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PERSPECTIVE article

Front. Sustain. Food Syst., 13 January 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2021.721985

Farm to Institution to Farm: Circular Food Systems With Native Entomoculture

  • 1Food Systems Graduate Program, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
  • 2Gund Institute for the Environment, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
  • 3Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
  • 4Community Development and Applied Economics, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, United States
  • 5Department of Applied Mathematics, Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University, St. Petersburg, Russia

Edible insects recycle food waste, which can help feed a hungrier planet by making food systems more circular and diversifying protein production. The potential for entomophagy (i.e., insect cuisine) to contribute to waste recycling and lower input food production is only beginning to be explored in the U.S., although insects have been consumed by people for millennia in a wide range of cultures. In this perspective piece, we consider as a case study the potential for university foodservice programs in New England to serve as incubators for circular entomophagous food systems. Students are likely early adopters of entomophagy because they increasingly demand sustainable non-meat protein options. University foodservices meanwhile purchase large amounts of food wholesale from local producers, utilize standardized pre-processing, and generate consistent waste streams which may be valuable feed for local insect farmers. Current Farm to Institution approaches strengthen regional food systems by connecting small farmers with university foodservices; we argue that a similar model (Farm to Institution to Farm) could support establishment of local insect farms, introduce edible insects to a relatively receptive base of university student customers, and provide a more sustainable mechanism for repurposing university food waste as insect feed. But to enable this type of food system, additional requirements include: (1) research on domestication of native insect species; (2) investment in processing capacity, ensuring new insect farmers have reliable markets for raw insect products; (3) infrastructure to recirculate waste streams within existing food systems; and (4) creation of recipes that entice new insect consumers.

Introduction

The 2020–2021 COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on modern food systems that are fragile, inefficient, and unsustainable (e.g., Niles et al., 2020). Supermarket shelves were often bare, while food rotted in farmers' fields and in restaurant refrigerators. The world continues to face widespread food insecurity, in both caloric shortfalls and nutritional deficiencies, particularly for protein, despite more than adequate production of calories from global agricultural systems (Vandermeer et al., 2018; Makov et al., 2020; Huizar et al., 2021). Dietary shifts to protein sources requiring fewer inputs are necessary to meet the expected 75% increase in protein production needed to feed the expanding global population (Alexander et al., 2017b; van Huis and Oonincx, 2017). Simply improving existing agricultural technologies will not be enough to meet this demand–innovative solutions are necessary (Shepon et al., 2018).

Circular food systems are one proposed solution for sustainable agriculture. These systems can potentially help create more food with fewer resources by recycling waste streams as inputs (Cadinu et al., 2020; Derler et al., 2021). Circular systems might help a region be more resilient to global supply chain disruption because inputs can be sourced locally. Emissions may be further reduced due to the decrease in long-distance transportation of resources (Ojha et al., 2020; Phan et al., 2020). Circularity may therefore support both the sovereignty and the sustainability of regional food systems.

Farm to Institution mechanisms also support regional food systems resilience, by increasing the amount of food that producers can sell to education and healthcare institutions. Food hubs–facilities that aggregate, store, and process harvests of local farmers, then wholesale to institutional foodservice providers (e.g., universities and hospitals)–are examples of effective Farm to Institution mechanisms in New England (Conner et al., 2014). Producers benefit from a reliable, hungry market without barriers to distribution. Foodservice providers benefit from local produce without excessive processing labor. In the case of university foodservice in particular, students may also benefit, because they increasingly demand food that is local, sustainable, fair, and humane (Townson, 2019).

Edible insects have potential applications in circular food systems (Surendra et al., 2016). They can eat food waste, and can be eaten by humans (Mancini et al., 2019a, 2020b). The practice of entomophagy has deep historical roots (Lesnik, 2017). Pliny the Elder tells us that ancient Romans reared bark beetles on flour and wine and enjoyed the larvae as a culinary delicacy (DeFoliart, 2002; Pliny the Elder. (77 CE), 2019). Currently, entomophagy is practiced in a wide range of cultures in over 119 countries, where over 2000 species of insects are eaten (Alexander et al., 2017a). Nutritional analyses of certain edible insect species have shown them to be high in fiber and low in fat; and contain up to 70% protein, a complete amino acid profile, and micronutrients such as zinc, iron, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B12, and omega 3 and 6 (Siemianowska et al., 2013; Gere et al., 2019; Oonincx and Finke, 2020; FAO, 2021). Insects are potentially more sustainable than traditional livestock and may help meet the growing demand from university students–as well as the rest of the planet–for environmentally-friendly protein (Oonincx and de Boer, 2012; Smetana et al., 2016; Cappellozza et al., 2019; Jones, 2019; Derler et al., 2021).

