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Worm: the Other Red Meat

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By Rachel Nuwer, OnEarth

The first time I ate insects was at a party. For a semester-ending celebration, the professor in my undergraduate entomology class served us up plates of termite cookies, chocolate-covered crickets, and spicy fried mealworms. Yeah, I was nervous to try them, and the crickets were indeed a bit leggy. The spicy worms, though, turned out to be as addictive as any can of Pringles. I found myself returning for seconds, thirds, and then even a fourth helping of those tasty, nutty morsels of beetle larvae. Suddenly pumped about insect cooking, I asked my professor for recipes. "The key to cooking insects," I remember her saying, "is to make sure you fry them live. Otherwise, they taste a bit off."

Despite my initial enthusiasm, I've yet to fry up mealworms in my own kitchen. But the day may come when six-legged delicacies will need to replace cocktail franks and chicken wings on our party platters. Environmental resource experts estimate that the market for meat and milk will increase 70 to 80 percent between 2012 and 2050. For our world to remain hospitable to more and more humans, we'll need to change some of our fishing and livestock practices -- and our protein preferences, too.

Enter mealworms. Besides crunching in your mouth like popcorn when deep-fried, these squirmy little ingredients can deliver significantly more protein than beef, pork, and chicken for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Worm-rooting researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands recently conducted what they think is the first entire life cycle assessment of mealworms and superworms (slightly larger mealworm look-alikes). Life cycle assessments consider an agricultural product's entire environmental footprint, from its first arrival on the farm to the time it exits the gate as a slab of beef or carton of milk. The analyses take into account factors such as the land required to grow or raise the product and, if it's an animal, how much methane it releases or how efficiently it converts food (grain) into muscle (meat). For this study, the researchers analyzed three parameters: global warming potential (measured in carbon dioxide output), energy use, and land use.

As the mealworm and superworm larvae plumped up on the farm, the scientists looked at their water, electricity, gas, space, and food needs, as well as the amount of waste the worms created. Added together, the variables indicated the insects' total global warming potential, energy use, and space requirements -- which, the scientists report this week in the journal PLoS One, is much lower than other livestock. For the same global warming emissions, for instance, you can produce twice as much protein from mealworms as you can from chicken -- and nine times as much as you can from cows, which are notorious methane emitters.

Mealworms -- which need a stable ambient temperature in order to survive -- didn't perform quite as well when it came to energy use, requiring more electricity than pork, chicken, and milk. But they're small, which means they don't need nearly as much wiggle room as a cow or pig. A kilogram of larvae requires just 10 percent of the space that the protein equivalent of beef would need.

"This study clearly shows that mealworm should be considered as a more sustainable alternative to milk, chicken, pork and beef," the authors write in their conclusion.

People need protein, but what we choose to buy and eat affects the world around us. The livestock sector currently takes up about 70 percent of all agricultural land, for example, and is responsible for about 15 percent of humanity's total emissions of greenhouse gases. Shifting to more environmentally favorable options could at least help supplement our more conventional dinner choices. And insects are healthy, too -- rich in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and high in minerals. The question is: are we ready to eat bugs?

Six-legged dishes are beginning to show up on menus crafted by some cutting-edge chefs, but the "yuck" factor still makes most of us shy away from insect eating. As Slate reports, the U.S. and Europe's aversion to thorax-outfitted delicacies tends to be the global exception, not the rule. Around 70 percent of the world's population eats more than 1,400 insect species. South Americans feast on French-fried ants, Africans nibble termite bread, and Asians pop pickled bee pupa.

Though I won't be bringing plates of fresh fried mealworms to any holiday gatherings this year, if buckets of cheap, live larvae begin filling grocery shelves, the possibility is tempting.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.

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