Crickets after a work-out, meal-worm burger for lunch, a handful of roasted termites for dinner.
The rest of the world is doing it, so why aren’t we? The thought of a worm-based curry might be nauseating to some. However, roughly two billion people eat insects regularly as part of their diet.
There are more than 1,900 edible insect species, which represent plenty of crunchy, slimy, yet delicious – depending on who you ask – variety.
Entomophagists, people that consume insects, wonder how munching on a few crickets is different to indulging on a platter of fresh shrimp in southern Spain. Apart from size and choice of terrain, insects are genetically related to shellfish, so what’s all the fuss about?
Marcel Dicke, Professor of Entomology at The Wageningen University in the Netherlands, suggests that one of the reasons why we don’t consume insects in western cultures is due to the stigma around them.
“We have a long history of telling each other that insects are our enemies on this planet. They are, allegedly, a disaster because they feed on our crops, our clothes, our houses and last but not least on us (blood-feeding insects),” he says.
As an insect enthusiast and expert, he highlights the fact that “of all insect species that we know only 0.5% cause harm to us, meaning that the other 99.5% make this planet a good place for us because they pollinate 67% of all plant species, remove organic waste, like manure, suppress pests and form the basis of food chains. For example, 89% of birds are totally or partially dependent on insects for food.”
Dr Julie Lesnink, Entomophagy Anthropologist, agrees that we don’t eat insects for cultural reasons: “In the West, we try to remove ourselves from our natural environment as much as possible. So, an insect that comes into your house is an invader, breaking the boundaries between us and them,” she explains.
Most of us non-insect eaters, grew up thinking insects were disgusting and that there was no difference between good and bad insects. Scientific American published an article exploring why we don’t eat insects. It explains how rejecting the idea of insects as part of our diet comes from a desire to contribute to the frame of social order. If we grow up thinking insects are disgusting and used to eating certain foods, by eating a cricket or a worm, we are disrupting the social frame we were raised in.Lui Lezzi, a Venezuelan chef, living in Denmark, explains why he eats bugs: “I am Venezuelan, born and raised in the Amazonian jungle. My mother would give me insects for breakfast and always told me they were good for me!”
He has been living in Denmark for years and that’s where his passion for food and his “jungle culture” fused: “I met a friend who is a molecular biologist, who motivated me to explore my roots and create amazing dishes based on Amazonian and Nordic cuisine.”
Lui introduced edible insects into the Danish cuisine and felt honoured to celebrate his indigenous roots, where insects are a norm and thought to be one of the best sources of protein.
“We are pioneers in Entomophagy in Denmark. We are working towards making the concept known because right now there are no regulations in place for edible insects, which makes it hard to start this sort of business,” he explains.
“People’s reception is very positive. Danes are very open to alternative cuisines. Everyone is very aware of nutrition and organic products, so when presented with insects’ health and environmental benefits, they love them even more,” Lui Lezzi says.
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), reported that bugs’ nutritional benefits should not be ignored. They are high in protein, vitamins, minerals, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are low in fat; many species contain less than five grams of fat per serving.
They can be boiled, pan-fried, roasted, baked, sautéed or even made into flour. On top of that, they are delicious. Perhaps, it helps to think that our ancestors didn’t just choose to indulge in insects because of their nutritional values or proximity but because they are, in fact, tasty.
For those feeling squeamish about incorporating insects into their diet, insect-based flour can be a way of cheating their instincts but still benefiting from their nutritional wonders.
Michela Dai Zovi, American insect enthusiast and author of the cookbook Bugs4beginners, says “I got into eating bugs because I spend a lot of time in Thailand. The first time I ate a bug, it was a big deal, but eventually, I realised how normal it is in some countries, that you are the weirdo for making a big deal of it.”
When in Thailand, Michela gets her bugs from supermarkets and pre-prepared dishes from street vendors. “At first it was a novelty to try ‘bizarre food’, and I felt brave, but now, it’s just something I like. For example, the other day I did a quick seven-minute workout, and after I realised, I didn’t have any protein-y to eat, so I bought a bag of salted silkworms and had them,” she says.
When she’s not in Thailand and doesn’t have easy access to a bag of salted silkworms, she raises her own meal-worms and wax-worms. “I’m not actually as into crickets as I am into wormy things, I don’t know how they became so popular, I think wormy things are way better.”
She created her cookbook, Bugs4beginners, in January 2018 and released it a few months later. After lots of research on how to handle bugs in the kitchen, she created dozens of recipes, designed to encourage people to experiment with them.
“You need ten times less feed for farming insects than for farming cattle. Insects have ten times higher conversion rate of feed to meat and a hundred times lower contribution to greenhouse gas emission.”
