Edible Insects: Gross-Out or Global Food Solution?
A previous version of this article appeared in Natural History magazine in October 2011, and a related article appeared in The Solutions Journal in 2013.
Yea, even the wasting locusts’ swarm, Which mighty nations dread,
To me nor terror brings nor harm—For I make of them my bread.
—From Song of the Wild Bushman by Thomas Pringle, 1825
Over the past few years, reality TV has often used insect meals as a gross-out test or punishment. On the Late Show with David Letterman, the Mexican film actor Salma Hayek explained that she found insects quite tasty. Upon hearing this, many viewers were apparently appalled.
Insects now contribute to the diet of some 2.5 billion people worldwide.
Why do some people find insect eating normal and others—most notably Americans north of Mexico and Europeans—find it repulsive? The simplest answer is that “food” is a culturally specific concept. An insect-eating society teaches its children to eat insects. People who do not grow up with that custom may find it hard to imagine. Such cultural differences often have a geographical and economic basis. In general, there are fewer edible insects in temperate climates, and therefore it may have been inefficient in terms of time and energy to incorporate insects into the diet. Quite simply, it wasn’t worth it. But times are changing, and so are diets.
Our earliest primate ancestors were insectivores, and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, famously dine on termites that they fish out of narrow tunnels in mounds, using rudimentary handmade tools. Insect eating, or entomophagy, is an age-old human practice. In Leviticus 11:22, among the laws codified and observed by the Israelites between 3,500 and 2,500 years ago, it is stated that “even these of them ye may eat: the locust after its kind, and the bald locust after its kind, and the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind.” Pliny wrote that beetle grubs (now thought to have been the larvae of stag beetles) were so prized that they were fed on meal to fatten them up and enhance their flavor. And the German explorer Heinrich Barth, in his 1857 Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa, wrote that people who ate locusts could “enjoy not only the agreeable flavor of the dish, but also take a pleasant revenge on the ravagers of their fields.”
Barth was not alone in considering insects "agreeable." Over time and across continents, entomophagy was not just a behavior taken up as a last recourse by poor and starving people. In some countries, like Thailand, demand for edible insects has increased as living standards improved. And in Mexico around the city of Taxco, the beginning of the jumiles, or stink bug, season is heralded by a great festival, the Día del Jumil, with the crowning of the Jumil Queen.
Insects now contribute to the diet of some 2.5 billion people worldwide. To name just a few of the almost 2,000 species of insects and other arthropods now consumed, sometimes as delicacies, sometimes out of necessity, there are: the caterpillars of emperor moths (also known as mopane worms because they attack mopane trees), jewel beetles, locusts, stink bugs, and termites in southern Africa; centipedes, crickets, fly maggots, and scorpions in China; caddisfly larvae, cicadas, and wasp pupae in Japan; bamboo caterpillars, crickets, giant water bugs, and silkworm pupae in Thailand; dragonflies and sago palm weevil grubs in Indonesia; mole crickets in the Philippines; honey ants and witchetty grubs in Australia; so-called ant eggs (actually larvae and pupae), crickets, grasshoppers, and red and white agave worms (the larvae of a moth and a butterfly) in Mexico; longhorn beetle larvae in Peru; and tarantulas in both Cambodia and Venezuela. (That’s not counting crustaceans such as crabs, shrimps, and lobsters, which are also arthropods but don’t seem to elicit the same “yuck” factor in Westerners.)
A growing market
Today, there is a creeping and crawling niche market in the United States. Bug biting and grasshopper gobbling is slowly—very, very slowly—making inroads into Western culture.
David George Gordon, a Seattle-based science writer, is the author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways to Cook Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin. “In the fourteen years that I have been cooking insects,” he says, “I’ve certainly seen a steady build in the public’s interest in this form of food. People are generally slow to adopt new food sources, so I don’t think this will be an overnight change. Right now, I’d say it’s a bit of a craze.” His website includes recipes for grasshopper kabobs, cricket orzo, and scorpion scaloppine.
Another bug chef, David Gracer, holds insect cooking and tasting demonstrations. On his website, he promotes pesticide-free insects as a part of a healthy, sustainable diet and explores the myths and facts surrounding insects as food.
South African entomologist Rob Toms recommends that HIV-positive people eat mopane caterpillars to boost their nutritional levels.
Buggy fare has been available at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans and at entertaining educational events such as BugFest at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Bug Bowl at Purdue University in Indiana, and Bug Fair at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which features a Bug Chef Cook-Off. Florence V. Dunkel, an insect scientist at Montana State University who hopes that insect eating will eventually become more accepted, has noticed that edible-insect treats are often the highlight of insect festivals at universities and science museums.
Marc Dennis, an artist, professor, and amateur chef, launched an online resource for entomophagists, encompassing history, nutritional and scientific facts, and a selection of recipes, is a devotee of insect eating. Dennis has hosted insect-themed dinners in his home, free of charge, and he hopes soon to create protein bars, which he calls “Hoppin’ Good bars, with crickets, oats, grains and nuts—triple the protein with zero fat content.” While not as healthy, of course, chocolate-covered ants and cricket lollipops have been sold for decades as novelty items.
