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When It Comes to Sustainability, Plant-Based Protein Outpaces Insects
People are endlessly creative in their efforts to fix the problems associated with our animal agriculture-dependent food system. An increasingly “hot” topic under consideration: insect protein. But how do insects stack up compared to other kinds of alternative protein? At GFI, we believe that plant-based and cultivated meat are better-positioned to transform our food system. Our new insect fact sheet explains why.
There are two primary ways that we can use insect proteins: as feed for livestock and as food that we (humans) eat directly. In the feed use case, powdered insects are added to existing feed sources for livestock, like chickens or fish, or to cat and dog food to increase protein profiles.

Companies most commonly use insects to replace fish meal in fish feed. Most newer insect protein startups are feed companies. That means most large-scale farmed insect protein depends on the success of the very supply chains that we need to transform if we want to provide protein sustainably to more than 10 billion people in the next few decades. Using insects as feed will not facilitate the change we so desperately need.

Now, if you’re new to the idea of insect protein, you’ve probably heard more about insects as food than as feed. Some insects are eaten whole, like roasted crickets; processed into chips or other common snack foods; or ground into a powder and used to supplement products like flour. A few companies are using insects to recreate meat dishes, like burgers or meatballs.

Why do people advocate insect protein as an alternative to meat? Why make a cricket burger instead of a hamburger? One of the most common arguments that insect proponents use is environmental: Insects require fewer resources to raise than common livestock like chickens, pigs, and cattle.

But we shouldn’t be comparing insects to a baseline we already know is unsustainable—we should compare them to other attractive alternative proteins. How does insect protein stack up next to plant-based meat?

By weight, insects convert the food they eat to edible protein at a food conversion ratio (FCR) of between 4:1 and 9:1. Insects intended for human consumption often have an FCR comparable to that of poultry. At absolute best, and usually, when reared as livestock feed, insects have FCRs of about 2:1, meaning it takes 2 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilogram of insect mass. But again, these are not insects for human consumption; they are insects for farm animal consumption.

Feeding plants and cells directly to humans removes this inefficiency from our food system. Insects might be a step up from conventional meat, but they fall far short of other alternatives.

Want to learn more about some of the issues associated with raising insects for feed and food? Check out our fact sheet, and email Annie Osborn (annieo@gfi.org) with questions!


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