Canned Worms and Fly Soup
Insects and the Socio-Environmental Future of Food
When Nathan Livingston started the bug club last year, I was intrigued. Technically, it was the bug eating, or entomophagy, club; Club Ento for short. After a contentious discussion with our housemates who didn’t really want live bugs stored in the building, Nathan ordered a box of herpetological crickets and promptly froze them, sautéing them and drizzling them with chocolate when no one else was around. I never got to eat or even see someone eat one of these crickets–not that I really cared too much–but I supported the idea behind his new club as a greater diversification of food values and a new way to think about the smallest of animals, insects.
After Nathan graduated, I said I’d take over Club Ento for him; from my pseudo-vegan perspective, I liked the exploration of non-livestock protein for humane and ecological concerns. I thought expanding our understanding of food and animals to include insects, eaten culturally around the world, was too worthwhile to let die out, but I assumed I’d be more of an interim president until I found someone who actually cared about entomophagy (it is a little weird, after all). However, as I read up on entomophagy in preparation for our first meeting, I discovered that it was not just a culturally diverse and philosophical endeavor, but that it was healthful and incredibly sustainable. For two weeks, I obsessively read about entomophagy and the start-up companies in the States that are producing food made from insects.
The surge of US interest in entomophagy starts with a report sent out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013. The report outlines our present global food issues as follows:
“It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”
Currently, around 38% of Earth’s surface is used for agriculture–and 70% of that agriculture goes to livestock, which raises the price of crops and grains for human consumption. Combined with an increasing amount of meat eaten per person, exponential population growth creates a demand for more crop land (via deforestation) for humans and livestock, while crop yield is simultaneously facing challenges from climate change. At the heart of complex, interrelated concerns enveloping our relationship with food lies security: a country’s ability to have enough food to feed its people. Many countries in the global South lack food security, which is complicated by the pressures transnational corporations put on local economies and individual workers. The UN’s proposed solution? Edible insects, the farming of which provides several stopgaps as our human species considers its continued existence.
In part, this is because food is about production, not just consumption. I volunteer at the Hamilton College Community Farm, a small organic vegetable production, primarily educational, which is run by students and sells crops to the dining halls and professors. I love physical connection to land that you actually touch while farming, the food grown and produced around you, which is alive and will support other life. Volunteering highlights the drastic importance of farmers on our lives, the processes of nature, animals and plants working, often at odds, to survive; the production of food, like a theatrical production, replete with its own dramas. It’s wondrous that we in the West generate not only enough crops to survive, but enough that the majority of us do not have to be farmers or worry about food production–that we are not concerned about food security, having enough food in our countries to feed the populace, even should drought or disaster halt the growth of dietary staples.
I’ve always found something spiritual about food. Maybe this is because I grew up occasionally keeping kosher, with a vegetarian dad and a mom who flitted between macrobiotics, raw foodism, and various other diets, cooking frequently (and conversely, almost never eating out) and involving her children in the process. My early memories of Waldorf preschool involve mixing whole wheat bread dough with my hands; preparing the shabbos meal, where again bread was central, was a family tradition that helped transport us for the sacred weekend; every holiday, secular or Jewish, extensively incorporated food. Food was a surrounding and conditioning part of my childhood, always present, and therefore, unobtrusive. Nor did I think about the fact that what I was eating was different than what many in this country eat; it was the reality of my life, the water I swam in (a la David Foster Wallace). Somewhere underneath it all were lines of health and environmentalism, which became stronger and clearer as I became more cognizant of my relation to food.
The spirituality of food to me is intensely ecological: the way food connects us together, as a community, and connects us to our world and planet–the farmers and the land; the people dining with us; the producers, transporters, chefs; the resources from trees to metals to oil used in producing, cooking, and transporting; the packaging; the supermarket and those who work there; the plants and animals we ingest and our body that does the ingesting; the processes of life and death that go into and surround growing, producing, and eating food; the processes that make food inseparable from our earthly existence.
Perhaps most prevalent in my life is the lack of (a strong attachment to) meat. My dad’s vegetarianism came from ethical concerns about the eating of life so similar to our own, and about the conditions in which it is raised and killed, influenced by Buddhist philosophy; my mom’s flirtations with non-meat diets–though she never stuck to one–came from health concerns: she had two heart attacks and diabetes while I was growing up, and her father had had many similar somatic disasters. The spiritual je-ne-sais-quoi connectedness of food, of deep personal importance, combined with the environmental effects of meat production on land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and general waste in the industry (e.g. we do not use every usable animal part), further strengthened my non-reliance on meat. It is simply not sustainable to eat as much meat, as frequently, as many of us do–cows take time to grow–nor a sustainable relationship with our environmental resources to grow large amounts of livestock.