This Perspective piece is an exercise in figuring the possible role of entomoculture for increasing sustainability across environmental, economic, and social dimensions. We limit the scope of our exercise to New England as a starting point for larger action, and because we believe that this particular region is well-poised to support a nascent entomoculture industry across all three dimensions. For environmental sustainability, farming insects native to New England ensures that entomoculture aligns with the regional biodiversity of ecosystems. And for economic and social sustainability, current successful farm to institution mechanisms across New England can serve as models for circular food systems that are profitable for insect farmers, accessible to institutional buyers, and meet the demands of a growing cohort of environmentally- and socially-conscious consumers. We develop a model for incorporating edible insects into a New England university system where circular farm to institution connections might be established and potential early adopters of entomophagy might be reached (Figure 1). We discuss one of the key environmental constraints to this initiative (ecosystem biosecurity risks), address some of the regional context about farm livelihoods in New England, and discuss some consumer preference/taste issues and how those could be addressed, particularly in a university setting. Overall, we explore the potential viability of a regional entomoculture industry that distributes university food waste to insect farms and supplies insect-based foods to university dining.

FIGURE 1
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Figure 1. Our conceptual food system starts with insect feed, consisting of food waste (e.g., coffee grounds, stale bread, produce scraps) from university foodservice. Feed is consumed by native insects, which are farmed by producers of varying size throughout New England. Harvested whole insects from a regional network of farms are aggregated and processed into foods that are delicious, visually appealing, and familiar to consumers. Insect-based foods are distributed wholesale to university foodservice, where they are then accessible to university students in dining halls. The same distribution channel collects institutional waste streams and directs them back into the system as feed, completing the cycle.

Domesticating Edible Insects For Circular Food Systems

Our first question in developing an entomophagy-based waste cycling system is the decision on what species should be used to increase the sustainability of the system and reduce the environmental impact of entomoculture (Ramos-Elorduy, 2009). The commercial growth of entomoculture has largely focused on a very small number of species (e.g., mealworms and crickets), the majority of which are non-native. Of course, there are risks to promoting new technologies without considering potential threats to native ecosystems. Expansion of insect farming will increase the possibility of insects escaping from farms into the wild, where they may establish high-fecundity founder populations that have been selected for rapid reproduction (Jansson and Berggren, 2015; Bang and Courchamp, 2020; FAO, 2021). Some of the traits of farmed insects are similar to traits of invasive pests–fast-growing farmed insects in the wild might consume native plants, compete with or predate native insects, spread pathogens, or otherwise alter the dynamics of native ecosystems (van Huis et al., 2013; Mancini, 2020a). However, it is possible that insects raised in entomoculture may be less tolerant of stress in the wild (Jensen et al., 2017).

In order to mitigate the biosecurity risk of introducing non-native insect species, we suggest domesticating native species that have interacted with endemic arthropod communities (Sun-Waterhouse et al., 2016; Berggren et al., 2019). While our proposal to domesticate native insects for entomoculture is novel for waste closed-loop systems, it is based upon historical examples of successful animal domestication, including livestock (Larson and Fuller, 2014; Lecocq, 2019). Candidate wild species for domestication can be identified by their shared traits with existing domesticated species (Lecocq, 2019; Melgar-Lalanne et al., 2019; Rumbos and Athanassiou, 2021). For example, mealworms have social populations that respond well to captivity and can consume organic and inorganic wastes; a native species with similar physiology would fit the criteria of pre-adaptation to human rearing (Tomberlin et al., 2015; Yang et al., 2015). An additional key step toward domestication is captive cultivation, in which wild individuals of suitable species are collected and reared extensively in controlled conditions which may or may not be similar to their native environment (Larson and Fuller, 2014). Over numerous generations, intensive selective breeding should cause individuals to display improvement for traits beneficial to captive rearing such as: feed efficiency, growth performance, and decreased aggression (Morales-Ramos et al., 2019; van Huis, 2020). If native species can be reared on regional waste streams, it may be possible to reduce emissions while increasing food security and supporting local industry, with potentially reduced threats to native ecosystems than other agricultural approaches (Wegier et al., 2018). Although this needs further research to measure emissions, environmental impacts, and market potential, we propose this as a starting point.

