India surpassed China as the world’s most populous country as of January 17 – a fact that we were perplexed about whether to celebrate or be concerned. This was expected to happen only by 2025, as per the projections made by the UN’s population division, but India’s rapid population growth exceeded the projections. With such rapid rates of population growth, the bigger question is – are we adequately prepared to sustain the growing population with sufficient food and nutrition?

On the same day when India became the most populous country, the Indian state Maharashtra was in the news headlines for a nutritional crisis. The state faced a shortage of more than one crore eggs per day. Many nations have faced similar egg shortages in the last two years. This is largely attributed to large scale culling of poultry due to highly contagious avian influenza and breakdown of supply chain due to the pandemic.

This egg shortage can be considered as the beginning of an imminent protein scarcity. With the human population expected to increase to 9.7 billion by 2050 and 10.4 billion by 2100, this issue is only expected to worsen further.

An egg-seller in Kolkata. India is one of the largest egg-producing countries in the world. Credit: Jorge Royan/Wikimedia Commons

Shortage of eggs

India is one of the world’s largest egg producing countries after China and the United States. Yet, states in India are currently facing acute shortage of eggs. The rising prices of eggs are especially alarming as eggs are the primary source of protein for many people. As per National Family Health Survey reports of 2019-2020, 74% of Indian households consume eggs.

With supply being limited, the price of eggs is already on a rise, which has increased by approximately 25% in wholesale prices in India over the past year, (in Bangalore Rs 466.6 in January 2022 to Rs 565 in January 2023).

With the current levels of price inflation and shortage, the nutritional security of the country is a matter of concern.

Per capita egg consumption in India has doubled in the last 20 years and increased more than a hundred times in the last 60 years. Meanwhile, per capita meat consumption still remains low, accounting for only 8% of that in developed countries and that has not changed much in the last 60 years. Additionally, other protein sources like meat, fish and plant derived ones, while available, are not as accessible as eggs.

The current shortage of eggs is due to a combination of factors like avian flu outbreak, recent heavy rains and floods and drought that hit the state. Some studies suggest that changes in temperature, precipitation, and humidity can create an environment that is more favourable for the spread of certain avian influenza viruses. For example, warmer temperatures may increase the survival rate of the virus in the environment and in wild bird populations, making it easier for the virus to spread. Additionally, changes in precipitation patterns can lead to wetter conditions, which can create environments that are more conducive to the growth of the virus. These changes in weather patterns may also affect the distribution and migration patterns of wild birds, which can increase the chances of avian influenza viruses and other diseases spreading to new areas.

Maharashtra is one of the major egg-producing states in India and the shortage could have a ripple effect on the egg prices in other parts of the country. The state government has also taken steps to increase the supply of eggs by importing eggs from other states and countries.

A dish of egg appam. The rising prices of eggs are especially alarming as eggs are the primary source of protein for many people. Credit: Dethans/Wikimedia Commons

Implications of shortage

The current shortage of eggs and avian flu outbreak can have a significant impact on the poorer sections of society. As the availability of eggs decreases and their prices rise, households that depend on them as a primary source of protein, may find it challenging to purchase enough to fulfill their nutritional requirements. This could result in greater nutritional insecurity.

Additionally, people may be compelled to search for alternative food options that are less nutritious to meet their dietary needs, resulting in reduced dietary diversity.

A considerable number of eggs come from free-ranging chicken in village households, providing a valuable source of nutrition, particularly for the children and pregnant women. Nevertheless, if egg prices go up, individuals may feel pressured to sell their eggs to earn extra money, which could worsen the issue of malnutrition among children.

Poultry farmers may be heavily affected by the shortage, as they may have to cull birds or reduce production. This could lead to reduced income for poultry farmers, and in turn, increased economic hardship for their families.

The current shortage of eggs is due to a combination of factors like avian flu outbreak, recent heavy rains and floods and drought. Credit: Varghese K James/Wikimedia Commons

Increasing egg production

As per Food and Agriculture Organization’s reports the world egg production increased by 150%, to meet with the increasing demand in the last three decades. In Asia alone there is a fourfold increase in egg production. Although increasing production might seem like a potential solution, it is not a sustainable solution and has its environmental impacts. The carbon footprint of poultry alone is 12.2 kg CO2e per kg which accounts to 10% of the global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Land and water resource requirements are also not far behind. The release of methane and nitrous oxide from manure and feed production are also a threat. With such high emission rates, increasing production to meet the shortage will have huge environmental impacts in the long run. On top of all this, the poultry industry is one of the major contributors of antibiotic resistance in the world. The growth hormones and food additives commonly used in poultry industry has been associated with various adverse impacts on human health, including early puberty, cancer etc, and environmental concerns, such as the contamination of soil and water supplies with residual substances.

Black soldier flies are one of the few species of insects that can be reared on a large scale for consumption. Credit: Billjones94/Wikimedia Commons

A potential solution

With a shortage of eggs, people will have to reduce consumption or find alternative ingredients. This calls for an urgent need to switch towards alternative sources to conventional protein – one being insects. Foreseeing this, the Food and Agriculture Organization has been promoting insects as future source of protein since 2013. While 50 g of egg provides 13 g of protein, an equivalent amount of cricket powder can give 35 g of protein. Insects in general are also rich in micronutrients and iron. The benefits of insects over conventional protein sources have been communicated often. Insects are a sustainable alternative to conventional animal protein, with minimal resource requirements, negligible greenhouse gas emissions and faster feed conversion rate. They can be reared on a variety of substrates right from organic side streams to small bins. Since they produce a large number of offspring in a single cycle, and that too with short generation times, they are the absolute protein alternatives to address the protein crisis.

One significant question here to consider is why insects are being considered over other plant- based protein source like soybeans. The answer lies in several advantages that insects possess, including being more energy efficient, having a lower ecological and carbon footprint and minimal resource requirements. Insects also have an edge over soybeans because as they have a wide variety of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Also, they are a good source of fat and minerals, such as zinc, copper, and iron, which are often deficient in plant-based diets. However, it’s important to note that insect farming is still a nascent industry that faces many challenges. Also, there are cultural and psychological barriers to overcome for some individuals to accept insects as food.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.