Professor Marcel Dicke
Professor Marcel Dicke investigates the ecology of insect-plant interactions. He is a winner of the Dutch Nobel Prize and is the world’s leading advocate of using insects as a sustainable source of protein for human consumption. He has met with leading politicians to discuss the future of food security on earth and published the best-selling ‘The Insect Cookbook’. Marcel is based at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
The main advantage is that insects are so much better at converting feed into meat.
On becoming interested in science
I think, as a youth, seven or eight years old already, I loved to be outside and we were living at the edge of Rotterdam and I loved to go out of the city and go into the meadows and watch plants and animals, so that’s where things started, I think. So I ended up becoming a biologist so I wanted to study biology simply because that is what was interesting to me, and I had a fantastic biology teacher in high school who really made me interested in science, in the science of biology, so I started studying biology.
There, anything came through to me in the lectures was very interesting. At some point I was interested in biochemistry and viruses and how viruses infect bacteria. The other end of the extreme I was interested in ecology and how ants organised into nests and how they built their highways and transported foods and how this was all regulated. And anything of knowledge about life on earth interested me, and that’s how I continued and at some point I was…well, I had a fantastic teacher on insects as biological control agents, how insects can be used to combat other insects, and I started working with him and well, then it got me] into the field where I am now.
On insects as food security
At some point a colleague and I said, ‘Well, if we tell to our friends at a party what we’re doing and as soon as the word ‘insect’ comes up, people make faces and they really show that they don’t appreciate insects’. So we said, ‘They’re such wonderful creatures. They’re so abundant on this planet. They’re so undervalued. Let’s try and do something about that’. And so we said, ‘Well, we’re going to organise a lecture series called ‘Insects in Society’ and in 12 evenings we are going to bring topics that are close to people and show how insects are participating in there’. So we had…I talked on insects in paintings, insects in books, insect criminology, CSI and my colleague Arnold Van Huis, he said, ‘Well, I’ve worked in Africa for such a long time and I know that people are eating insects there, but they don’t want to tell about it and here we don’t know about it’. So he started talking about insects as a source of protein. And in the beginning, it was simply telling that there are people valuing insects so much that they were eating them and they enjoyed them as much as we do a lobster or shrimp. And, with time, and this was back in 1997, and then we did not yet grasp what was going to happen until 2050. It was only much later that it was clear that there was a major food security issue.
And then we started investigating this. And we said, ‘Well, they’re so much better than common livestock in producing animal proteins and we should do something about it’. And we started more and more telling this, and the story became more and more complete, and the media covered it from the very beginning. But in the beginning it was very much a covering of the ‘yuck’ story and of the fear factor story. And over time it became more and more of a story where we told, ‘Well, this could be one of the solutions to food security issues’ and around 2005, 2006, the general public started to see this as well and that’s where we started…we won a major prize in the Netherlands, an annual year prize, which was given for plans to convey excellent scientific research, and we published in the best scientific journals, making plans to transmit that to the general public. And we said, ‘Well, we would like to organise a festival’. And we called this festival City of Insects and the main message of that is, ‘There’s no life on earth without insects’. And even some of our colleagues in university said, ‘Well, come on, are you serious?’ And we said, ‘Yes, we’re serious!’ Insects are the main form of life that makes life on this planet possible. It’s so biodiverse, it’s having so many ecological services that make this planet running, and we’re going to convey that. And then we said, ‘OK, so how are we going to interest the public into that?’ So we had all kinds of activities, lectures, demonstrations, but then we said we have to have music and things. It should be something that really touches people and so we said, ‘We’re going to take this entomophagy - insects as a source of food - as a central item because there’s no-one that does not have an opinion on that. And, indeed, that is how it is.
If I tell that insects can be a food source for us then everyone has an opinion, whether it’s a liking or a disliking, but no one says, ‘I don’t care’. And so that’s how it grew. That festival really got us going tremendously, and also in politics. And now it has really…well, next month I’ll be going to Brussels to talk to politicians on the issues. It is something that is now being taken seriously. If you can make it through to talk to Kofi Annan on this issue, and really get him to give an interview that we published in our book, The Insect Cookbook on telling how important food security is and how important insects can be in contributing to a solution to that, then there’s…well, the mission is not completed yet, but we’re really getting there.
