Fried bamboo worm. Pexels
Johannesburg - Eating insects instead of beef, chicken and pork, designing meat-imitation burgers that “bleed” in laboratories, and farming the world’s tiniest flower, the lentil-sized duckweed, to replace meat.

Whether these “exciting and controversial” alternative proteins are the answer to feeding the planet’s surging population and fighting climate change was debated at the sixth EAT Stockholm Food Forum this week, the world’s leading platform for global food transformation.

Marcel Dicke, a professor of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has long been convinced that edible insects are a viable, nutritious meat replacement that can help lessen the environmental impacts of livestock agriculture.

Insects are the most abundant life form on Earth and are packed with the protein, fats and vitamins that humans need. And rearing these “little cattle” is far more efficient compared with traditional meat sources.

“We hear of the challenges mankind faces in terms of feeding the world by 2050 when we will have nine to 10 billion people on Earth: challenges of conserving biodiversity and still preserving the health of human beings,” explains Dicke, an unyielding advocate of entomophagy - the consumption of insects.

“I don’t think we need to produce more food at the expense of nature. We need different food. We’ve exploited insects for food as long as we’ve existed and they’re much more efficient at producing high-quality meat.

“You can produce insects at a very small ecological footprint. They need 10 times less feed than a cow to produce 1kg of biomass, so they’re 10 times more efficient than a cow is.

“They do so with much less water and also with a much lower production of greenhouse gas emissions, and they can be reared on waste streams.”

And what of the cultural (mis)apprehension? “We’ve been taught so long that insects are yucky things we need to kill with pesticides There are 2 billion people on the planet who do eat insects. We should learn from them and take their diet choice seriously and incorporate it.”

Mush’ab Nursantio is a co-founder of Bite Back, an insect bio-refinery firm in Indonesia, which extracts fats from insects, refining this into “insect cooking oil”, butter and biofuel as a sustainable alternative to palm oil. “Insects are an abundant resource that can help produce 70% more food, safeguarding land and oceans,” he says.

Charles Godfray, the director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at Oxford University, says interest in artificial meat, too, is growing.

“People have been talking about artificial meat for over 100 years. Winston Churchill wrote about it in the 1930s, seeing it as a wonderful thing for the future.

“Artificial meat has become really interesting in the last 10 years because of the developments in stem cell science and associated technologies and now we have the first hamburger made from artificial meat.

“Certainly, with current technology, you can produce a meat product that can go into a sausage, a burger or something like that and, hopefully, in the future we’ll be able to produce something that really does look like a steak.

“It’s a wild world out there among start-ups and there’s a huge amount of interest and substantial venture capital money going into this.”

Here, he refers to firms like Impossible Foods, which has unveiled the Impossible Burger, a plant-based, lab-created burger now sold at Burger King; Finless Food, which is designing substitutes for fish; and Meatable, a Dutch outfit creating lab-grown meat from stem cell technology.

“If you try to make artificial meat as similar as possible to ordinary meat then you would expect the health effects to be roughly the same but the opportunities with artificial meat is that you can tweak things. You can reduce some of the negative consequences of red meat and improve it.”

He says “it’s probably too soon” to determine the environmental impacts of this sector and notes there are “enormous issues with acceptability”.

“It’s good for animal welfare but one has to look very carefully at what will happen to the people whose livelihoods will be affected or destroyed (in the livestock sector). One also has to be very careful about parts of the world where increasingly (meat) consumption is critical for people who have no alternatives.”

The creator of the Impossible Burger, Pat Brown, told the conference that animal-based foods had a “catastrophic impact” on the planet and he wanted to ensure the world was meat-free within the next 15 years.

“Our mission is to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035. You laugh,” he told the delegates, “but we are absolutely serious and its doable.”

Alexandra Sexton, an associate at the University of Oxford, adds, “Plant-based foods trying to mimic animal foods are getting a lot of the hype, largely because there’s this excitement they could disrupt the global meat market and therefore have the biggest impact and the biggest economic return as well.”

Bega’s trip was funded by the EAT Stockholm Food Forum.