With a rapidly growing population, world leaders are rightly concerned about providing enough food for everyone. Estimates suggest Earth’s population will reach 9 billion by mid-century, and it’s commonly accepted that world food production will need to almost double. The search is on for answers to this looming problem.

One potential remedy, according to a report this week from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is edible insects.

“Insects offer a significant opportunity to merge traditional knowledge and modern science in both developed and developing countries,” according to the FAO report. The report says many insects contain the same amount of protein and minerals as meat and more healthy fats doctors recommend in balanced diets.

Around the world, humans eat more than 1,900 species of insects, mostly in Africa and Asia. In fact, estimates suggest 2 billion people currently eat insects. Studies suggest the nutritional value of some insects contain enough protein to rank with lean ground beef while having less fat per gram. Insects are also a good source of fiber and necessary minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.

The FAO report also touts edible insects as a way to fight obesity and lower greenhouse gas emissions, while providing business and export opportunities for poor people in developing countries.

Regarding environmental benefits, the FAO report says insects have a high feed conversion efficiency. “Crickets, for example, require only 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of bodyweight gain,” the authors say. “In addition, insects can be reared on organic side-streams (including human and animal waste) and can help reduce environmental contamination. Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing.”

Most of the insects harvested for food now come from the wild. However, the FAO says the concept of farming insects for food can become a reality. “In temperate zones, insect farming is performed largely by family-run enterprises that rear insects such as mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers in large quantities, mainly as pets of for zoos,” the report says. “They are mainly for consumption as whole insects or to be processed into meal for feed.” The authors note that current production systems are expensive, and that major challenge of industrial-scale rearing is the development of automation processes to make plants economically competitive with the production of meat from traditional livestock or farming sources.

The FAO also views insect production as a cash crop and employment opportunity for people in developing countries. Insects, the report says, “can offer important livelihood opportunities for people.” The gathering, cultivation, processing and sale of insects “can directly improve their own diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street foods.”

To access the full report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization on edible insects: http://www.fao.org/forestry/edibleinsects/en/