In just a few years, there will be 9 billion people on the Earth. All those mouths will demand food – and especially animal protein. But the current waste produced by mass farming of beef, pork, chicken and other meats may prove unsustainable for a teeming, hungry human population.

The solution could be bugs, many have argued. They have more nutritional “bang for the buck” – and they could help feed the growing masses, some food experts say.

The environmental impacts of cricket “livestock” was compared to broiler chickens in Thailand, as published recently in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

The verdict: the crickets are better than the chicken population for a host of environmental factors.

“We have shown here that (crickets) can be produced more environmentally sustainably than meat,” said Afton Halloran of the University of Copenhagen, the lead author. “(This) means that they represent a massive potential for lowering the impact of food production.”

The comparison was made on two functional units: a kilogram of edible mass, and a kilogram of protein in that edible mass.

The net environmental effect was examined among 15 separate categories, including global-warming potential, resource depletion and eutrophication. Virtually every category showed lower impact from cricket “farming.”

But there could be improvements. Since the Thai farmers have taken to using commercial chicken feeds to fatten the crickets, it has proven less efficient than allowing crickets to graze on wild sources of plant matter. 

Thailand has had a cricket-food industry for approximately 20 years, and currently includes 20,000 or more farms.

The concept of entomophagy, or insect-eating, is not a new one. Already an estimated 2 billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America incorporate an estimated variety of 2,000 bug species into their diet. (Only nine of those are currently farmed – the rest are gathered from the wild, experts say).

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and other have extolled expanding the use of insects, since livestock production of beef, chicken and other meats has caused over-grazing, pollution and forest degradation.

Insects, on the other hand, convert resources very efficiently, from farm to table, the UN officials argued in a recent report.

“Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint over their entire life cycle,” the report concludes. “They are nutritious, with high protein, fat and mineral contents. They can be reared on waste streams like food waste. Moreover, they can be eaten whole or ground into a powder or paste, and incorporated into other foods.”