Crickets have been heralded as the food of the future, with bug-eating enthusiasts claiming the insects can convert plant matter into a crispy protein. A new study however recommends against making them an immediate replacement for meat.

Mark Lundy and Michael Parrella, two researchers from University of California Davis, suggest that the nourishing benefits of house crickets (Acheta domesticus) have been exaggerated.

"Everyone assumes that crickets – and other insects – are the food of the future, given their high feed conversion relative to livestock," Michael Parrella said. "However, there is very little data to support this, and this article shows the story is far more complex."

The new study focuses on the protein conversion efficiency of house crickets compared to chicken — measuring their production of a definite amount of protein through their consumption of plant matter. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that cattle require six times as much feed to produce the same quantity of edible protein as crickets could generate. Poultry animals like pigs and broiler chickens need twice as much. Crickets, then, would seem like an ideal low-cost and efficient protein alternative in poverty-stricken nations.

The researchers fed crickets five separate diets — ranging from a low-quality diet of straw and chicken dung to a high-quality diet of grain-based livestock feed. Just as with poultry animals raised for human consumption, the crickets that were fed a higher quality plentiful diet grew the largest and fastest. Crickets fed the lowest quality food did not even develop enough to be harvested, and many of these cricket populations died.

The results suggest that insects are an unlikely solution to global hunger if they require higher quality and costlier food sources themselves. 

"Insect cultivation is more likely to contribute to human nutrition at a scale of economic and ecological significance if it does not rely on a diet that competes with conventional livestock," Lundy said. The research team isn't writing off insect potential altogether, but recommends that efforts should be directed toward developing a way for insect populations to obtain protein from underutilized organic waste and side streams.

Though the researchers acknowledged that more studies will need to be conducted, their conclusions may put the brakes on edible insect advocates – such as the UN – that are calling bugs "the key to global food security." 

The researchers suggest that another insect species, the black soldier fly, may be better suited to be an alternate and efficient protein-producer.

This study was published in the Public Library of Science (PLOS One).

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