Minestrone with buffalo worms and mealworms (grasshopper garnish optional); termite porridge; ‘land shrimp snack’ made of grasshoppers or locusts with hot pepper oil, lime and salt and protein bars made with cricket flour. These are just a handful of recipes from “The Insect Cookbook: Food For a Sustainable Planet” published by Dutch entomologists Arnold van Huis and Marcel Dicke, along with cooking instructor Henk van Garp. The books main aim is to open our eyes to the fact that our aversion to insects as a food source is senseless and outdated. Unlike livestock and other forms of animal protein, insects are plentiful and nearly everywhere. Whilst, culturally we tend to overlook the possibility of caring for ourselves by insect means, they are a nutrient-rich and sustainable food-source that deserve consideration.
Jon Foley, head of the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota, recently referred to the global food crisis as ‘the other inconvenient truth’ stating that he believes we are at a ‘critical crossroads’. Currently, the population of the world increases by about 75 million people each year. According to the United Nations Panel on Global Sustainability, the world will need at least 50% more food and 30% more water by 2030. As developing countries adapt to modern needs and their economies grow, their demand for meat will increase and to meet this we will need to triple our food production. Unfortunately with current agricultural practices this is an impossible goal.
A recent report issued by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promoted human consumption of insects as an environmentally sustainable means of feeding the planet. Although it was met with disgust and tossed aside by many, others such as food expert, Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of Gourmet and award winning author recently told the New York Times that “We should all be eating insects, and we all will be eating insects. They are a perfectly reasonable source of protein.” Like it or not, eating insects (or entomophagy) provides a far more sustainable source of protein than our existing consumption of meat and animal products. Also, most edible insects are very protein rich while being comparatively very lean. For example, a cricket has all the essential amino acids that beef contains but is far higher in iron and calcium. Other insects can provide other micronutrients such as B-vitamins, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.
Not only are insects often more nutritious but they are also a potential solution to the current inefficient food system because of their marginal environmental impact. In general, insects are extremely inexpensive and relatively safe and only require a fraction of the feed, space, water and maintenance of conventional livestock. The current livestock industry is estimated to be responsible for 17-18% of greenhouse emissions and accounts for 70% of all land cleared for agriculture. Almost half of global water is used to produce animal-based foods. Insects, on the other hand, can live off agricultural byproducts such as food waste (e.g. fruit peels) and only a tiny portion of them produce methane, with those that do only producing very small amounts. Also as insects are poikilothermic (i.e. their body temperature remains the same as their surroundings), they are much more efficient at converting nutrition into protein. For instance, crickets need 12 times less food than cattle to produce the same amount of protein and unlike the cruel practice of factory farming, crickets and other bugs actually thrive when they are packed on top of each other. Convinced yet?
With an estimated 1417 species of insects being regularly eaten by over 2 billion people across 3,000 ethnic groups in 80% of countries around the world, it seems it is the Westerners who will suffer most in the long run. But why are we so squeamish when it comes to the idea of chomping down on nice slice of crittle (a cricket and peanut brittle hybrid)?
Most of the Western world readily eats prawns and shrimp, which are arthropods-just, like insects, spiders and millipedes! Therefore, we need to get over this idea that insects are disgusting and stop trying to live in an insect-free world where everything is sterile and clean (after all we wouldn’t be here without the pollinating insects!). But before you get too excited and run down to the local park with a homemade pooter, take heed of the following advice. Like plants, some insects are good for you and some are toxic, aswell as the fact that you can never be sure that wild insects haven’t been exposed to pesticides, therefore, only farmed insects should be consumed. There are also several ‘pestaurants’ opening up around the world with a variety of insects to suit every palate. Experts also caution that we must be careful to develop sustainable cultivation and harvesting methods, as there are examples of human overconsumption that has led to the collapse of some insect species.
Jakub Dzamba, a man who’s researching radical approaches to urban agriculture, is working to build insect farms that can go right into the walls of an apartment building. The idea is that families could feed their food scraps and leftovers to the crickets, and then eat those same crickets, thus solving the dual agricultural problems of production and distribution. It would therefore seem that these six-legged critters might just find a spot at our table in the not-so-distant future. If we can just start to accept and overcome our fear of munching on food that creeps and crawls, the future looks a little brighter for us humans. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure the same can be said for the future of our possible new food source, who have more of a reason now than ever, to stay away from the ‘light’!