When the press release for a new study on insect meat comes out guns blazing, with the opening sentence being, “Livestock farming is destroying our planet,” there’s going to be some red flags. You may have even just clenched your teeth a bit. You’re going to wonder about bias in the research, and you’re going to wonder about whether the people connected with the study are trying to edge out competition by marketing an overly positive perspective on lab-grown insect meat. Yes, it’s sleazy and undermines the credibility of these scientists at Tufts University, but let’s move past (waaaay past) the study’s complaining about traditional livestock production to the insect-like substance that is at the heart of the research.
In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, the Tufts team suggests that lab-grown insect meat — fed on plants, and genetically modified for maximum growth, nutrition and flavor — could be a major green alternative for high volume, nutritious food production.
They say that insect farming has a much lower water and space requirement than conventional livestock, and that twice as much of a cricket is edible when compared to cattle. We don’t really know how Tufts did its math though, since 64 percent of a cow is used for food. So does that mean 128 percent of a cricket can be eaten? And, of course, none of that factors in that just about every part of a traditional livestock animal is used in some way (99 percent of it), going well beyond food items. Think adhesives, ointments, and leather goods, just to name a few.
But the Tufts’ research team persists.
“Compared to cultured mammalian, avian, and other vertebrate cells, insect cell cultures require fewer resources and less energy-intensive environmental control, as they have lower glucose requirements and can thrive in a wider range of temperature, pH, oxygen and osmolarity conditions,” says lead author Natalie Rubio, who has been a research fellow at New Harvest.
“Alterations necessary for large-scale production are also simpler to achieve with insect cells, which are currently used for biomanufacture of insecticides, drugs and vaccines,” she said.
Research for these applications has led already to inexpensive, animal-free growth media for insect cells — including soy- and yeast-based formulas — as well as successful “suspension culture.”
“In most mammalian muscle cell culture systems, the cells have to be fixed in a single layer to a growth surface — which is complex to scale up for mass food production. Many insect cells, however, can be grown free-floating in a suspension of growth media to allow cost-effective, high-density cell generation,” Rubio explains.
Technology developed to stimulate movement of insect tissue for bio-robotics could also be applied to food production, since regular contraction may be required for cultured insect muscle to develop a “meaty” texture. A particularly efficient method is optogenetic engineering, whereby cells are made to contract in response to light by introducing a new gene — another advantage of insect cells, which more readily accept genetic modifications than do other animal cells.
The research then goes on to ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind when talking about eating insects: How will it taste?
Nobody knows, Rubio said.
“Despite this immense potential, cultured insect meat isn’t ready for consumption. Research is ongoing to master two key processes: controlling development of insect cells into muscle and fat, and combining these in 3D cultures with a meat-like texture. For the latter, sponges made from chitosan — a mushroom-derived fiber that is also present in the invertebrate exoskeleton — are a promising option.”
So while there are some things about insect meat research that are hard to swallow, you can be certain that you haven’t heard that last about it.