Deep within the sprawling hi-tech government Food and Environment Research Agency near York, in the north of the UK, there is a room that looks like something out of a horror movie. The cramped, humid lab is lined with white tents containing thousands of buzzing flies. The stench is stomach churning.
In another part of the room a mass of creepy-crawlies squirms on a large tray. Hundreds of others are drying on sheets in an open oven and a vat in the corner contains millions of shrivelled grub carcasses.
Welcome to the PROteINSECT maggot lab; the nerve centre of a £3 million (Dh18.7 million) European Union-funded project that might just save the world. Scientists here are working to solve one of our most urgent food problems and may well provide us with new medicines and a new fuel for vehicles in the process. All they need to do first is work out how to mass-produce maggots, turn them into a safe source of protein and then eventually convince us and other animals to eat the result.
Governments and food agencies are increasingly serious about using insects as nutrition for both humans and farm animals. And it’s not just remote tribes in the jungle who eat bugs. More than 80 per cent of the world’s population already consume them as part of their regular diet.
The projections are worrying. Global food production needs to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to stop catastrophic famine but the majority of the world’s agricultural land is already being used. New developments such as GM crops may go some way to fill the gap but there is still a long way to go to satisfy the world’s growing appetite. Consumption of meat has increased 20 fold in 40 years and will keep increasing. Raising livestock is expensive. Soya, the main protein source in animal feed, costs up to $1,700 (Dh6,244) per tonne. It takes 25kg of soya protein to get 1kg of beef and politicians and scientists across the world agree that humanity is facing a huge and imminent protein deficit.
In the UK lab, scientists hope the gap could be filled by insects.
And the good news is that unlike cows and goats, crickets, a tasty snack in several countries, need to eat just 2kg of protein to produce 1kg of edible food. Dried maggots contain 50 per cent protein; more than most protein shakes. Insect protein is similar to that of fish or beef, but less fatty. Insects also contain polyunsaturated fatty acids and high levels of vitamins and minerals.
An automated maggot farm could produce 200 times more protein per hectare than a soya farm and insects are plentiful. There are six million species, they grow quickly and easily and are environmentally friendly as they feed on waste.
The case for bug curry is so convincing that recently high-ranking officials and scientists from around the world attended a conference in the Netherlands to look at ways of introducing insect-derived foods into Western diets, both as animal feed and for direct human consumption.
Scientists at PROteINSECT are at the forefront of this pioneering food revolution. They are currently testing ways to grow and process maggots with the aim of turning them into a sustainable, safe animal feed and eventually will investigate ways of introducing them into human diets.
Project coordinator Elaine Fitches explains, “Our goal is to make meat production more sustainable, reducing reliance on protein imports from across the world and making meat cheaper. One of the long-term aims is to look at the feasibility of introducing insect protein for direct human consumption.’’
Insect-eating advocates face several hurdles in developed countries including the stringent rules governing food production. Bizarrely, due to food scares such as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, regulations controlling what farmers feed livestock are tighter than regulations controlling human food.
“Currently in many nations insects are classed as livestock and the rules state you can’t feed livestock to livestock,” says Elaine. “However, if you buy a free range chicken in a supermarket you pay a premium and that chicken has been eating flies and worms. In the wild, fish rely on insects. Sometimes rules don’t make sense.’’
In an effort to make sure there are no nasty contaminants in maggots, scientists involved in the PROteINSECT project use a $1 .7 million nuclear scanner to analyse housefly maggots for problem compounds.
“It is complex; we look at the best conditions to grow them in, how to process them, how to extract the protein from them,” says Elaine. “We screen them for a whole range of compounds and do nutritional profiles. We also look at the carbon footprint of farming them.
“They have been forgotten as a food source. Houseflies are considered a dirty pest because of what they grow on. But to survive they have a strong immune system, which means there is also the potential to extract biotics from them to be used in medicines.’’
And maggots can also power cars. One of the vials in the lab contains maggot oil, which is chemically similar to palm oil and can be used in engines.