In March 2011, a multi-course “Grand Banquet of Rainforest Insects” was held at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History to garner support for rain forest protection. Thomasina “Tommi” Miers, cookbook author and chef of the award-winning London restaurant Wahaca, created a feast made up of barbecue-flavored oven-baked mealworms, sautéed crickets, grasshopper salsa, and fried locusts dipped in salted caramel and dark chocolate, to name just a few dishes. Miers, an avid environmentalist, feels strongly that we cannot sustain our current levels of meat-eating for much longer.
Other reasons to eat bugs
Indeed, novelty and fundtemraising are far from the only motivations for broadening one’s culinary horizons. Today there are a billion hungry people on the planet. That number is going to grow, and the cost of food is already soaring. Over the past year, real food prices (adjusted for inflation) have risen by 33 percent, and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a further 20 to 30 percent increase is expected in the next ten years.
Based on a medium level of average fertility, the United Nations predicts a global population of 9.3 billion people by 2050 (a rise of more than 2 billion) and, taking into account already existing levels of malnutrition, estimates that food production will need to increase by 70 percent. Reaching that goal at today’s level of crop productivity would require at least 3.5 million square miles of new farmland.
But economist Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, calculates at most that given environmental and practical constraints, we might be able to add only a ninth of what is needed. As it is, agriculture is already a driver of ecological problems, fueled by what appears to be an insatiable demand for meat and dairy products (not to mention the new dedication of some cropland to producing biofuels).
So where is all this much-needed food going to come from? Well, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Wildlife Fund’s website, bugs are a possible solution to the world’s growing food problem. Many provide as much protein—weight for weight—as beef or fish, so they are a possible alternative to eating meat, not only for the future sustainability of the planet, but for the sake of health as well.
In Mexico, farmers who used to spend money on pesticides have realized that by selling the insects, candy-coated or fried, they can make larger profits.
At a 2008 conference in Thailand, where nearly 200 different insect species are eaten, The FAO highlighted insects as an environmentally friendly alternative source of proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Insects have the potential to supplement the growing demand for protein, both for humans and for animals because they convert feed into protein much more quickly and efficiently than traditional livestock, according to Afton Halloran at the FAO’s Edible Insects Program. In fact, so nutritious are some insects that the South African entomologist Rob Toms recommended that HIV-positive people eat mopane caterpillars to boost their nutritional levels.
According to Dennis Oonincx, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, insects may be a more efficient source of protein, and points to a need for a thorough life-cycle analysis—a method for determining the environmental impact of a product—for edible insect species. Oonincx has also pointed out that “there is a much lower likelihood of disease contamination from insects than there is from meat.” Because physiologically humans differ more from insects than from our fellow mammals, the chance that a pathogen will jump from insect to human is smaller than the chance it will jump from mammal to human.
Oonincx also compared the greenhouse gas emissions from five species of insects with those of cattle and pigs. His results showed that insects emit significantly smaller amounts of greenhouse gases for the amount of protein they produce—less methane and carbon dioxide per unit of mass gained—than pigs or cattle.
Entomophagy also has the potential to increase incomes in poor communities. In Mexico, farmers who used to spend money on pesticides to keep bugs off their crops have realized that by collecting and selling the insects, candy-coated or fried, they can make larger profits. And in South Africa, approximately 9.5 billion mopane worms are harvested annually from 7,700 square miles of mopane forests. They are worth $85 million, of which approximately 40 percent goes to producers—primarily poor rural women.
It would be sheer madness to use chemical pesticides to kill insects that are possibly more nutritious than the crops they prey on.
Unfortunately, as in all harvesting of wild creatures, over-exploitation can occur. In southern Africa there are areas where the mopane worm has already been extirpated. Tshireletso Lorraine Lucas, who studied the harvesting of mopane worms in central Botswana, found that their numbers are declining, and that this is due both to climatic factors and to overharvesting, with harvesters motivated increasingly by commerce rather than subsistence. And Leah Snow Teffo of the University of Pretoria and her team, working in South Africa, have shown that the demand for edible stinkbugs already exceeds supply.
Some arthropods are already reared on an industrial scale such as edible scorpions in China. Others, such as crickets and water beetles, are reared on a semi-industrial scale. In temperate zones insect rearing companies already produce insects as feed for reptiles and primates. In the Netherlands three such insect growers have set up special production lines to produce for human consumption. In other parts of the world attempts are being made to rear insects artificially such as palm weevil, mopane worm, and wasps.
In some cases insect harvesting could even serve as a method of biological pest control. Swarms of millions upon millions of locusts can wipe out entire crops in Africa. It would be sheer madness to ignore this flying protein or to use chemical pesticides to kill insects that are possibly more nutritious than the crops they prey on.
Furthermore, cultivating and harvesting insects requires that forests be preserved, not felled. In the end, sustainable insect farming and eating may result in a win-win situation for people’s stomachs and bank accounts, for local agricultural crops and forests, and for the planet.
Dawn Starin is an honorary research associate at University College London and has spent decades doing research in Africa and Asia. Her articles have appeared in publications as varied as Critical Asian Studies, The Ecologist, Gastronomica, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Natural History, New Internationalist, New Statesman, The New York Times, and Philosophy Now. A previous version of this article appeared in Natural History magazine in October 2011 and a related article is forthcoming in The Solutions Journal in the spring of 2013.
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