Startups selling chips or protein bars made with crickets tout the environmental advantages of insects compared to raising cows or chickens. But the market for insects as food, while growing, is still tiny. A new study suggests that insects could enter mainstream diets another way: through lab-grown cells that could eventually be made into foods like faux shrimp or lobster.
Unlike some startups that are working on creating foods like ultra-realistic, bioreactor-grown chicken nuggets or Wagyu beef from cells, the researchers aren’t trying to re-create insects. But insect cells, they say, are particularly well suited for production, and can be used to make something else. “Wherever we get the best building blocks that are number one, safe, number two, cost-effective, and then three, nutritional, we don’t care [what the source is],” says David Kaplan, a biomedical engineering professor at Tufts University and one of the authors of the paper. “It’s making sure we have the tools that we can start to do this in a really solid, useful, economic way.”
The research lab has a long history of working on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In other past projects related to robotics, it’s worked with insect cells because the cells are hardy and easy to grow. As interest in cellular agriculture increased, the researchers realized that insects could offer a viable alternative to growing cattle or chicken cells. Mammal cells are tricky to work with, requiring careful regulation of pH, temperature, and nutrients. “The cells need a lot to drive their metabolism–they don’t want variations in the growth conditions or they won’t do well or they’ll die,” Kaplan says. “Insects are completely the opposite.”
Because insect cells don’t need that tight of control to stay alive, and don’t require expensive supplements, they’re cheaper to produce than something like lab-grown beef–and cost is still a major hurdle for bringing this type of food to market. Growing insect cells also leaves a smaller environmental footprint because it uses fewer resources, from water to energy. Part of the premise of lab-grown meat is that it can help solve the climate problems of regular livestock. Growing feed for animals, belching cows, and manure all contribute significant greenhouse gas emissions. But growing mammal cells in a bioreactor also takes a lot of energy, and depending on how it happens, another study suggests it could possibly be even worse for the climate.
Lab-grown insect meat is still far from the plate; researchers need to figure out how to develop the cells into muscle and fat and then combine those into structures like meat. But in theory, they could be used to replicate related creatures like crab and other crustaceans. The protein could also potentially be used as an ingredient in plant-based meat, creating a new hybrid that tastes more like the original. And it’s something that the next wave of startups may begin to develop. “I don’t see how it can be avoided if you’re really interested in bringing the costs down, keeping nutrition high, and so on,” says Kaplan. “I think it’s inevitable.”