Worms Beat Beef As Sustainable Protein

Forget beef or even milk. If you're looking for protein, mealworms may be the way to go.

Forget beef or even milk. If you're looking for a sustainable and substantial source of protein, mealworms may be the way to go.

Compared to a kilogram of edible protein in meat from cows, chickens or pigs, production of the same amount of mealworm protein emits fewer greenhouse gases and requires much less land to grow. The findings support the argument that environmentally conscious eaters may do well to include beetle larvae in their diets.

"This study demonstrates that mealworms should be considered a more sustainable source of edible protein," the team writes in a paper published yesterday in the journal PLoS ONE.

The idea that insects may be more sustainable than livestock is not new. But the new study was the first to quantify the environmental impact of munching on mealworms compared to the consumption of more traditional livestock.

To come up with hard numbers, biologists from Wageningen University in The Netherlands analyzed the production of two mealworm species at a local farm. They calculated protein content and assessed environmental effects by quantifying global warming potential, fossil energy use and land use.

Compared to the production of milk or traditional meats, mealworms came out on top in most measures.

Among the things that the worm-like larvae have going for them, they don't emit methane. Also, they are prolific. Depending on the species, females release up to 1,500 eggs over a lifetime. Larvae develop quickly and they convert their food into protein efficiently, at a similar rate to chicken but better than pigs and cattle.

Farms do need to use energy to heat mealworms when ambient temperatures drop. But details like those could likely be improved with more research, according to the paper.

The demand for food from animals is expected to rise by as much as 80 percent by 2050. Mealworms and other insects may be part of the solution.

"Slowing down the expansion of agricultural land is a critical step towards sustainable agriculture," the biologists wrote. "The increasing world population will therefore need to be fed using the same area of land that is available now. Mealworms require only 43 percent of the amount of land used for the production of one kilogram of edible animal protein as milk, and only 10 percent of the land used for production of beef."

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