Eating Worms: More Than Just a Juvenile Torture Device, a Way to Save the Earth

A recent study confirms mealworm farming is more eco-friendly than beef or dairy, but will it catch on?

What's better than a forkful of worms? (Photo: Jim Doberman/Getty Images)
What's better than a forkful of worms? (Photo: Jim Doberman/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

If the thought of putting a once-wriggling creature on your tongue sends a shudder through your spine, you’re not alone. But what if you knew that these mealy little worms were the most sustainable protein source available today? What’s more important, our ick-factor, or our planet?

According to NPR, Dutchman Dennis Oonincx, is a PhD candidate at Wageningen University, who just completed a study calculating the environmental impact of mealworm farming. His work uncovered some remarkable effects of the process, rendering mealworms a much more sustainable food choice than any other protein-based farming process.

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Oonincx discovered that mealworm farming required just 10 percent of the land needed to produce an equivalent amount of beef. As a result, it also only produced 10 percent of the methane that beef farming produces, and just 30 percent of the nitrous oxide. Mealworm farming also utilizes a fraction of the water used in dairy or chicken farming.

The one drawback, aside from consumers' hesitancy to ingest them, is that mealworms do require more energy to grow than dairy or chickens because the larvae need to stay consistently warm. But in the end, the process still produces a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions and uses even less land and water.

Arnold van Huis is the head of Wageningen’s entymology department, and he explained to NPR that the rising cost of beef will sooner or later cause a shift in diets. "If your Big Mac is going to cost about $100 and your Bug Mac is going to cost only $4, people will change to a Bug Mac."

The advantages of mealworms and other such creepy-crawlies is catching on in the Netherlands, a country that is obviously not afraid to get down and dirty in the experimental food department. In fact, Specktakel, is a remarkably popular restaurant that keeps a running menu of exotic bugs, including one dish that features “bug crumble.”

The country’s own insect-breeding association, Venik, has been campaigning for years to make bugs and worms a more mainstream food choice. Its efforts recently helped launch the first commercially-available insect sandwich set to hit Dutch shelves in the coming months.

Recent years in particular have seen multiple efforts to make bugs a mainstream food choice,  from a possible method to alleviate hunger in drought-stricken parts of the world, to a sustainable feeding source for farmed fish.

But really, for Americans, the obstacle to commercially-available edible bugs is a mental one. We’re not exactly open to culinary change, and we're not used to seeing our protein sources in their original packaging. But it would help to remember that once, long ago, the noble lobster was considered by many to be a filthy bottom-feeder, not suitable for human consumption. If we thought better to change our minds then, why not now, when our planet needs us the most?

Would you be willing to use bugs a main source of your protein? Let us know what you think in the Comments.

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