destruction can be largely accounted for by the demand for animal protein, which, in turn, causes a strain on the environment with 80% of the world’s farmland used to raise and feed livestock, despite animals counting for only 18% of global calorie consumption. 

Consumable insects are rich in protein and several minerals, such as iron, zinc, copper and magnesium–even more so than beef. Pound-for-pound, they require less land, water and feed than traditional livestock and produce more product with less waste. In turn, insect farming and processing produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than traditional meat production. Even further, contrary to cow excrement, which produces massive amounts of toxic methane, insect excrement—called frass—is an excellent fertilizer and soil amender.

Insects, while not a perfect replacement for the taste of meat, are certainly an ethical replacement for the product. 

In a rapidly declining climate with an ever-increasing need to find smart solutions, insects just might be the future of protein in America. 

Molly Melnick is a senior majoring in professional and public writing. When she’s not reading or writing, you can find her sprinkling cricket powder on her next meal.