Insects, eaten by over 2 billion people in 80% of cultures, with at least 2,000 edible varieties, are a viable source of protein, nutritiously comparable to the mammals and birds we eat–with less fat and more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are generally more digestible–40% of a cow vs 80% of an insect. Insects were likely a traditional part of our ancestor’s diets for millennia as we evolved; our closest primate relatives eat insects. Insects are arthropods like lobster, crabs, and shrimp with the main difference being that insects live on land. Some insects look so crab-like, the relation is readily apparent–so close a relation that individuals with shellfish allergies are advised not to eat insects until more research has been done. Because of the evolutionary distance between insects and humans, insects are actually cleaner than livestock: the diseases a pig carries can easily mutate into a human variety (swine flu), but not so with bugs. Since insects are cold-blooded, they are also more humane to kill, going into stasis when their temperature is lowered. While there are still ethical concerns about killing creatures, at least for insects their experience is more akin to dying while asleep.
With no detriment, and potential benefits, to our health, compared to larger livestock, insects–known as minilivestock–definitely benefit the health of the planet. Not only do insects need substantially less feed than edible mammals and birds, insects happily eat agricultural waste. Instead of needing more land to grow more crops, farms could sell weeds and produce they couldn’t sell to human or livestock farmers to insect farms. If minilivestock farming goes so far as to lower our big livestock consumption, the agriculture that goes to livestock could be used for humans. This would doubly help food security, providing an ample source of protein and increasing the store of available crops. As well, insects need much less water–1,000 gallons for a pound of cow protein compared to one gallon for a pound of cricket protein, a difference of 99%–and generate less greenhouse gas emissions than livestock.
The effects of the UN’s report differ culturally. For developing countries where entomophagy is already prevalent, industrial insect farming could be a boon to the economy, helping impoverished families earn a livelihood while increasing food stores and lowering prices. It could also be a way to preserve local ways of live and food preferences for those cultures that traditionally eat bugs, mitigating the tread of globalization towards assimilation of Western culture. For Europe and the United States, however, bugs (aside from escargot) have been seen as pests since some time after the fall of the Roman empire (where cicadas, locusts, and larvae were eaten), and the disgust that is generally felt at the idea of bugs in our food needs to be overcome. The major strategy for this in the US is two-fold: start with a bug that has a less negative reputation, the cricket–which brings to mind summer nights and Pinocchio–and then turn it into a floury powder that can be used to add nutrition to food without consumers having to see the bugs they are eating. It also tends to be marketed to foodies for its health benefits, catered to gluten-, dairy-, egg-, and soy-free individuals. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, as insects and insect powder becomes more mainstream.
In some way or another, insects are going to become a larger part of our diets. The American entomophagy revolution started with protein bars from Chapul in Utah, followed by Exo bars (located in New York). A third company, Hopper (Texas), will soon be joining the cricket-based protein bar producers. Bitty Foods (California) make paleo-friendly cookies and sells cricket flour, and Six Foods (Massachusetts) makes cookies and Chirps, a chip made from crickets, beans, and rice. (For intrigued would-be vanguards, especially those a little squeamish or new to Epicurean explorations, I highly recommend Exo and SixFoods as tasty treats that, name aside, give no indication of their insect ingredients.) Another New York start-up, Critter Bitters, will eventually be selling cocktail bitters made out of roasted crickets. The more adventurous can check out whole roasted crickets and mealworms from Bug Bistro, a Canadian based operation–they taste delicious, and I use them either as a snack or a salad topping.
I was surprised at the amount of interest here at Hamilton, and the passion of those who’ve joined the club. We’ve about a dozen seemingly dedicated members, and another score of interested students, administrators, and professors (ranging from philosophy to biology to Africana Studies). This semester, Club Ento hosted a small sampling in our college’s town, serving to families in the community, many of whom were interested in the sustainability aspect. While some parents couldn’t bring themselves to try a cookie, they were all willing to let their children partake–I remember one young girl who spat out her protein bar, not disgusted at the insect content like her mother but at the spice in the coffee-cayenne-chocolate flavor. On Oct. 28th we had a larger snack time where, for three hours, I gave away cookies, bars, whole roasted crickets and chocolate covered insects (turns out scorpion is pretty good!) to a continuous stream of students. Entomophagy is important not just as a sustainable food source, but as part of the conversation and reevaluation of food, animals, and ourselves: and it seems, as we raise awareness intellectually and practically through discussions and food tastings, that Hamilton college has caught the entomophagy bug.
Image via Chris Lepre
This article represents the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Change-Magazine.