If your life depended on it, would you eat a bug?
If you're like most Westerners, this might be the only circumstance under which you could imagine voluntarily eating a bug -- stranded in dire straits, desperate for any source of nutrition you can get your hands on, doing any disgusting thing you have to in the name of survival. But elsewhere in the world, entomophagy -- the practice of eating insects -- is a part of everyday life. It's not just food-insecure communities either: the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that roughly 2.5 billion people worldwide -- over a quarter of the population -- consume insects as a regular part of their diet. In regions of Asia, Africa, and South America, these critters range from standard street fare to sought-after delicacies. According to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, author of the book Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, in Mexico City, “[a] pound of ants costs ten times more than a pound of meat, and the white agave worm fourteen times more. Grasshoppers, the red agave worm, and water boatman eggs all cost twice the price of beef.”
Here in the West we’ve been conditioned to regard insects – particularly in the context of food – as, well, icky. But it turns out there are several excellent reasons why we should all at least try to get over our collective hangup. Among those with an eye toward sustainability, there's a growing consensus that the cultivation of edible insects offers a vital solution to the daunting problems of feeding a growing population. With chronic malnutrition affecting some 805 million people worldwide and current livestock practices already straining the earth’s resources, bugs could very well be the key to ensuring both food security and environmental sustainability for the planet’s future.
So ask yourself: if the world depended on it, would you eat a bug?
Bugs: The Better Livestock
In 2006 the FAO published a report titled Livestock's Long Shadow in which it explored the sobering environmental consequences of modern-day agriculture. The findings cover a host of environmental problems, ranging from air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to rainforest destruction and soil degradation. According to the report, livestock activities account for 18% of total global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – more than the transportation sector. When it comes to individual greenhouse gases, livestock rearing accounts for a full 35 - 40% of global methane emissions and up to 65% of nitrous oxide emissions – both of which gases carry significantly higher global warming potential than the oft-demonized CO2. The livestock sector currently occupies around 30% of the planet's ice-free land, and the expansion of livestock grazing is considered to be the number one driving factor behind the destruction of our rainforests.
Reducing livestock's environmental impact, then, is of critical importance to addressing the effects of global climate change. But with a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, scaling back on food production simply isn't an option. In fact, the FAO predicts that agricultural production will have to as much as double to keep up with demand, effectively exceeding the planet's supply of arable land. With pollution, population growth, and nutritional needs all poised for collision, the word “unsustainable” doesn't even begin to cover the challenges ahead.
Bugs offer a surprisingly elegant option for addressing those challenges. Why? Simply put, insects provide comparable amounts of nutrients to traditional livestock but require vastly fewer resources to raise. According to Daniella Martin in her book Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet, the resources required to raise one pound of beef include “10 pounds of feed, 1,000 gallons of water, and 200 square feet of pasture.” Chickens fare somewhat better at a mere 2.5 pounds of feed, 150 gallons of water and 75 square feet of land. The requirements to raise a pound of insects, however (Martin doesn’t specify which kind, but crickets are probably a good guess), include 2 pounds of feed, 1 gallon of water and a scant 2 square feet of space. Meaning urbanites could container gardens on the fire escape and nutrient-rich livestock under the sink. It's the epitome of micro-farming.
The drastic reduction in space required to raise insects versus other animals is partly due to the fact that, as many people have observed, bugs seem to thrive in cramped quarters. But the more telling and more important reason raising bugs requires so little space is that insects don't need to eat much (remember those 2 pounds of feed), and, more importantly, they can be fed just about anything. Much of the space included in Martin’s figures is occupied not by the animals themselves, but by the pastures on which they graze and the land needed to produce crops with which they’re fed. Feed crops, which occupy an estimated 33% of all cropland worldwide, are often criticized for displacing crops that could be used to feed humans. Meanwhile, permanent pastures are estimated to account for 26% of the earth's arable land, according to the FAO.
Insects, conversely, can be reared on what the FAO refers to as “organic side streams,” -- essentially organic waste -- meaning little to no additional land or other resources are required to feed them. In fact, while health concerns preclude the use of certain organic materials, insects' ability to thrive on organic waste has the potential to make insect farms valuable waste management tools as well. Insects don't produce much waste either. Though recipes often recommend removing the heads or legs of certain bugs, insects are typically eaten more or less whole. According to figures by Nakagaki and DeFoliart (available in chapter five of the FAO's 2013 report on edible insects), roughly 80% of the body mass of a cricket can be eaten and digested compared to 40% of a cow and 55% of chickens and pigs. With the reduction in byproducts and the potential waste management applications taken into account, the amount of space needed to raise insects is probably even lower than the 2 square feet Martin cites.
