We were wading our way through a crowded night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, looking for something to eat. It was dusk, and we were swimming in a mélange of intoxicating aromas: grilled meats and stir-fried noodles. My eyes grew bigger with each food stall we passed, vigilant for a pad thai or papaya salad bursting with appeal and authenticity that would unmistakably be our dinner for the evening.
Until we reached the insects, that is. It took a while to register that those shiny black discs displayed on rattan baskets weren’t an exotic type of grilled vegetable – they were fried beetles, offered alongside heaps of fried worms, grasshoppers and more bugs than I could look at without gawking rudely. Needless to say, we ruled out that stall for dinner.
While entomophagy — the practice of eating insects — is a relatively new trend gaining recognition in developed economies, it’s an established way of life in a number of cultures around the world, from South America to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Entomophagy experts estimate that about 80 percent of the world’s nations consume over 1,000 different types of insects as part of their diet, and policy-makers are beginning to regard this food item as a viable, sustainable alternative to meat, as well as a solution for hunger.
As a food source, insects contain more protein and less fat than traditional meats, and, according to the Entomological Society of America, require much less feed to produce the same amount of protein that we get from pork, beef, lamb or chicken. They have shorter reproductive cycles, and, by virtue of their small size, require less space for cultivation than your average herd of cattle. Arnold Van Huis, Professor of Entomology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands and a consultant to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, found that locusts can produce two pounds of protein from four pounds of feed; a cow needs 20 pounds of feed to produce the same amount of protein. The statistics are so appealing that the European Commission has launched a three million Euro ($4 million) research project to examine the nutritional value of consuming insects.
All this is logically compelling. But is it enough to convince even the “greenest” of consumers to consider the cricket as a food source instead of a pest?
Personally, the entirety of its anatomy puts me off. I blame the torrent of media that have subconsciously socialized me to the notion that bugs, insects and worms are enemies to be squished — except when they’re anthropomorphized in colorful pixels for our entertainment. Perhaps if I could purchase grasshoppers already ground into an unrecognizable “grasshopper powder” for garnishing vegetables, or beetles formed into little sandwich patties to be pan-fried or grilled, entomophagy would have a fighting chance in our kitchen. But I’m not quite ready to cook up a genuinely Halloween-inspired menu of butter-fried wax worms, Cicada-skewers, Mealworm French fries and Caramel Glazed Cricket Crunch Flan.
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this way. It’s clear that a major marketing campaign in favor of insects needs to happen in the U.S. and Europe if entomophagy is to emerge as a real solution for hunger and environmental relief. There’s no doubt that current farming practices are unable to scale with our rapidly growing population, and these same practices are also giving rise to significant impacts on our environmental resources and climate. If we want to ensure a stable and secure food supply for future generations, we’re going to have to seek out new food sources. Insects are clearly a sustainable answer; now it’s up to us to confront our taboos.