MillipedePhoto: Caltiva Creatividad

They’re creepy, they’re crawly, and they’re coming to a dinner table near you.

According to a new study, insects (specifically mealworms) are a much more environmentally sustainable protein source than dairy, pork, chicken, and beef. And in an attempt to stave off a global food crisis, scientists are now advising us to start swapping hamburgers for bug burgers. Yum!

Why It Matters

The study is filled with a bunch of complicated scientific measurements, but it boils down to a few basic deets. Scientists measured the greenhouse gas production, energy use, and land use involved in raising mealworms and getting one kilogram of edible protein from them. Then, they measured the same stats for producing one kilogram of protein from livestock. Turns out it takes a whopping 90 percent less land to produce mealworms than it does to produce beef and 43 percent less land than it takes to produce milk. In a world quickly running out of enough land to feed a growing world population, that’s important. The study also noted raising edible mealworms produces fewer greenhouse gasses than raising livestock.

On the other hand, it takes more energy to produce mealworm protein than it does to produce protein from milk or chicken, possibly because raising mealworms could be racking up the heat bill. (They only live in warm environments.) Still, the study authors say we should reconsider insects as an alternative protein source.

Is It Legit?

This research is hardly the first to promote the nutritional and environmental benefits of chowing on bugs. For years now, scientists (many of them at Wageningen University, where this latest study was conducted) have been urging us to stop shrieking when a cockroach skitters across our floor and get out the knife and fork insteadAn exploration on greenhouse gas and ammonia production by insect species suitable for animal or human consumption. Oonincx, D.G., van Itterbeeck, J., Heetkamp, M.J., et al. Laboratory of Entomology, Department of Plant Sciences, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands. PLoS One 2010;5(12):e14445.. (Yep, I just gagged.)

Raising insects for meat produces less inedible waste, requires less water, and produces fewer greenhouse gases than raising livestock. And we might not see any grasshoppers in PETA commercials, but raising bugs may also be more humane than raising livestock, since bugs generally live in close quarters anyway. But it’s not just the hippies among us promoting the benefits of bugs. Insects are actually pretty nutritious — they’re high in vitamin B, iron, and zinc and low in fat.

Across the globe, mostly in developing countries, people already eat 1,900 different species of insectsPotential of Insects as Food and Feed in Assuring Food Security. van Huis, A. Laboratory of Entomology, Wageningen University, 6700 EH Wageningen, The Netherlands. Annual Review of Entomology.. The only real problem is the fact that most Westerners would sooner stick their head in the toilet than sprinkle a few worms atop a salad. Some researchers say this squeamish attitude is going to get us in trouble, since it’s causing us to avoid using a nutritious, sustainable alternative to livestockInsects as food: why the western attitude is important. DeFoliart, G.R. Department of Entomology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI. Annual Review of Entomology 1999;44:21-50..

It may take a while for Westerners to get used to the idea of six-legged crunching. But already there’s pretty convincing evidence for incorporating at least some varieties of insect protein into our diet. After all, we’re already probably eating some antennae in our lunch anyway.

Would you consider eating a bug? Incorporating insects into your daily diet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or tweet the author directly @ShanaDLebowitz.