Entomoculture, Food System Resilience, and Farm Livelihoods in New England

Entomoculture has the potential to provide an extra income stream for small producers (Patel et al., 2019). New England, the six states in the extreme northeastern US, has approximately 26,000 farms of varying size, but the majority of which are classified as small and medium (United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2019). Byproducts of some farms can be fed to insects, while insects themselves may offer a high-protein feed source for livestock (Sun-Waterhouse et al., 2016; Van Raamsdonk et al., 2017; Madau et al., 2020). It has been noted de Souza-Vilela et al. (2019) that other sources for animal nutrition including soybeans, peas, and fishmeal, are becoming more expensive–in addition to entailing serious environmental impacts. In regions like New England, which are marginal for soybean production and far from producing regions like the midwestern US, local insect farming has more potential for immediate payoffs from reduced purchases of livestock feed, and profit opportunities if insects can be sold as feed to other farmers. Paired with growing markets at the national and international scale for insects as high value inputs into pet food and specialty animal feed markets (Aridi, 2020), entomoculture may represent a production opportunity for farms to diversify. In addition, insect waste (frass) is a valuable plant fertilizer that can elicit an immune response from crops to resist fungal infections and can also be beneficial in soil amendment (Cadinu et al., 2020).

These benefits may be encouraging, but entomoculture must be profitable at the farm scale to be popular among farmers. And although profit opportunities may emerge through marketing insects for human consumption, in many cases the extra steps required to secure a market may be difficult for individual producers, and thus may be a barrier to entomoculture adoption. Although the number of potential commercial applications of insect-derived ingredients in food and feed sectors is large and growing (Villaseñor et al., 2021), some earlier efforts to develop entomoculture-based systems in New England have faced challenges, particularly surrounding low consumer acceptance of new insect-based food products and hence weak market demand (Allen, 2019). However, other regional efforts have been successful (Box 1). A regional network of insect farmers with shared infrastructure to aggregate, process, and market harvests could significantly reduce roadblocks to profit–so long as sufficient and reliable markets for insect-based products can be secured.

Box 1. Nascent entomoculture in New England.

Investing in Food Processing Infrastructure: Familiar and Delicious

Much of the potential for any insect-based food system hinges on consumer tastes. First, insects require processing to enhance visual appeal as well as texture and flavor (Deroy et al., 2015). Processing insects into something non-reminiscent of their animal form is akin to butchering any other livestock and is helpful for acceptance among many U.S. audiences (Baiano, 2020; Rozin and Ruby, 2020; Reverberi, 2021). Insects can be dried or roasted; milled finely and mixed with glutinous flour to make bread, or milled coarsely to make falafel, tempeh, or imitation meat (Sun-Waterhouse et al., 2016; Seekings, 2020). Contextualizing insects within familiar foods also improves acceptance and ease of preparation, since audiences may not know how to cook whole insects (Caparros Megido et al., 2014; Shelomi, 2015; Higa et al., 2021).

Taste is perhaps the most important factor for long-term consumer acceptance (Mancini et al., 2019c; Woolf et al., 2019). Taste could be further improved by researching the taste profiles of insects fed different food wastes and processed by different means. For example, using mealworms reared on spent brewer grain in sourdough bread, or milling bee drone larvae with roasted nuts for honey-flavored, protein-packed nut butter; as well as recipes combining insect products with current common food products (e.g., grain flour, ground meats) in different ratios. Some recipes could also be developed drawing upon the knowledge and cultures of the hundreds of societies around the globe who currently consume insects in various forms, including Indigenous North Americans, who have consumed a multitude of insect species in a variety of preparations (Belluco et al., 2015; Schrader et al., 2016; Lesnik, 2019; Ruby and Rozin, 2019).