“It’s fliesel!’’ laughs Elaine. “You could power a tractor with it but you’d need an awful lot of maggots.’’
The scientists have also found high levels of a protein called chitin in their maggots, which could be added to bread to keep it fresh.
Elaine admits that it would take a big change of attitude to get the non-insect eating world to start eating maggots. “It’s a cultural thing but there could be some form of processed protein product like Quorn made from insects, flavoured and added to food and snacks. People might accept it as an added ingredient if it tasted good. Given that lots of people eat insects in the world, I can’t imagine there would be too many safety issues. The trick is making something out of insects that doesn’t look like insects.’’
In Europe, companies are starting to recognise the advantages of producing insects for food. Several have developed systems for growing and processing insects for animal feed and for human consumption.
Last year Belgium became the first European country to officially allow the sale of insects for human consumption. Officials approved a list of 10 bugs that included mealworms, grasshoppers and locusts.
Insect breeder Peter De Baptist is licensed to distribute and sell them as food. “Breeding insects has 10 times less impact on the environment than the breeding of cows,” he says. “Plus, they are very healthy.”
According to Peter, raw mealworm larvae taste like hazelnuts and African grasshoppers can taste like walnut or chicken, depending on how they are cooked.
While some are preoccupied with finding new ways to develop existing food sources to help feed the world’s growing population, others are taking a more radical approach. A new way of making food from base chemical compounds is growing in popularity and could soon become common practice in restaurants and kitchens across the world.
Note-by-note cuisine, for instance, is a technique that uses chemical compounds and chemical reactions to create new foods. It uses no meat, grain, vegetables, fruit or maggots for that matter. Instead it uses the basic components that make up many foodstuffs. Ingredients such as monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, citric acid, and sodium alginate are combined to make creations such as transparent wafers that taste of roast chicken and jelly spheres that taste of baked potato.
French physical chemist and proponent of note-by-note cooking Hervé This has toured the world lecturing chefs and food scientists about the potential for this new form of food production.
“When you create dishes from compounds you can design the shape, colour, taste, odour and nutritional aspect from scratch,” he says. “I have no doubt note-by-note cuisine will play an important part in food production in the future. In 2050 there will be 9.6 billion people on Earth. We will have to find a solution to feed them.”
He believes water shortages will force farmers to extract water from their crops as they are harvested, leaving compounds that will then be used in note-by-note dishes.
The first official note-by-note dish was created by famed chef Pierre Gagnaire in 2008. Earlier this year the second annual International Contest of Note by Note Cooking was held in France with 73 entrants. Dishes included potato meringue made from methional oil, sucrose and albumin powder and roast chicken tuiles made from maltodextrin and gellan gum.
Hervé explains that interest in the cuisine is growing fast. “In April this year I lectured in Denmark at the French Embassy. The audience included chefs and PhD students. After the lecture, the attendees had to make note-by-note dishes and they were so excited they decided to meet regularly to progress the ideas.
“After another lecture at a school in Copenhagen I received an email from the director of the school who told me the school is implementing note-by-note cuisine daily.”
Similar developments are taking place in the US, where sustainable food source Soylent has been created. The shake is designed to provide all the nutrients a human needs in a single product – in a beige powder.
Creator Rob Rhinehart says, “Soylent is the most simplistic thing we can live on and it is quite healthy and satisfying.’’
He believes it is the answer to improvements in global food production. He explains, “If we are going to improve, we are going to have to be open to a change in our systems of production.
“We need a food production system that scales very well, that has very minimal impact on the environment and creates food that takes longer to spoil and is easier to transport. That’s what Soylent is.’’
Other producers are looking at technology to artificially synthesise meat in a bid to find a solution to the projected protein shortage.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds a project called Beyond Meat. Based in California, it is experimenting with technologies to develop compounds from plants, which can then be used to create products that taste the same as meat.
While most experts will admit that humans will always want to eat natural food, there is no denying that in the future science will play an increasing role in the kitchen.