By Ronen Kohan
Food systems play a crucial role in ensuring global food security and good nutrition. However, traditional protein sources such as beef, fish, and plant-based proteins require significant amounts of natural resources – particularly land and water – and contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for approximately 26% of global emissions. As a major food producer, Latin America faces increasing pressure to create more sustainable food systems that can meet the world’s growing demand for protein. In this context, alternative protein sources, such as insects, have emerged as promising solutions that could help reduce the environmental impact of food production while providing a nutritious and accessible protein source.
Latin America is one of the primary food producers in the world, with a vast and diverse agricultural sector that includes a wide range of crops, livestock, and fisheries. The region’s favorable climate and natural resources have made it a key player in global food production, with countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico among the largest producers and exporters of agricultural commodities such as soybeans, corn, beef, and coffee. However, the region also faces significant challenges related to food security, sustainability, and inequality, which require concerted efforts to address and overcome.
One of the biggest challenges is climate change. A concrete illustration of this is the notable decline in Paraguay’s soybean production in 2021, dropping from ten million tons to eight million tons as a direct consequence of an intense drought linked to La Niña. Given Paraguay’s position as the fourth largest global exporter of soybeans, the repercussions of this diminishing production have a severe impact on the country’s GDP. Additionally, the urgency to address climate change, promote circular economies, and implement sustainable production policies has heightened the need for alternative protein sources in Latin America and around the world.
Despite these challenges, there are reasons to be hopeful about the future of food systems in the region. One reason is the growing interest in sustainable agriculture and agroecology. Agroecology is a farming system that seeks to build healthy and resilient food systems by working with nature rather than against it. This approach emphasizes diversity, soil health, and community involvement and has been shown to increase yields and improve food security while protecting the environment. For instance, the Satoyama Initiative’s Community Development and Knowledge Management (COMDEKS) program collaborates with countries such as Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica to provide financial support and facilitate the implementation of similar projects focusing on agroecology. In Brazil, their current focus lies on the Upper Jequitinhonha Valley, an area severely affected by water scarcity. Their objective is to foster community development, learning, and knowledge exchange by offering small grants to community organizations. These grants aim to assist them in maintaining socio-ecological production landscapes that are more resilient.
Another reason for hope is emerging new technologies and innovations that could transform food systems in the region. For example, digital platforms, such as Frubana, make it easier for farmers to connect with consumers and access information about market demand and best practices. Precision agriculture techniques, such as the use of drones and sensors, are helping farmers to improve yields and reduce waste. And plant-based and lab-grown meat alternatives offer new opportunities for sustainable protein production.
However, the most promising alternative is insect protein. This alternative protein source is gaining attention as a potential solution for sustainable protein production in Latin America. Insects are highly nutritious and protein-rich and can be produced using minimal land and water resources compared to traditional livestock. In addition, they can be fed with food waste, reducing both the carbon emissions generated during production and from food waste itself. However, using insects as a food source is still relatively new in Latin America. The industry lacks the policies and regulations necessary to support its growth. Despite these challenges, interest in insect protein is increasing, and governments and organizations in the region are starting to take notice.
One of the countries that is leading the way in the use of insect protein is Mexico. In 2017, Mexico’s Organic Products Law introduced insects as a category, certifying that insect production does not alter the environment. Additionally, some regions in the country already consume insects on a daily basis. However, specific regulations to freely commercialize insects as food products are still lacking. Nonetheless, there are already producers, such as Nutrinsectos or OptiProt, that are manufacturing insect protein powder, mainly for the European market. Similarly, in Argentina, the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) has conducted tests involving protein powder in bread and pastries as a preliminary step toward potential future regulations. These initiatives demonstrate a growing interest in the use of insect protein and the need for supportive regulations.
Despite these initiatives, there is still a lack of government support for insect protein in many countries in Latin America. One of the main challenges is the lack of regulatory frameworks and standards for insect production and processing, which makes it difficult for producers to enter the market and for consumers to trust insect-based products. In addition, there is a need for more research and development to improve the efficiency and scalability of insect farming and to develop new products and markets for insect-based foods.
Insect protein has the potential to be a sustainable and nutritious source of protein in Latin America, but there are still many challenges to overcome. Governments in the region are beginning to recognize the potential of insect protein and are taking steps to support the industry, yet more needs to be done to create the conditions for the industry to flourish. With the right policies and support, insect protein could become an important part of the region’s food system in the next decade, and Latin America could take the lead in the production and commercialization of insect protein to feed the world’s growing population in the future.
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Ronen Kohan is an accomplished Paraguayan Industrial Engineer with a wealth of knowledge and experience in the food industry. He obtained his master’s degree in engineering management from The University of Melbourne and has completed the prestigious MicroMaster Credential in Supply Chain Management from MIT, as well as a fellowship from the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program at Georgetown University. Kohan is the proud owner of S&K SA, a successful Paraguayan company that has been operating in the food industry for over eight years, working with clients such as Nestle, Arcor, and Unicef. In his recent research, Kohan has focused on the issue of food waste generated in retail stores in Paraguay.