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.