We need to increase water and food security. Eating insects and recycling wastewater can contribute to these goals. This blog, written by GWP intern Mario Roidt, draws parallels between the “yuck” factor of insects and the “ick” factor of recycled wastewater. Must we start eating worms, crickets and grasshoppers, and drink water that has passed through a treatment facility after it has been through our bodies and toilets?
Insects: how are these little spiky, chirping, buzzing, often displeasing creatures supposed to help us improve food security and sustainable development and in addition increase water security?
(Photo: Flickr – Neville Nel 2014) 
This discussion is necessary because the planet’s natural boundaries are being challenged and we need to look for solutions – even ones that seem odd. Population growth and living standards are leading to an increased demand for animal proteins. The livestock sector accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. And let’s not forget about the effect of meat production on water resources: 1 kg of beef uses up to 15,400 liters of water mainly used for producing fodder for cattle. Vast amounts of freshwater are degraded in quality due to meat production. These environmental challenges, closely connected to the world’s protein needs could be addressed with insects.
Entomophagy – the consumption of insects – is one solution to meet the growing demand of animal protein. In my opinion, the joint work of FAO and Wageningen University in its 2013 report, “Edible insects: prospects for food and feed security” marks a milestone in the discussion about eating insects. Advantages of consuming insects include:
Feed Conversion: Insects are cold blooded and don´t need to maintain body temperature. Thus, they have a capacity to convert plants into animal protein in a much more efficient way. Crickets, for example, are 12 times more efficient than cattle in feed-to-meat conversion rates.
Organic Side Streams: Insects have the potential to be reared on organic side streams enabling a more sustainable conversion to insects as food or feed for livestock.
Greenhouse Gases: Unlike pigs and cattle, most insects hardly produce methane, urine, and manure. Greenhouse gas emissions of investigated insects is lower by a factor of 100 and production of ammonia is lower by a factor of 10 compared to pigs and cattle.
Water Use: Due to a much smaller volume of agricultural products to feed insects, the water footprint of insects is considerably lower. An example is the mealworm with a water footprint of 4,300 liters per kilo (remember that beef has 15,400 liters/kg).
(Source: FAO 2013)
As an outcome of the FAO-Wageningen report, the first International Conference on “Insects to Feed the World” took place in 2014 in the Netherlands with 450 participants. In 2015, the “Journal of Insects as Food and Feed” issued its first volume. In 2016 the book “Insects as Sustainable Food Production” by Dossey et al. digs deeper into the topics on how to mass produce insects, process them, and include them into our diet.
October 23, 2016, is the second World Edible Insect Day, giving the impression it has reached global importance. Countless articles and cookbooks have emerged discussing the topic and offer menus on how to make insects a pleasurable dining experience. All over the western world – but in isolated cases – restaurants and online shops are offering edible insects. In California, the worm taco is available, restaurants fry grasshoppers, and online shops around the globe offer edible insects including suggestions how to cook them at home.
Over 2 billion people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America include more than 1,900 species of edible insects in their diet. It is common practice, culturally embedded with indigenous knowledge about the nutritious value of the different species.
Eating insects seems a logical solution towards more sustainability and would probably be a regular occurrence in the Northern world if it weren’t for one small thing – the yuck factor. We associate insects with filth and decay. When worms and cockroaches come to our mind, we squirm. At best, we think of a nice summer evening with the buzzing of bees, chirps of crickets, and the twinkling glow of fireflies. But eating them…………………………………………… NO WAY.
This reminds me of a topic that similarly triggers faces distorted with disgust – the reuse of wastewater into drinking water through a closed loop technical system known as recycled water.
Drinking Toilet Water
While technically and scientifically safe and rational, the practice of treating wastewater with the technical means to restore it to drinking water quality in order to increase water security in dry regions still attracts criticism and resistance. Like eating insects, there is nothing wrong with it, it just feels wrong. Many water users would argue that freshwater must come from nature to be perceived as clean.
Luckily, and unbeknownst to most water users, some countries have implemented the recycling and reuse of wastewater for years. Israel, the world’s water reuse champion, treats 70% of its sewage to reuse it. Spain is second with a sewage reuse rate of 17%. Other arid and semiarid areas, such as the southern USA, Australia, and MENA countries are reusing treated wastewater without discharging it to receiving waters. Most of this water is used for irrigation, but the potable use of treated wastewater is also discussed.
Even though technically safe and environmentally sustainable, recycled water is not welcome everywhere. Especially not for drinking. The people of Toowoomba, Australia, rejected the idea in a referendum in 2006.
More common is the concept of “indirect potable reuse” where treated wastewater is discharged into a reservoir before used as a drinking water source, for example in Virginia, USA, or recharged into the ground before being pumped up for drinking water, for example in California, USA.
Singapore is one of the places where the ick factor of drinking toilet water becomes real. There, wastewater is purified and some of it finds its way in a bottled water called NEWater. Being aware of the treatment technologies and considering myself a supporter of water reuse in arid regions, I did feel the ick factor when I had my first NEWater bottle in my hand. I drank it and – no surprise – it tasted fine. But I do understand why large parts of society feel uncomfortable with the thought of drinking water that has left their house through the toilet.
(Photo: Wikipedia – Hz. Tiang 2014)
In Portland, USA, the Oregon Brew Crew has started to produce beer entirely brewed with treated wastewater. Oregon State has approved the idea, allowing people for the first time to drink treated wastewater in the form of beer. However, the drink is only available at special events and is not yet allowed to be sold or served in bars.
Parallels in a changing society
It appears that human consumption of insects and drinking recycled water face similar challenges on their way to becoming a normal part of our consumption patterns:
- Both can contribute to increasing water and food security around the globe;
- For large parts of some societies, the concepts are outside of social norms and cultural practices;
- Experts share the view that these concepts should challenge current practices;
- Scientific understanding and knowledge have increased to a level ready to implement from a technical point of view;
- Pilot projects – emerging in isolated cases – are starting to challenge common practices and preconceptions.
It is not the first time that behaviors have changed from disgust to common practice nor will it be the last. At first it did not seem acceptable to Western societies to eat raw fish and algae. Today sushi is widely accepted. In the United States, it was not common to eat organs such as liver, tripe, or kidney. But in the time of scarcity when World War II was ongoing, the US government decided to strategically introduce organs (waste from slaughter) into America’s kitchens – successfully. Today, livers, tongues, tripe, and kidneys are part of our diet and millions of people eat them without hesitation.
The American Committee on Food Habits concluded, based on more than 200 studies, that familiarity changes the way we consume. “To change peoples’ diets, the exotic must be made familiar,” Duhigg concludes in his book The Power of Habit. While researching this blog, it seems to me that we are starting to slowly challenge that ick factor through an increasing amount of literature, debates, and pilot projects helping us get familiar with a strange subject.
(Photo: Roidt 2016)
I couldn’t wait until the first insect restaurant opened up around the corner so I ordered some online and fried them up with chili and lime: Grasshopper a la Mexicana. I still feel the yuck but it tastes better than I expected. If served by an experienced chef, I could get used to it. In fact, it would be a good idea to wash down that yuck factor with a recycled water beer the next time I am in Portland.