Did you know that insects existed long before humans, and that they not only out number, but also outweigh us? Well, they do. They arrived on earth a solid 1,000 years before us humans, and it’s estimated that there are 200 million insects for every human on the planet -- do the math, that’s a lot of bugs. Lastly, if you add up the combined weight of all the ants on earth it is about equal to the weight of all of the humans, so just imagine if you included all the other millions of insects.
So, why does this matter beyond helping to prepare you for your next trivia night? The reason is that insects are at risk, and our survival relies on theirs. That’s right, the loss of insects is what scientists fear is going to be the sixth great extinction. The one before that was when the dinosaurs left 65 million years ago. Whereas Albert Einstein estimated that humans would have four years to live if all the bees disappeared, Harvard entomologist EO Wilson, stated that humanity would only last a few months if all the insects became extinct.
We need insects to make the world’s global food system possible. They create, serve as and decompose food. In terms of creating food, they help aerate the soil, act as pollinators for plants and flowers, and prey on harmful pests. Fertile soil, which is increasingly gaining attention as it is being destroyed at a rapid rate, can be restored by insects. They are responsible for improving the structure of the soil and increasing the organic content, enabling farmers to grow quality food. More commonly, insects, such as bees, are known for their contributions as pollinators working to make over 75% of the world’s food crops possible. Popular foods such as coffee, chocolate and apples would not grow without insects.
Insects also act as food for almost every animal on the planet, including us humans. Currently, over 80% of the world’s nations eat insects as a part of their diet, that’s over 2 billion people. There are around 2,000 edible insects and they are eaten due to their have a strong nutritional profile and minimal environmental effects. There has been a lot of talk about insects dense protein content, but they are also high in other nutrients such as iron, calcium and omega 3’s.
Insects also break down food and other organic matter. If that no longer happened, plants would not get their essential nutrients and there would be growing heaps of dead matter and waste. For all these contributions and more, it is estimated that insects contribute $57B of free labor to the US economy. Insects are truly the unsung heroes of planet earth.
Insects are currently in great jeopardy though. We’ve heard about the disappearing bees, but all insects are at risk. Evidence of the disappearing insects was shockingly recently demonstrated in a German preserve where populations of flying insects decreased 76% in the last 20 years. The frightening part is that this figure comes from a preserve, an area that was regulated and protected. Think about it, remember those bugs splatting on your windshield when you were young? That never happens anymore.
So, you may be asking, how does eating insects ensure their survival, which we now know is essential for ours? The answer is both emotional and physical. First, by having more positive associations with crickets and removing our fears, we will feel more comfortable eating them. Once we understand their role on earth and the good they bring, they will no longer be thought of as only pests. Essentially, once insects get an image upgrade people will be able to enjoy them on their plates as well.
From a physical standpoint, the crickets that are served in North America as food are farmed. This means you are not depleting wild populations by eating them and they are completely controlled from what they are fed to how to they are bred. I like to think of the farming of crickets and other insects as the Global Seed Vault for bugs. For those of you not familiar, the Global Seed Vault is where millions of seeds collected from almost every country in the world are kept safe in the arctic permafrost. If something were to happen to conditions outside, the vault would have protected reserves, and the same could hold true for the farming of insects. The reason that almost every country in the world has donated to the Global Seed Vault despite political differences is because the loss of food is something that will affect us all. Insects are the missing link to this equation and need to be both consumed and preserved in order to successfully and sustainably march us forward into the future.