Bugs also offer the livestock sector a much-needed opportunity to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The most noxious greenhouse gases produced by the livestock industry occur as a result of animal manure and manure management methods; cows, too, are notorious for their role in producing methane emissions via enteric fermentation, which occurs as part of their digestive process. Conversely, only three of the 1,909 documented edible insect species produce methane, and insects' emissions of other pollutants, such as ammonia and nitrous oxide, are minimal. A study published by Oonincx et al (figures from which are also available in chapter five of the FAO's report) found GHG emissions associated with rearing crickets, mealworm, and locusts are up to 100-fold less than those produced by cattle and pigs.
Today, the majority of insects consumed by people are foraged from the wild. But, as we've seen with the fishing industry, relying too much on natural reserves can severely deplete those resources. Despite their apparent abundance, bugs can be over-harvested too. Moreover, the widespread use of chemical pesticides mean that insect foragers run the risk of collecting contaminated specimens. In order for insects to truly play a role in creating safe, sustainable food systems, they would need to be farmed, ultimately replacing, to some degree, more traditional forms of protein in our diets.
Bugs: Better For You?
Granted: just because insects take far fewer resources to raise than any other livestock doesn’t mean we should eat them. We should eat insects for that reason and the fact that they’re good for us.
The nutritional value of insects varies widely by species and life cycle stage, and can also be greatly affected by the insects’ diet, making generalizations about their nutritional values tricky. Variability aside, however, there are definitely some eye-opening trends. Broadly speaking, popularly consumed insects offer comparable amounts of protein, unsaturated fats, and other essential vitamins and minerals. Martin’s book includes a handy chart comparing the nutritional content of several species of edible insects to that of chicken, ground beef, and wild Atlantic salmon. Ground beef is the clear winner when it comes to protein content with 26.1 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat, but mealworms come in at a not-too-distant second with 23.7 grams, while chicken just barely eeks out ahead of crickets with its 21 grams of protein compared to crickets’ 20.5 grams. House flies and salmon contain roughly equivalent concentrations of protein at 19.8 grams and 19.7 grams, respectively.
Of course, there’s more to nutrition than protein. Martin’s chart also sheds light on essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, niacin, magnesium, and B12s. Again, the high degree of variability across species makes the data difficult to summarize, so for all the nitty-gritty details, I highly suggest picking up a copy of Edible for your own perusal, or check out chapter six of the FAO's report on edible insects. Once again, however, a few key trends emerge from the numbers. First, all the bugs considered far and away surpass traditional livestock in terms of calcium content, with soldier fly larvae delivering a whopping 934.2 milligrams of calcium per 100 grams of meat compared to beef’s mere 13 milligrams. The comparatively high calcium content is likely due to the fact that, as mentioned previously, bugs are eaten more or less whole, skeletal structure and all (incidentally, this also makes them a great source of fiber). Bugs also universally supply more magnesium than other animals and, with a few exceptions, bugs surpass traditional livestock in B12 content.
For many, though, associating eating bugs with a healthy lifestyle just seems counterintuitive. When pressed, most Westerners would probably justify their revulsion to the idea of eating insects with the conventional wisdom that bugs are rife with diseases. It’s a claim that’s certainly not without grounds. Mosquitoes have been implicated in the spread of some particularly fearsome diseases, including West Nile virus, yellow fever, and malaria. Nature enthusiasts are taught early on to remain vigilant for deer ticks and accompanying symptoms of Lyme disease, and fleas are notorious for their role in the spread of the Black Plague.
A recital of these facts, however, overlooks some key realities of our current food system. First, offenders such as ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas don’t appear on the lists of insects suitable for human consumption. Second, the animals we do consume regularly don’t exactly have a spotless record when it comes to zoonotic (animal to human) infections either. In recent years, outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, H1N1 (swine flu), and H5N1 (avian flu) have drawn international attention to the problems that can occur in commercial livestock settings.
