05/16/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Let Them Eat... Insects?

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Lest my comments be misinterpreted, let me state at the outset that eating more insects is not a bad idea. It may, in fact, be a great idea. Despite the revulsion that most Americans have to consuming insects, most insects are nutritious, a good source of protein, and in some areas of the world, they are considered a delicacy. The cultivation of insects for human consumption also makes a lot of sense from a climate change perspective as the associated greenhouse gas emissions are far lower than for other sources of animal protein (cows, pigs, etc.). Finally, with an estimated two billion people in the world already eating insects, it may be possible to persuade even more people to eat insects.

Having acknowledged all that, I must confess that I was little troubled by a UN report this week that suggested that eating more insects may be just what we need to feed the more than 9 billion people who are projected to inhabit the planet by mid-century. To paraphrase the immortal words of Marie Antoinette, it sounded a little like, "Let them eat insects." Again, I'm not faulting the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) or the report's recommendation. I suspect that the authors of this report have given far more thought to this food source than I have.

Okay. So what's my beef about the FAO's report?

What I find troubling about the report is its starting point: it assumes that we will add another 2 billion or more people to the planet over the next 40 years, and that we had better get real busy at finding a way to feed that many people. That may turn out to be true. Given fertility trends, world population by 2050 could be even higher than the 9.3 billion currently projected by the UN's "medium variant."

My problem with the report is that it accepts without any questioning that world population will grow by another two billion. Population projections are not written in stone. If more is done to end child marriage, educate girls, empower women, and achieve the UN's goal of universal access to family planning and reproductive health services, world population might never reach 9 billion.

If world population, currently 7.1 billion, stabilizes at 8.0 billion, we will only have to feed 8 billion people. I suspect that would be a lot easier to do than feeding the projected 9.3 billion for 2050. We might not have to, for example, radically increase human consumption of insects. We also might not have to use as much fertilizer, level as many forests, deplete as many aquifers, lose as much topsoil, or increase greenhouse gas emissions quite as much (agriculture currently accounts for 20 to 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions).

I guess, my real "beef" is not the FAO's "insect" report at all; it is that we keep on trying, against ever-growing odds, to meet the demands of an ever-expanding population without seriously questioning whether we are doing enough to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Four out of ten births in the world are unintended. If we did a better job of ensuring that women everywhere are able to determine the number and spacing of their pregnancies, we might not solve all the world's problems, but we might make them more manageable.

With or without more insects, no one really knows whether the world will be able to grow enough food at affordable prices to feed 9 billion or more people. It is an enormous gamble and the stakes could not be higher. The farmers of the world will face significant obstacles in making the world food secure. Over the next half century they will have to deal with shortages of arable land, loss of topsoil, increasing water scarcity, rising prices for fertilizers and fuel, and, worst of all, the effects of climate change, including warmer temperatures, intensified drought and flooding, and rising seas. That's why food experts are taking increased insect consumption so seriously.

If prudence dictates that people in developing countries should "farm" and consume more insects, prudence should also require that we do more to keep girls in school, empower women and expand contraceptive options for women.