The suggestion this weekend from German development minister Dirk Niebel that food products containing horsemeat should be distributed to the poor reminds us that, while indicative of a glaring lack of scrutiny on the part of food companies, the horsemeat scandal has represented no danger to human health to date.
Niebel’s comments, echoing those of Hartwig Fischer, another member of the ruling CDU party in Germany, are a little left-field and were roundly dismissed by members of the Opposition, but considering the horsemeat debacle in the context of food waste and food security is entirely reasonable.
The simple fact is we – consumers at large – have been eating horsemeat. Unwittingly we have consumed it in a highly processed form where it is effectively indistinguishable from beef. It could incidentally be taken as a sign that food processing has gone a little too far when the only way of telling what meat you are eating is through DNA testing, but that’s another issue.
The food itself not only appears to be safe but also perfectly palatable. This scandal was not prompted by hundreds of consumers returning these products saying they did not believe they contained beef or that they tasted suspicious. Health campaigners might also suggest there are other openly stated ingredients in highly processed meat products that should be of far greater concern.
Universally, people are saying it is the fact these products were mislabelled which is inexcusable. And so it is. But then ask consumers if they would have eaten that lasagne or bolognese sauce had they been honestly labelled as horsemeat and most will say no. They are palatable in one sense but entirely unpalatable in another. They taste no better or worse than untainted products but the thought of them to many is distasteful.
And this brings us around to the question of food security and sustainability. Feeding a global population expected to swell to around 9bn by 2050 is going to involve farming food more efficiently and sustainably and wasting far less of the earth’s bounty. It is also certain to necessitate developing tastes for unfamiliar but more sustainable foodstuffs.
We have already seen this in some areas of the food market. In seafood, for example, coley and pollock – once only bought for the cat – are now being consumed widely as alternatives to dangerously over-fished cod and haddock. In Africa, beer is being brewed from the abundant and under-exploited tuber, cassava – better known in western markets in its dried form as tapioca – and sorghum.
The scandal of the past few weeks has demonstrated that horsemeat – happily consumed in many countries for years – is a perfectly satisfactory source of protein. While some fashionable eateries in the UK have now unashamedly placed it on their menus, widespread consumer uptake for such products is likely to be sluggish. It will be an extremely brave mass-market food processor that now launches a horsemeat product in the UK labelled and marketed as such, but it would be fascinating to see the consumer reaction if one did.
Goat is another meat which is increasingly abundant thanks to the growth in the goat’s milk market over the past 20 years. In spite of being consumed in vast quantities in many countries, mainstream consumers in countries such as the UK remain squeamish.
However, there are even less appetising sources of protein that consumers may have to become accustomed to eating over the coming decades.
Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) convened an expert consultation meeting entitled “Assessing the Potential of Insects as Food and Feed in assuring Food Security”, and is currently developing a multi-stakeholder communication strategy aimed at raising global awareness about entomophagy (eating insects).
The FAO is increasingly looking at the human consumption of insects as a substitute for meat and fish, as well as using insects as an alternative animal feed, particularly for fish farms. The idea of consumers picking up a ready meal at Tesco with crickets or even maggots as its principal protein constituent may seem to be venturing into the realm of futurology, but the FAO is clearly taking this seriously.
In fact, the FAO’s involvement and the increasingly common discussion of human entomophagy suggests the subject could be about to undergo something of a step-change.
Following on from the consultation, the FAO has developed an action plan and a conference is also planned, most likely for next year. There is work on the ground also, particularly in China and south-east Asia.
For example, the FAO launched what it describes as an “edible insects project” in Laos in 2010 in association with the Laotian Health Ministry. Scheduled to end this April, the project aims to provide poor households with “an affordable, culturally-acceptable, protein-rich food complement”. Some 120 farmers have been trained to breed house crickets, weaver ants and palm weevils. Grasshoppers and mealworms, among many other species, offer huge potential for mass production for human consumption.
The reasons behind the FAO’s actions are plain to see. Meat production accounts for 70% of farmland around the world and 9% of freshwater consumption, and is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Insect production is potentially far less land- and water-intensive and also offers nutritional benefits.
The nutritional value depends on the species and stage of development, and the precise dietary impacts of insect consumption are for fairly obvious reasons scantly documented. However, it is generally accepted that the protein quality is high, similar to other animal meat sources. Fat content is variable but insects are in general a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and are also rich in iron, zinc and vitamin A.
Now, even for those with relatively open minds, that still does not make them exactly appealing, and the FAO says encouraging “serious media coverage” around entomophagy is critical.
For an inter-governmental institution, the FAO also appears switched on to what might be a particularly fruitful means of communicating the benefits of eating insects to a mass audience
The action plan includes a recommendation to “seek endorsements from celebrities to enhance credibility”. Celebrity support has been a positive force in many sustainability causes and the unusual diets of celebrities are a favourite subject in the popular media. So this could indeed offer significant promotional potential. Apparently, Angelina Jolie is a big fan of eating insects – not a massive surprise – and Salma Hayek is partial to grasshoppers, ants and worms.
And do the wonks at the FAO watch ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’? They just might. The action plan also suggests it would be wise to “play down the sensationalist aspects of insect-eating”. That might be a little harder to achieve. While we may be about to see insect-eating being taken rather more seriously, forcing hapless celebrities desperate for publicity to eat bugs will probably be funny for a little while longer.