Can an insect change the world?

 Can an insect change the world?

Recently, public opinion has been involved in a wide-ranging debate on the fututre of our diet and the possibility of bringing insects and derivatives into our daily diet.

By Nuvola Cipressa, columnist of Youth press agency 
Translation by: Chiara Carra 

The debate about the future of our diet kicked off on January 3, 2023, the day a controversial rule was included in EU Implementing Regulation 2023/25 allowing the release of domestic cricket powder into the food market. The decision has generated various reactions in the European society, split between those who are ready to follow human evolution and adaptations and those who are reticent and skeptical about such a risky step.

As much as the rule may displace, it is actually part of a project that the EU has been working on for years. As early as June 1 2021, the European Commission adopted a legal act in which it authorized food trade for the miller tenebrion, also known as the mealworm. In making this decision, a change in food labeling was also necessary: the presence of insects in addition to eggs, milk, fish and others was added to the list of allergens. In fact, the legal act identifies labeling requirements for products that will contain so-called novel foods (i.e., any food product that was not widely consumed in the EU before 05/15/1997). On November 12 2021, was instead the time of the migratory locust, the second new food approved by the European Commission. The migratory locust is a member of the Acrididae family and is marketed in three forms: frozen, dried, and lyophilized.

The EU has received many more applications for authorization to consume different varieties of insects. The EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) is in charge of the safety assessment: once a positive verdict is obtained from it, it moves to the parliamentary stage. In Italy, the League recently called for a parliamentary question on the subject. The discussion is mainly about which production methods are allowed and how the monitoring of these measures will take place, since most of these products come from states such as Vietnam, Thailand and China.

Before focusing on the possible obstacles to this innovation, it is good to gain a thorough understanding of the motivation for the EU to approve such regulations. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), globally more than 1,900 different species of insects are consumed; however, in the West and particularly in what are called developed countries, insect consumption is extremely rare. Contributing to this bias is certainly the weight of traditions and cultures that are different and distant from those in the East; however, this does not exclude the possibility that there may be a number of prejudices fueled by the lack of knowledge and information on the subject.

Choosing to introduce insects into our diet could have a huge impact in reducing our footprint on the planet, as it would allow for a drastic cut in the consumption of meat from livestock and, thus, eliminate some of the intensive livestock farms that are responsible for heavy effects on our ecosystem. Insects, if introduced in a judicious and measured manner, also provide our bodies with the very important vitamin B12, which often puts vegans and vegetarians at a disadvantage. Thus, it will be safer and more sustainable to eliminate cattle meat from our diet.  An example of possible benefits we could derive from this choice we draw from the case of some farmers in Viterbo, Italy, who since 2019 have been feeding their chickens and hens with insect meal in order to lower the cost of raw materials and eliminate transportation difficulties. This shows how expanding the food market to include insects can be the key to creating a circular economy based on local resources, as these materials are readily available to farmers in many parts of our country.

The social, environmental, and economic benefits of introducing insects into the food supply, however, seem to be not enough, not only for part of public opinion, but especially to break down certain barriers imposed by political forces in Europe and Italy. Agriculture Minister Lollobrigida has made ostracism of animal product substitutes her political cause, barring the way to the trade and development of synthetic meat in Italy: “I guarantee that as long as we are in government of the country, no food created artificially in a laboratory will ever arrive on the tables of Italians,” this is what the minister said during a question time in the Senate. The political orientation behind such a stance lies in wanting to defend national values and culture, without taking into account the possibility of mediation between these and the long-term sustainability of our food and economic system. This example of opposition demonstrates how political conservatism in these cases is aimed at protecting and increasing the profits of animal product companies reticent about conversion and evolution.

Since this is an innovation in our society, there are many doubts and uncertainties, but we should not forget that in this we have technology and progress on our side: maintaining and ensuring safety and the right health standards is possible with minimal initial effort, which will lead us to make a grand gesture for our future. 

Therefore, it is good that the debate should not simply polarize on the pros and cons of this choice, but should move toward progressive mediation and experimentation. A great deal of details still need to be worked out regarding the implications of allowing insect trade, among others the operation of insect farms and their transportation. However, as at the beginning of any major project, the best decision is surely to start implementing it through trial, allowing for adjustments and modifications. This, however, is a matter for the administration. We as a society can support these projects by informing ourselves and softening our beliefs and judgments in the name of a more sustainable future.

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