On the advantages of eating insects
The main advantage is that insects are so much better at converting feed into meat; they're about ten times better in this than cows are and so the amount of feed that we need to produce the same amount of animal protein is ten times less. Now if you…that’s the first thing. If you do that, the product, the animal meat in terms of insects is as good, if not even better than, a steak in terms of protein: it has the same amount of proteins. In terms of fat, it has a bit less fat and the fats are better quality, more polyunsaturated fatty acids. And it has more micronutrients like iron and zinc. So for quality it’s as good or even better: that’s the second advantage. The third is that insects are so distantly related to us that diseases are not really a problem. They can have diseases, but their diseases are very unlikely to recombine with our diseases and combine to new diseases that can affect us, so that’s the third thing that’s beneficial. And the fourth is that because insects have a ten times better conversion rate from feed to meat, they produce less waste, and waste you should see as manure, which is not really waste but in our production system it is waste because we produce so much of it; we’re left in the Netherlands for instance with a huge manure problem. Insects produce much less manure and the manure they produce per kilogram produces much much less greenhouse gases and so the greenhouse gas contribution is much lower. And if we know that livestock production at this moment contributes 18% to global warming, potentially, reducing that substantially is a major contribution to environmental sustainability.
The last thing is that we can rear them on food sources that are not a food source for us and so anything…an organic side stream of other food production, whether it’s in beer or cookies or leftovers of vegetable production, we can use for feed for different kinds of insect species and so in this way we don’t compete with the production of food for humans in other ways.
On the commercial possibility of insects
For commercial purposes, it means that you can now set up new industries that produce insects in a way that was never done before; we can produce insects now for human consumption, and that brings indeed very new industries both for producing insects as food - and now in the Netherlands we have a growing industry in this - and also insects as feed where we see international development, like there’s very big production units in South Africa, in the United States, also in the Netherlands they're starting up and so they're converting waste in valuable animal proteins and otherwise that waste would have been discarded in ways that cost money, now waste is being converted into something highly valuable.
I’m not trying to convince people to stop eating meat, but what I tell is that if we want to increase meat production from what we produce now - and 70% of our agricultural land at the moment is used for livestock production - if we want to increase it by 70%, as would be needed according to the FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organisation, then that simply cannot be done with congenital meat. We can’t increase that by 70% if already 70% of all agricultural land is being devoted to livestock production, so in addition to that we need alternative sources, we can’t simply go on the way we were going on, we need new sources. And in agriculture we’ve always been innovative in trying to find new ways to feed the world, this is a new agricultural innovation, not to replace other ways but to complement other ways.
On overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor
Well, then, I’ll simply say, what do you do if you eat lobster or shrimp? Then you have the special taste of shrimp. Insects have their own special taste. Never try to make insects taste like meat: an insect is not a steak so see it as an addition to the richness that we have and the choices that we have, and so you can eat a range of new things and in that sense it’s increasing our choice opportunities.
On the future
In terms of the acceptance, how fast things can go, I’ve always been called an optimist and four years ago I predicted that insects would be in the supermarket, that you could simply go to the supermarket and buy an insect burger or insects to put in your dishes, and I said that’s going to be done within ten years. And then I was told, well, you're so optimistic, this is not going to take ten years, but twenty years. Four years after that, in 2014, a Dutch supermarket chain put them on the shelves and all 600 shops of this supermarket chain now sell insects. That shows how fast things can go. I’m not telling that next year everyone would eat insects every day, the production units would be big enough already but its not going not happen anyway. You would need time to convince people because, well, some people will like to see it ground up in a burger, others like to see it as they are, and so someone that loves shrimp doesn't want to have ground shrimp in a burger, that person wants to see what he’s eating and so those persons will like to see the crickets or the locusts or the dragonfly larvae, whatever, on their plate, and I assure you it’s wonderful. If you like them, you have such a rich source of food and I’ve had such wonderful meals, one meal that I had was at the Wellcome Foundation in England in London being prepared by the chefs of Noma in Denmark. We had a five course meal with ten different insects in, and it’s wonderful.
