food sustainability

You don’t have to eat less meat, just… different meat

When I was at primary school in Madagascar, one of the poorer kids used to spend play time crouched in a corner of the playground with a long cane. When a grasshopper landed within reach, he’d smack it expertly with the stick and stash the dead insect in a bag. It was something of a game and I used to join in, except that my friend would take the grasshoppers home at lunchtime and bring them back fried in the afternoon. This was considerable cause for teasing from those who didn’t snack on insects, but it turns out he was ahead of his time.

Insects are already vital to the food chain. They pollinate our plants, clear away dead things, and create soil to grow things in the first place. In theory then, it’s only a small step to eating the insects themselves, and they may well play a greater role in feeding us in the future.

They’re an age-old culinary tradition already. One ancient Mexican tribe’s generic word for insects was the same as ‘meat’ – unsurprising, given Mexico has around 500 species of edible insects. 100 or so of these are still eaten and available for sale, such as grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, and caterpillars. Highly nutritious they are too, packed with protein, vitamins and other nutrients.

In fact, we’re lagging behind, treating edible insects either as freaky curiosities or something to persecute celebrities with on TV. “Most of the world already eats insects,” says Arnold Van Huis, author of a UN paper on the subject. “It is only in the western world that we don’t. Psychologically we have a problem with it. I don’t know why, as we eat shrimps, which are very comparable.”

Perhaps we should start. Insects convert food into protein better than any animal. They breed fast, they last well and can be dried for storage. They are free and everywhere. As Kurt Hollander says, “all of this makes insects the ‘greenest’ meat on the planet.”

I suppose most people would rather go vegetarian than eat insects. And that would work for sustainability too.

7 comments

  1. I remember reading about the possibilities of insect protein when I was a kid in the 1970s (and I’m sure there were TV programmes like Tomorrow’s World which featured this idea.) It always seemed a horrid yet strangely fascinating prospect – especially to a squeamish person like myself who almost swallowed an earwig once, and never forgot the experience. Weren’t there also chocolate-covered ants and bees available in shops at one time?

    Just a thought – if the food industry can make us eat disguised human hair (in the form of L-cysteine, used as an additive) they could also make us eat disguised insects in the form of anonymous blended protein cubes or cakes (resembling tofu or veggieburgers?) Perhaps that would be a bit more palatable to conservative British tastes, with none of the legs, eyes, wings and bristles in evidence!

  2. We already do as an additive. Much of our red food colouring is made from crushed cochineal insects. If you eat the red ones in a packet of skittles, you’re crunching down a tiny amount of beetle.

    It’s an interesting thought. We’re remarkably ready to eat nameless processed foods, and you’d probably only need to put ‘animal protein’ on the list of ingredients.

  3. Kieran, yes the chocolate ants are still there at Selfridges! (Or at least they were in 2008, according to this article, sales being boosted by “I’m a Celebrity…”) Todd Dalton of Edible.com appears to be a driving force in this area.

    Edible’s Production and Ethics page has this: “Edible was founded on the principles of sustainable, ecologically sound and fairly traded sourcing, coupled with strict wildlife conservation ethics and the desire to support Indigenous people’s traditional way of life.”

    Being somewhat arachnophobic, I would need to be very hungry indeed to think about sampling baked tarantula, which is a Cambodian delicacy. The story behind the tarantulas is an interesting one, actually, as some sources say that they became a delicacy in recent times, after the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia; in other words, it is only after people started eating them out of sheer necessity that they became so very popular as a food source.

    I wonder then why the same hasn’t happened, let’s say, to armadillos (“hoover hogs”) in the American deep South after the Depression years. More research needed, maybe…

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