Marketing and Consumption: University Foodservice and Flexitarian Eaters

Innovators and early adopters of entomophagy are likely young, progressive, “flexitarian” eaters that are environment and health-conscious; and interested in reducing their consumption (Schösler et al., 2012; Verbeke, 2015; Derbyshire, 2017; Dobermann et al., 2017; Hicks et al., 2018; Mancini et al., 2019b). University students in New England match this profile, and their demand for sustainable protein has increased wholesale purchases of plant-based foods (Baxley, 2020). However, a “protein struggle” may develop when flexitarian eaters want food to be healthy, delicious, and sustainable, but are dissatisfied with available protein options (Derbyshire, 2017; Spencer et al., 2018). Insects may provide an alternate source of tasty, sustainable, and nutritionally complete non-vertebrate protein. Vegetarian and vegan students may also be interested as some may feel that insects meet their standards for sustainability, or may see the harvesting of insects (refrigeration to induce dormancy, then freezing to cease life processes) as acceptable because of the more humane treatment of these animals (Fischer, 2016). Insect-based foods may appeal to students with varied diets as they help them be environmental stewards while still eating healthy and delicious food (Naranjo-Guevara et al., 2021).

University dining halls are promising marketing outlets due to their clientele, and for the prevalence of peer influence in a social environment. Student peer influence plays a crucial role in acceptance of new foods and food technologies (Berger et al., 2019; Lesnik, 2019). Past research suggests U.S. consumers often are averse to consuming insects primarily due to (a) a lack of exposure in context as a food source, (b) a lack of social acceptance, and (c) a lack of consumer access (Looy et al., 2014; Caparros Megido et al., 2016; Menozzi et al., 2017). Distribution in universities directly confronts these barriers as it allows for marketing (1) with continual exposure alongside more familiar foods (Gumussoy et al., 2021), (2) among environmentally conscious peers thereby encouraging normative influence (Berger and Wyss, 2020; Russell and Knott, 2021), and (3) without typical barriers to consumer purchasing such as price or preparation (Barska, 2014; Menozzi et al., 2017).

Farm to Institution to Farm

Given the development of a viable entomoculture-based circular food system requires (a) simultaneous investment and expansion of production, processing, distribution, marketing, and waste recovery, and (b) sufficient market scale to support financially viable systems, we argue that a farm to institution framework might be used to connect insect farmers who need reliable demand for unprocessed insects with receptive audiences at a large scale. Existing Farm to Institution organizations such as “food hubs” seek to incentivize new farmers in a range of sectors and have proven more efficient than individual producers running separate operations (Izumi et al., 2009; Berti and Mulligan, 2016). Through new insect food hubs, farmers' harvests could be aggregated, dried, milled, and processed into ready-to-cook items at centralized facilities for delivery to university foodservice buyers. Aggregation could be flexible to accept insect harvests of any size, and processing could incorporate different species of farmed insects while still meeting consumer preferences. Aggregation and standard processing therefore have upstream benefits as they support the production network, and downstream benefits as they make marketing easier.

But just as a Farm to Institution approach connects producers and institutional buyers, a parallel “Institution to Farm” approach could support aggregating, processing, and distributing institutional waste to farmers for use as insect feed (Morales-Ramos et al., 2020). University waste streams include foodservice byproducts–such as coffee grounds, vegetable peels, and stale bread; and post-consumption waste–such as biodegradable dining ware. These waste streams could be returned to the food hub that providing the university with insect-based foods. Some wastes need to be dried and sterilized before use as insect feed, which is conveniently accomplished with the same processing equipment used to dry and sterilize harvested insects (Shuliy Machinery, 2020). Some species may have improved growth performances on curated diets, and diet blends for these species can be conveniently developed and distributed by the same hub housing the industrial drying infrastructure (Van Broekhoven et al., 2015; Pinotti et al., 2019; Silva et al., 2020). Thus, Institution to Farm and Farm to Institution mechanisms might efficiently both use the same infrastructure and distribution channels, in opposite directions (Figure 1).

