Flickr via nathangibbs

Among a certain kind of food-futurist-nerd, it's accepted wisdom that crickets and grasshoppers might be the protein source of the next generation. There are 30—thirty!startups in North America focused on commercializing crickets for food.

Of course, people all over the world have long eaten insects. Chapulines, for example, are a common enough Mexican (and Mexican-American) snack. But we're not talking about a artisanal revival of a folk food tradition here. This is a much bigger idea: namely, that humans would shift their diets away from eating chickens and pigs and cows, and start munching on insects.

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A key function of any food system is to provide the protein humans need. This can be, as with cows, a highly inefficient process. It takes a lot of water and animal feed to create a given amount of edible beef. Carp, as a counterexample, are much more efficient at converting the food they eat into edible body mass.

And crickets, say esteemed organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations, are really, really good at converting plants to protein. "Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein," reads one FAO factsheet.

But the Cricket Theory of Food Futures might rest on rather shaky ground, according to a new study in the scientific journal PLoS One. When University of California, Davis researchers Mark Lundy and Michael Parrella tested crickets under different feed and rearing conditions, they found that the massive efficiency (and therefore sustainability) crickets are supposed to deliver didn't quite materialize.

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"Compared to the industrial-scale production of chickens, crickets fed a poultry feed diet showed little improvement in protein conversion efficiency, a key metric in determining the ecological footprint of grain-based livestock protein," write Lundy and Parrella.

The researchers identified two problems. One, they packed the crickets in more densely than previous, smaller-scale studies. That density, they think, probably led to higher metabolic costs for the crickets because they had to travel further to find food and water. The second problem is that producing the grain that goes into livestock feed sucks up a lot of energy, decreasing the potential benefits from cricket production.

As it turns out, crickets—delicious and efficient though they may be—are not magical creatures, who can simply be swapped into our existing food infrastructure to fix the world's problems. But they still could be an important part of the future of food if they are deployed within a system that feeds them waste. The Davis researchers found that the crickets could exist quite nicely on a diet of filtered grocery store waste, and that its environmental footprint was much lower than a corresponding amount of livestock feed.

All of this is reminiscent of the debate surrounding biofuels. Produced from waste streams, they can be a better alternative to fossil fuels. Produced from virgin oil derived from palm trees planted on land that was previously a rainforest, it's a bad alternative to fossil fuels.

The solution to big environmental problems rarely consists of a sexy new drop-in technology, no matter how crunchy and nutritious it is. Cricket protein might be part of the future, but what's really needed is a redesign of the systems that make the industrial food world work.

(h/t Entomology Today)