Our society today is facing major challenges. They force us to rethink our lifestyle, find more sustainable approaches and put them into practice. This is especially true for our current food system.
Growing world population
According to FAO estimates, there will be around 9.7 billion people on earth by 2050. Providing all these people with sufficient food and, above all, high-quality protein presents us with major challenges. Due to today’s eating habits in industrialized countries (a lot of meat, few vegetables) and the way we feed our animals, this supply cannot be guaranteed equally for all people on earth in the long term. In addition, the provision of sufficient amounts of protein is already accompanied by heavy burdens on the environment. This means that as the world’s population increases, the natural resources of our planet will be further strained and, above all, the supply security of poorer countries will become increasingly poor.
Care of the animals
The production of animal foods, such as meat, fish, eggs or milk, requires protein-rich feeds, such as soybean meal or fish meal. The production of these feedstuffs leads to a shortage of resources and poses a threat to people’s food security. As a result, prices for the most important protein feeds (e.g., soybean meal, fish meal) have been driven up in recent years. As a result, producing countries can no longer afford these feeds themselves and are increasingly exporting them. This further exacerbates the supply shortages of protein-rich foods in these countries. In addition, the provision of protein-rich feedstuffs has numerous negative effects on the environment.
In the last fifty years, global soybean production has increased tenfold from 27 million tons to 269 million tons. Soybeans are mainly grown in Asia, the USA and South America and exported to regions that cannot meet their own needs due to colder climatic conditions. Switzerland, for example, can provide only 15% of its own crude protein requirements to feed its livestock. The remaining 85% – around 280,000 tons of feed soy per year – is imported from Brazil. The supply of soy is associated with high greenhouse gas emissions, high water consumption, large-scale pollution of water and soil, extensive use of pesticides, and loss of habitats and ecosystems. To meet global demand for soybeans, a large area of rainforest is cleared each year. In 2020, a loss of 17,000 km2 of Brazilian rainforest was recorded – equivalent to an area of about 24 football fields. The clearing of tropical forests and the conversion of savannahs and grasslands into monocultures for intensive agriculture is leading to a loss of natural ecosystems and indigenous habitat, as well as a massive decline in biodiversity. In addition to the loss of their homelands, local small farmers often lose their livelihoods due to the establishment of large corporations. Deforestation of CO₂-absorbing rainforests and N₂O emissions from nitrogen addition, fertilization and mineralization of soil materials, contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Another environmental consequence of soybean cultivation is the high demand for water. Although the demand varies greatly from region to region, intensive cultivation leads to severe water shortages, especially in countries already threatened by drought. Unauthorized pesticides and fertilizers also threaten to contaminate groundwater.
Along with soy, fishmeal has long been one of the most important sources of protein in the diets of farm animals, such as chickens and pigs. However, in the 1970s, the demand for fish as food increased, leading to the growth of industrial aquaculture and an increase in fishmeal prices. In addition, the EU and Switzerland severely restricted the feeding of meat-and-bone meal to livestock due to the BSE crisis. For some years now, its use in livestock feed has been allowed again under certain conditions. Nevertheless, due to its high price, fishmeal is less frequently used as a high-protein feed for livestock. On the other hand, there is a high demand for fishmeal in the farming of edible fish and shrimp. Unfortunately, the provision of fishmeal is no less environmentally damaging than that of soymeal. Even though there are now more sustainable approaches to fishmeal production, such as processing waste from edible fish preparation, fisheries are still targeted to produce fishmeal. For example, in recent years, approximately 30 million metric tons of fishmeal have been produced annually worldwide – most of it from fisheries bycatch. This inevitably contributes to overfishing of the world’s oceans and threatens marine ecosystems. This is because the production of 1 kg of fishmeal requires 5 kg of fish from bycatch.
In addition to the challenge of providing all people with sufficient food, humans are masters at wasting it. Every year, especially in industrialized countries, large quantities of food are produced that are not used as such. In Switzerland and Liechtenstein alone, around 2.8 million tons of food waste are generated each year. Globally, as much as 1.6 billion tons of food are wasted annually. At the same time, more than 800 million people in the world go hungry – inconceivable, because food waste in industrialized countries is directly linked to the plight of people in developing countries. The increasing demand for food means that arable land in the producing countries is becoming scarce and, as a consequence, the prices for the corresponding foodstuffs are rising. Local smallholders can no longer afford their own produce and have to resort to cheaper, usually lower-quality food. In addition, around 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions of rich countries can be traced back to food waste. This further drives climate change, leads to floods and drought in the growing countries, and causes prices to rise further due to failed or small harvests. An important approach to counteracting this is to waste less food. This can be achieved by purchasing in a more structured way, storing food better and not disposing of it immediately after the best-before date. In addition, however, consumers’ demands should also be lowered. After all, more than half of all food waste occurs before this food even reaches the consumer’s plate. For example, the apple that is not as round as all the others. But also the tortellini that may not be nicely shaped and closed. These foods, along with many other side streams from the food and agricultural industries, end up in the waste of manufacturing companies every day, and only in some cases are they actually processed in a way that adds value. Some of it can be used directly as animal feed, while others go to biogas plants. In the latter case, a lot of potential is lost – for example, as food for insects to produce a high-quality protein source.
Insects as food?
It is true that direct consumption of insects as a source of protein is also a very good sustainable alternative for meat and other animal protein sources for humans. Due to the worldwide availability of insects, their consumption (entomophagy) is also basically widespread. More than 2 billion people eat them every day, especially in Africa, Asia and parts of the Americas. In Europe, however, edible insects are less tolerated because many people are disgusted by them and find them unappetizing. This is mainly due to our cultural background and will not change anytime soon, despite increasing environmental awareness. Surveys have shown, however, that many people in Europe are in favor of insects as feed for farm animals and would also buy the resulting animal products, while they would reject insects as food. Therefore, it makes sense to first use insects as an alternative feed and thus indirectly make our diet more sustainable and conserve natural resources.