At present, few comprehensive studies have been conducted regarding insects and food-borne illnesses, though the FAO speculates that the risk of humans contracting diseases from eating insects is relatively low due to the fact that insects are much more distantly related to humans than most animals we eat. Ultimately, preventing food-borne illnesses with any type of food is a matter of safe raising, handling, and preparation practices, and the concern over disease raises an additional argument for farming insects rather than foraging them: like all livestock, farmed insects would be regulated and held to safety standards designed to minimize the risk of diseases. Raised and prepared under the right conditions, even cockroaches -- yes, cockroaches -- can become a safe, healthy snack.
Sure, But... How Do They Taste?
It's the question on everyone's mind, isn't? At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how healthy something is for you or how environmentally friendly: if something tastes bad, people aren't going to eat it. And without ever trying them, most Westerners have already decided that bugs taste bad.
This assumption has the unfortunate effect of denying hapless diners a diverse and exciting array of culinary experiences. With nearly 2,000 types of edible insects documented and numerous ways to prepare them, the flavors and textures range from familiar and comforting to exotic and indescribable. In a 2011 New Yorker article writer Dana Goodyear recounts the experience of sitting in the kitchen of Florence Dunkel while the pro-entomaphagy professor whipped up several dishes using insects as the main ingredient. Roasting crickets, according to Goodyear, brought forth “the aroma of toasted nuts,” while pan-fried mealworms “smelled of wild mushrooms, and tasted, spooned hot into my hand, like sunflower seeds.” Martin offers readers a more complex experience: the giant water bug, she asserts, “taste[s] like anchovies soaked in banana-rose brine, with the consistency of a light, flaky fish”-- a description that may seem altogether bewildering to those with more sedate eating habits.
In short, eating insects doesn't have to be an act of self-sacrifice in the name of the greater good; on the contrary, shedding our instinctive disgust has the potential to open up a new world of taste sensations that we have thus far been denying ourselves.
So You Want To Eat a Bug…
Let’s say I’ve convinced you that bugs are worth trying. How, then, does one get started? While in some countries finding bugs suitable for human consumption is as easy as taking a trip to the grocery store, here in the West fledgling insectivores need to do a little extra legwork.
According to an article in agricultural magazine Growing Georgia, as of May of 2014 there were “11 insect food producers and 27 restaurants across the U.S. that serve insects.” While it's unlikely that we'll see grasshoppers and mealworms on the shelves of any big-box grocery stores in the next year or two, a few insect-based products have distinguished themselves in the American the market. San Francisco-based Bitty Foods spreads the good news about edible insects through cookies and other treats made from their signature cricket flour, which the website describes as having a “nutty, toasted flavor.” Meanwhile start-ups such as Chapul and Exo are making inroads in the health food market with their lines of cricket-based energy bars, ideal for the growing number of dieters looking to eschew grains, soy, and dairy.
But to really appreciate the astonishing variety the edible insect world has to offer, you’re better off starting with the raw materials. But where to find bugs that are fit for human consumption? After all, the United States offers little in the way of regulatory guidance for insect farmers, creating a world of uncertainty for interested consumers. The aforementioned New Yorker article offers a little insight into the subject, noting that Ms. Dunkel's sources of raw (usually live) bugs range from insect farms to bait shops to PetSmart. Martin offers a more extensive list of dependable insect suppliers along with detailed descriptions on her blog Girl Meets Bug.
When it comes to preparation, a visit to Martin's blog or even a Google search for “edible insect recipes” will yield a variety of resources. Bitty Foods also offers a handful of recipes for baking with cricket flour. Recipe books include the Eat-a-Bug Cookbook by David George Gordon, Top 50 Most Delicious Insect Recipes (Kindle edition) by Julie Hatfield, The Insect Cookbook by Arnold van Huis, and Creepy-Crawly Cuisine by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy.
It isn't an exaggeration to assert, as Daniella Martin does, that the popularization of edible insects offers “the last great hope to save the planet.” The health of our environment and the well-being of our population depend on our ability to find ways to live more sustainability, and widespread adoption of of insects into the Western diet has enormous potential to reshape livestock and agriculture as we know it. It's not an end-all-be-all solution to the problems with our food systems -- one of those doesn't exist -- but it certainly a promising start. And while the concept of eating buts might be tough for the average American to swallow, our alternatives are far less palatable.
THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT EDIBLE INSECTS by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Leslie McIntyre is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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