To meet the challenge of providing nourishment to a global population likely to surpass nine billion by mid-century, there’s an intriguing new proposal: Grow and eat insects. Seriously.

It takes less than 30 seconds to search online for a raft of papers, articles and commentaries all decrying the world’s increasing consumption of animal foods.

Unsustainable. Impractical. Costly. Environmentally toxic.

The downside of trying to feed billions more people, whether the result of larger populations or bigger appetites for meat and dairy products, is monumental, to listen to the critics. However, a United Nations agency has come up with a solution that would provide vast amounts of edible protein, reduce the ecological footprint of protein production and conserve critical resources in the process.

Insects. Bugs. The creepy, crawly, flying creatures we normally try to keep away from our picnic would now be the picnic.

If you get past the gag factor, it’s not such a crazy idea. At this moment there are millions of people who regularly add insects to their meals, many as an important part of the diet. From beetles to ants to crickets to termites, insects are not only a dietary necessity in many areas of the world, they’re considered a culinary luxury.

Now, it’s not in most Americans’ DNA to start crunching on crickets and wolfing down ants — even if they are dipped in milk chocolate. But keep in mind that what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is suggesting includes not just additions to the human diet, but probably more importantly, creating a new and environmentally benign source of protein for animal feed, especially for aquaculture.

Before dismissing the idea as nonsense, or simply impractical, consider what sober scientists have concluded about the possibility of raising insects for food and feed.

Environmental benefits

Growing insects takes advantage of their high feed conversion efficiency. For example, crickets require only 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of bodyweight gain. In addition, as the FAO report noted, insects can be “reared on organic side-streams, including human and animal waste,” and thus can help reduce environmental contamination. Not only that, but insects production releases fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs and requires significantly less land and water.

Even now, there is a growing business in raising crickets as feed for zoo animals and certain types of flies for fish food.

There is also speculation that large-scale cultivation of “edible” insects, as opposed to livestock, would reduce the incidence of zoonotic infections being transmitted to humans, livestock and wildlife, although at this time there is no definitive data to confirm that.

Nutritional value

It’s a scientific fact that insects are a highly nutritious. Many contain valuable fat, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. For example, according to FAO, the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in mealworms is comparable to that found in fish, and is actually higher than what is contained in beef and pork. Plus, the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is virtually identical to that of fish and meat.

Intellectually, that’s all true. Gastronomically, there’s no way I’m sitting down to a plate of mealworms, rather than a charbroiled steak.

But the potential of insect cultivation lies in producing nutritional value that then can be fed to food animals. Experiments with mass production of black soldier flies have shown that the finished “product” is comparable to the basic fishmeal and soy protein mixture used in farm-raised salmon and other fish species — at a much lower cost and a significantly smaller eco-footprint.

Think fish care if they’re eating flies? That’s what they normally live on!

And if the result is healthy, affordable seafood, it’s all good.

Best of all benefits

The FAO report goes on at length — UN scientists are apparently getting paid by the word — but there is one other benefit to large-scale utilization of insects to replace both a percentage of protein humans eat, as well as supplying an even greater amount of the nutrition food animals require that wasn’t mentioned: There’s not a darn thing that activists can do to stop it.

Are the hardcore humanitarians going to claim that black flies are “sentient creatures” that deserve to be treated with dignity and respect? How do you even do that?

Or that ants and crickets and beetles, who get swallowed up by the billions every day by birds, reptiles and even many mammals, have a “right” to live their lives free from pain and suffering?

And it would be fun to hear activists try to roll out the “don’t eat creatures with a face” argument with mealworms and termites.

Moreover, if utilizing bugs can conserve resources, reduce the production pressure on the world’s finite land base and reduce food production’s eco-footprint, shouldn’t that resonate with the environmental concerns that are near the top of the agenda for pretty much every animal activist?

For that reason alone, I for one would love to see insect production ramped up big time as a way to support the massive increase in animal and aqua-agriculture that will be needed to feed the world’s growing population.

Then sit back and watch the anti-industry types heads’ explode.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.