Children will be the best ambassadors for this because children, from early on, if they see something crawling in their environment they’ll pick it up and put it in their mouth. It’s their parents who will tell, don't do it, its yuck, its ugly, don't do that. If the children start seeing that this is something normal then they will convey that to their children. We need to start with young generations, the older generations as well, but every generation but also every target group needs its own strategy. Like people that don't really want to see what they eat, for them there will be products for them where you don't see it and its ground up. For those who are adventurous and like to see the locust on their plate, they will have that, and it’s all in the supermarket already in the Netherlands now. For children you might need a different tactic.
In our part of the world, to show that this is something that we need to do we will have to tell especially the environmental issues, because if we go into a supermarket and we tell about food security, the people will say, ‘Food security? There’s ample food.’ Yes, fortunately in this part of the world there is, but we should also take our responsibility and contribute towards the developments towards 2050, not only because we should be caring about other people, but even for sharing resources on this planet, and if that would not be done then for sure prices will rise, there will be political unrest and if there’s political unrest, if there’s parts of the world where people are very unhappy, then they will try to come to places where it’s much better; for all the world to be a better place this could be a solution to show we are contributing.
Sometimes I get questions like OK, so if we need to eat insects why don't we stick to the beef and we let people in Africa and Asia eat insects; well, that would be the wrong signal. If we continue to export a hamburger philosophy to other countries instead of taking up very good and sustainable solutions people have found in other parts of the world, then we should show that we’ve learnt from others and that we are willing to learn from people in the South and not only to impose our culture on to them. Absolutely, I’m not telling that in ten years we’re not eating any pork or beef or chicken. I’m pretty sure that chicken will be on the rise and insects will be on the rise but beef will not increase but I’m not telling, well, lets stop eating beef altogether. But we should be aware of how unsustainable it is to produce beef and to also consider that when we’re considering what we’re eating.
On synthetic meat development
There are several ??? to help combat food security: insects are one of them, there’s synthetic meats, there’s algae and there’s legumes. Of these four, insects are being eaten at the moment in the world, so that’s a solution that’s there. Legumes are being eaten, and so thats a solution thats already there. Algae is being eaten in some parts of the world, it will take a bit longer also. Industrial meats will take a bit longer, I think, because that’s only just starting to be investigated. That will be meat from the factory. I’m not sure whether developments…whether people will want to have more natural products or if this is going to make it. For some things, in order to produce artificial meat in a petri dish or whatever, you need quite a lot of antibiotics to put in there to keep it hygienic and because it’s simply something that you produce, well maybe not on agar but in a very artificial environment. I think there’s still a lot to be done there and then…insects needs to convince the public but artificial meats also need to convince the public. With insects, we’ve aways started not only telling people it’s so good but also letting people taste, tell them why and educate people. You need to do that with artificial meat as well, and I think with all these developments, telling why and educating people instead of just imposing and saying well this is good for you, just eat it, no, I’m very much aware that with insects I need to overcome the yuck factor and we need to tell why it’s good and what the arguments are, and one of my main arguments then is, a shrimp and a locust are really so similar. Take away all the appendages and you end up with something that’s very similar, so similar that people in some parts of the world will call locusts ‘shy shrimps’.
In terms of regulation, there’s still development going on; it’s something where in the EU the debate at the moment is whether this is something new and novel or whether it’s conventional. In my opinion, it’s something conventional. People have eaten these all over the world for more than centuries, for millions of years, because even our ancestors, hominoids, and so humans have eaten these all over. Also, in Europe there have been recipes for insects, in Germany there is cockchafer soup, there is cheese in Sardinia, and still we do need regulations for all this because the worst thing that can happen is that something is put on the market that is not well-regulated and if there a health problem or whatever, and so at the moment in the Netherlands it all needs to meet with regulations for producing meat, and I think that’s for good reasons. So it’s being checked for microbes, it’s being checked for chemical contaminations, just like meat is also being done. In addition to that, the EU is thinking about a novel food regulation, if that’s going to happen then we need to go through much more regulation. I don't think thats needed, but what I definitely do agree with is that we need firm regulation to make sure that something that we eat is also considered safe.