Discussion

We suggest that a circular food systems model can be integrated with Farm to Institution approaches to develop local and regional food systems that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable (Eshel et al., 2019; Madau et al., 2020). Entomoculture and entomophagy hold some promise in supporting this model; however, their adoption is not without risks and obstacles. A food system that sustainably uses edible insects to cycle nutrients from farm to institution to farm will only be attainable with cooperative development from institutions and local industry, who are unlikely to invest without significant research to close the large knowledge gaps. There are still several areas under the umbrella of sustainability that need more investigation:

(1) The risk of farmed insects becoming invasive is clearly possible. Thus, research on domestication of native species is needed to protect ecosystems (Berggren et al., 2019; Bang and Courchamp, 2020). Furthermore, domestication of native species could increase gains in feed conversion, growth performance, and nutrition of edible insects (Berggren et al., 2019).

(2) Farmers in New England are primed with an interest in new forms of agriculture and may be interested to adopt insect farming if they are provided evidence demonstrating the viability of regional entomoculture (Houle et al., 2015). A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a New England insect farm could generate in situ productivity estimates, as well as measures of potential ecological impacts and sustainability, including opportunities to produce case studies of the benefits, costs, and overall financial potential of a regional entomophagy-based business model (Halloran et al., 2016; Smetana et al., 2021).

(3) Institutions in New England are likewise primed with an interest to reduce costs of recycling food waste, while their students, both in dining halls and as individual consumers, are increasingly demanding diverse non-meat protein options. Both sets of actors may be encouraged to engage with edible insects–with institutions offered lower-cost options for obtaining high-protein foods and for recycling food waste, and students offered opportunities to consume more sustainable and local foods–with expanded evidence of student support for entomophagy and demand for insect-based food products.

(4) Producers, institutions, and consumers may benefit from recipe development of insect-based foods that can incorporate a variety of species from different producers, can be purchased wholesale in a ready-to-cook form, and can be enjoyed by students as products resembling familiar foods. Ultimately, consumers of insects will demand something that tastes great. Recipes can support those who want to give a potentially highly sustainable and local food source a try, as they will need guidance to prepare an unfamiliar food (van Huis, 2013; Menozzi et al., 2017).

Infrastructure for aggregation of ready-to-eat insects; processing of insects into ready-to-cook, familiar foods; and distribution to universities via existing farm-to-institution programs in New England could be coupled with new Institution to Farm initiatives, using similar infrastructure, to facilitate foodservice waste collection and recirculation as insect feed. The resulting circular food system could both enhance food system sustainability and increase profitability of small- and medium-sized farms in the region, in addition to providing a working model for enhancing food system circularity nationally and globally.

Data Availability Statement

The original contributions presented in the study are included in the article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Author Contributions

PS, YC, EW, and TR contributed to the logistical design of “Farm to Institution to Farm” conceptual model. PS wrote the first draft of the manuscript with feedback and comments from YC. YC, EW, and TR wrote and revised sections of the manuscript, providing expert-level intellectual content on regional agroecosystem interactions, domestication and nutrition, and diverse agriculture and rural livelihoods, respectively. PS designed the graphic display of the model, with editing from TR. EW guided the overall development of the paper. YC shaped the form, objective, and writing style of the paper and ensured that our application of domestication theory was suitable and realistic for insects. All authors contributed equally to revising, with YC, EW, and TR critically editing/ensuring accuracy of intellectual perspectives.

Funding

This work was facilitated by a Sodexo Food Systems Innovation Fellowship to PS. USDA Hatch funding to YC, TR, and EW. EW is further supported by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation as part of World-class Research Center program: Advanced Digital Technologies (Contract No. 075-15-2020-934 dated 17.11.2020).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Acknowledgments

We thank Clare Knowlton for helpful comments on earlier versions of our manuscript. We thank Fred Wiseman for his insights on Indigenous entomophagy.

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Keywords: entomophagy, entomoculture, domestication, farm to institution, edible insects, circular food systems, waste reduction, sustainable food

Citation: Shafer PJ, Chen YH, Reynolds T and von Wettberg EJB (2022) Farm to Institution to Farm: Circular Food Systems With Native Entomoculture. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 5:721985. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2021.721985

Received: 08 June 2021; Accepted: 07 December 2021;
Published: 13 January 2022.

Edited by:

Tamar Makov, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Reviewed by:

Clare Gupta, University of California, Davis, United States
Krishna Singh, Dr. Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University, India

Copyright © 2022 Shafer, Chen, Reynolds and von Wettberg. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Patrick J. Shafer, patrick.shafer@uvm.edu