If it’s late morning or mid-afternoon where you are, chances are that you’ve already had at least one fleeting thought about dinner tonight. You may be picturing a juicy steak, a tender pork roast or a golden, baked chicken. I doubt that many of you dream about a steaming plate of stink beetles, leeches or cave spiders.
Yet, a few decades from now, the question “What’s for dinner?” might just conjure up such possibilities.
By the year 2050, the world will have added another two to four billion people to the planet’s population. And as of now, it doesn’t look like our current agricultural and meat production practices are going to be enough to meet that increased demand for food. It’s predicted that even our fish stocks will collapse by 2048. The most viable solution for this global shortage just may be insect farming.
Eating insects for centuries
Entomophagy — or the practice of eating insects — isn’t a new concept: it’s been around for thousands of years. Early hunters and gatherers ate bugs to survive, probably learning about which insects were nonpoisonous by observing what animals ate. In ancient Rome and Greece, dining on insects was de rigueur. Pliny the Elder, a first-century Roman philosopher and naturalist, wrote that Roman aristocrats loved to eat the larvae of beetles that had been raised on wine and flour. In the Old Testament, Christians and Jews were urged to eat grasshoppers and locusts. In the 1850s, a superintendent of the Pony Express in Nevada, Major Howard Egan, observed a Paiute Indian hunt for Mormon crickets, which are large, wingless grasshoppers. The Paiutes would dig a series of large trenches, cover them with straw and then drive hordes of the crickets into the excavated traps. Then they’d set the straw on fire, burning the crickets alive. Paiute women would gather the charred bugs and bring them back to their camps to make flour.
Today in many cultures in Africa, Asia and Latin America, bugs are a traditional food. Termites are fried, roasted or made into bread in Ghana. In China, beekeepers regularly eat larvae from their beehives. The Japanese are fond of aquatic fly larvae, sautéed in soy sauce and sugar. In Bali, dragonflies boiled in coconut milk are considered to be a delicacy. In Latin America, ants, cicadas and fire-roasted tarantulas are common in authentic dishes. In Mexico, agave worms, which are moth or butterfly larvae, are served on tortillas or placed in bottles of mescal liquor.
I think I’ll have the roasted cricket
Despite the fact that at least half of the world’s people are now eating insects, North Americans and Europeans still consider it disgusting. The cultural bias may have to do with history: After Europe became agrarian, insects tended to be regarded as destroyers of crops, rather than as a food source.
But insect farming has the potential to not only solve an imminent food crisis but be far more economically efficient, better for the environment and healthier for us. One hundred pounds of feed produces only 10 pounds of beef, while the same amount of feed yields 45 pounds of cricket. In addition, insects require far less water. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef (enough for a large hamburger). In contrast, one moist paper towel placed at the bottom of a cricket tank — refreshed weekly — will supply water to a quarter pound of crickets. And insects create a fraction of the CO2 and methane emissions that animals do.
Hamburger is roughly 18 percent protein and 18 percent fat. Cooked grasshopper, on the other hand, contains up to 60 percent protein with just 6 percent fat. Moreover, insect fatty acids, like those of fish, are unsaturated.
And instead of poisoning the planet as we currently do with the widespread use of pesticides in industrial agriculture, we could just eat the insects and keep artificial chemicals off the plants we would still be consuming.
Familiar with fragments
Although you may not know it, you are probably already eating one pound of insects per year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows certain levels of “natural or unavoidable defects” in foods, as long as they do not pose a health risk. For example, chocolate can have up to 60 insect fragments per 100 grams, canned or frozen spinach can have an average of 50 or more aphids and/or mites per 100 grams, and peanut butter can have 30 insect fragments per 100 grams.
But the incidental eating of insects is a long ways away from actively choosing to eat them on a special evening out at your favorite restaurant. Before that happens, we may have to find a way to make roasted grasshopper look and taste like filet mignon.
Knowing that eating insects is much better for the environment, more economical, healthier for you and more sustainable compared to our current food production practices, are you ready to start crunching on crickets?
Feature photo: Insect farming may be the solution to a global food shortage. ©John T. Andrews.