Insects remain a relatively untapped western market which industry analysts have tipped to hold a value of up to £6bn by 2030 as the world looks to alternative sources of protein and greener production methods.
Increased consumer awareness of the detrimental environmental impact of global meat production has renewed commercial interest in insects as an alternative, sustainable source of protein. Unlike cattle or poultry, insects can be bred rapidly in substantial quantities without requiring significant amounts of land or water, reducing the strain on already scarce natural resources across the supply chain. Whereas the commercial breeding of livestock, occupies two thirds of the world's farmland and contributes 20% of all the greenhouse gas, the commercial breeding of edible insects produces 10 times less methane than the rearing of livestock in comparable quantities. These insects also produce 300 times less nitrous oxide per kilogram, and substantially less ammonia, a pollutant by-product of poultry farming.
Current estimates suggest approximately 527 different insects are eaten across 36 countries in Africa, while insects are also consumed in 29 countries in Asia and 23 in the Americas. Notably, insects boast a substantially more efficient food to body mass ratio than traditional cattle; whilst cows may require 8g of feed to gain 1g in edible weight, insects require less than 2g of feed for the same weight gain. This can dramatically decrease the overheads for businesses investing in commercial insect farming; furthermore, most edible insects readily consume agricultural waste or plants that humans and traditional livestock cannot. By converting biomass that is not edible for humans into consumable insect mass, insects don’t compete with the human food supply, as vertebrate livestock do, which are primarily fed with grain and corn. In addition, insects have short reproduction cycles hence they can be grown rapidly. By way of example, house crickets can lay 1,200–1,500 eggs over a 3-4-week period, whereas beef cattle require about four breeding animals for each animal marketed and hold a 283-day pregnancy lapse between breeding cycles.
A much-cited 2019 Report commissioned by Barclays suggested that globally, the insect-based product market will grow at an annual rate of 24.4% during this decade, with estimates of an $8bn (£6.3bn) global value by 2030. This would, however, require the commercial production totals of edible insects to increase by a growth rate of 28% each year for the remainder of the decade, which is ambitious by any standard. This would equate to an increase from the 50,000 tonnes produced and sold in 2019 to circa 750,000 tonnes of insect product in 2030. However, the strengths of already established markets and producers in Asia could offer the running start needed to bring this market over to the West in profitable numbers. A further challenge to this potential market that of translating the value of their products to an audience with an already well-enshrined disgust response to the prospect of consuming insects. Having said that, it is expected that Generation Z may be quicker to take up the insect diet by the market researchers employed for Barclay’s Report. It has further been surmised by prominent Entomologist Arnold van Huis that in the short term, edible insects could be utilised as a replacement for grain-based animal feeds to reduce pressure on global supply chains.
Already, major supermarkets are probing their consumers’ propensity for insect-based products on their shelves. The French multi-national retail powerhouse Carrefour S.A. has begun stocking its 173 Spanish Hypermarkets with buffalo worm-based products in a partnership with European insect wholesaler Jimini’s. Jimini’s already boasts commercial sales across 5 European markets at an additional 350 outlets (located in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark) and a further partnership between delivery service Ocado and the Carrefour group will allow these products to be ordered in the UK. However, at £6.50 for just 14g of ‘Crunchy Crickets’ the market price for these products remains high for consumers. A UK based rival, Eat Grub, has also partnered with Ocado and Sainsbury’s to sell its insect-based protein supplements and powders and secured a further partnership with German magnate Dieter Schwarz’s discount giant Lidl, offering sales of their products across 3,200 of its domestic stores. Whilst relatively high prices still remain a sore point, with £50 per kilogram for protein powder substantially more expensive than traditional whey or even plant-based competition, it is strongly held that increased market awareness and yield growth as more farms are constructed will reduce prices in the long-term.
A further challenge in addition to restrictive pricing comes from consumer attitudes. Whilst the switch from meat to Quorn and plant alternatives is relatively painless, the deep-seated disgust response to insects will be harder to overcome. Furthermore, the rising popularity of veganism and other cruelty-free diets may limit the uptake of insects into the food chain given the increased focus by consumers on the ethical preparation of their meals.
Whilst many consumers will no doubt be put off or otherwise dissuaded from purchasing and consuming insects, it is not inconceivable that they become a far more common purchase in the future. Already, once obscure foods such as sushi have become staple sellers in supermarkets and restaurants - which has changed the way consumers interpret food choices. It would have been met with ridicule to suggest twenty years ago that uncooked fish and wasabi would be sold 90,000 times a week as part of Sainsbury’s meal deals and would hold a 100% annual growth rate in consumption between 2016-2018. It is not unlikely that insect-based food could take this place in the future as overheads decrease with increased uptake and attention from consumers and investors alike.