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Scientists: Mealworms could replace beef, chicken as Earth’s source of protein

Scientists have recently discovered that mealworms and superworms could be the food of the future with the potential to replace many livestock delicacies.

According to a new study published in PLoS ONE, a team of scientists argues that consuming mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the superworm (Zophobas morio) larvae before they emerged at beetles would be an ecological alternative to farm animals.

Researchers compared the environmental impact of meat production on a Beetle larvae or mealworms farm to traditional animal farms using three parameters: Land usage, energy needs, and greenhouse gas emissions. They found mealworms produce more edible protein than traditional farms for chicken, pork, beef or milk, for the same amount of land used.

The study highlights many ecologically taxing aspects of raising farm animals for a primary food source. Over two thirds of the world’s agriculture land is currently being used to house, raise, and feed the animals. This process is also responsible for roughly 15 percent of dangerous greenhouse gases produced by humans. Many environmental scientists say the world will need to begin eating more plants in order to combat the harsh effects meat has on the environment. However, the new study suggests eating bugs could be a good way to get animal protein while avoiding the effects of livestock development.

Most people have only encountered mealworms as a food source for pet reptiles, fish, and birds. However, the insect is already available for human consumption freeze-dried, canned, or alive. Recipes exist to bake the animals into cookies and breads, deep fry them with potatoes to make healthy French fries, and roast them with salt for a high protein snack.

For this study, the worms feasted on a diet of carrots and mixed grains. They were kept in recycled cardboard egg trays in a climate-controlled environment. The study was conducted at Wageningen University by Dennis Oonincx in the Department of Plant Sciences and Imke de Boer in the Department of Animal Sciences. While rearing the insects, the researchers kept a close eye on the process to grow the two species.

At the end of the study, the insects proved to be a more sustainable source of protein than chicken, milk, pork, or beef. The scientists found that producing one kilogram of protein from the worms took less than one tenth the land it takes to do the same for beef. In addition, the mealworms created just 2.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. This is much less than farm animals as the worms do not produce methane, which is responsible for much of the Earth’s recent warming.

The latest report follows in the wake of a 2010 study published by the same authors. According to the 2010 report, five different insect species were also much more climate-friendly than conventional meats—a pound of mealworm protein, in particular, had a greenhouse gas footprint 1 percent as large as a pound of beef.

Oonincx thinks the most important finding from the study is the small amount of land it takes to get some much protein from the mealworms.

“Since the population of our planet keeps growing, and the amount of land on this earth is limited, a more efficient, and more sustainable system of food production is needed,” he said statement. “Now, for the first time, it has been shown that mealworms, and possibly other edible insects, can aid in achieving such a system.”

The researchers involved in the study believe the efficiency of the mealworms could only increase in the future. “Further improvement of the mealworm production system by, for instance, automation, feed optimization or genetic strain selection is expected to increase productivity and decrease environmental impact,” they wrote in Thursday’s paper.