“In the US I raised edible insects both for flavour and availability. The US bug market is small, most of what’s out there is cricket powder and dehydrated bugs. Which is like, if you are a meat eater, only having access to beef jerky and bouillon cubes,” she explains.
In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), published a book urging people to consider insects as a source of food. The report stresses the nutritional value of insects but also the benefits insect farming could have on the environment, as opposed to livestock farming. With an ever-growing world population, insects are claimed to be the solution to the problem.
It is estimated by the UN, that by 2030, nine million people will need to be fed, along with all the billions of animals for food and as pets. Intensive livestock farming leads to land and water pollution, deforestation and increased C02 emissions.
“If you compare insect farming to farming livestock then per unit edible product you need ten times less feed for farming insects than for farming cattle. Insects have ten times higher conversion rate of feed to meant and a hundred times lower contribution to greenhouse gas emission. The ecological footprint is much smaller when compared to livestock. On top of that, the quality of the meat is comparable or even better than conventional meat,” explains Dicke.
It seems like all odds are on insects’ side. But how realistic is it to say that most European countries will be eating insects regularly? If on top of being wonderful sources of protein, environmentally friendly, supposed to solve world hunger and save the plant from the woes of livestock farming, how is insect farming going from being a goal to a reality?
Unfortunately for those who swear on insects, it seems that to consider insects as a mass-replacement for traditional beef, many more bureaucratic things must happen first.Joash Mathew, Public Affairs and Communication representative of the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), says: “Although there is a buzz developing in the consumer market of insects as food in Europe, it is difficult to tag a precise timeline.”
The IPIFF represents the interests of the insect production sector for food and feed, and their mission is to “promote the wider use of insects as an alternative or new source of protein as human food and animal feed. As such, we aim to support the development of the insect sector and communicate the benefits of the consumption of insects,” says Mathew.
Companies wanting to sell a “novel food”, meaning foods that aren’t widely consumed since 1997, must check whether their product appears on the EU list of authorised products. Our eating habits have changed since 1997; year after year, a new food trend comes around, some stick and some others simply die out. Insects don’t seem to be one of those “disappearing” trends.
As of January 2018, a new EU piece of legislation paved the way for wider usage of insects as food. Insect producers can now complete their novel food applications and start commercialising insects as food for both humans and animals. One would think that the biggest barrier to introducing insects into our diet would be the apprehension westerners have to bugs. However, it all came down to regulations.
Food regulations are needed to protect us from hazardous ingredients and substances, however, if strict they can stiffen the evolution of our diet.
Tiziana de Constanzo, co-founder of Horizon Edible Insects, an urban insect farm in London, explains how the new regulations on Novel Food aren’t as good as they sound: “The industry had not been fully regulated up until January 2018, when new EFSA regulations on Novel Food were put in place to harmonise the sale of insects for human consumption. Unfortunately, this has worked in favour of global companies that were able to afford the costs of the application process that also involves producing a detailed technical dossier for each species.”
“Many companies have applied using data protection measures, which means no one else will be able to benefit from these applications. The result is that many smaller suppliers in the EU were forced to remove certain products from sale,” she says.
Tiziana explains that due to the regulations they had to withdraw from sale their favourite insect for snacking, Morio Worms. “Each cricket species requires a different EFSA application, it’s a bit like saying that the Highland Cow is safe, but the British White Cattle isn’t,” she continues.
Horizon Insects was founded as an environmental project. “We think there is a real opportunity to develop a network of Edible Insects Urban Farms in the UK, serving local communities, shortening the food chain, eliminating plastic packaging and the environmental impact of post-processing insects for long term storage,” she explains.
The IPIFF offers guidance to help insect producers to effectively apply the EU food and feed safety regulations.
“It is very important to communicate and provide as much information as possible on insect farming. We also strive to influence existing EU policies and regulations to create a more favourable legislative environment for European insect farmers, for example we cover regulatory aspects for hygiene, imports, traceability and supporting our companies in the administrative steps that must be taken for authorisation of insect-based products for food in the EU,” says Joash Mathew.
“Support is needed from government bodies and the scientific community. We should look at the Netherlands where the advocacy and research put them at the forefront of the insect industry. We simply have not seen this happening in the UK. The only organisations that we have seen trying to promote and support the industry are profit-making,” says Tiziana.
But, if there’s little to no governmental support how will this industry survive?
One may wonder whether growing more insects will have the same effect as overdoing livestock farming. “We do not advocate for mass rearing of insects. There is a real risk that we will end up switching from an environmentally disastrous protein production system to another,” says Tiziana.
“Each cricket species requires a different EFSA application, it’s a bit like saying that the Highland Cow is safe, but the British White Cattle isn’t.”
She believes edible insects are not inherently sustainable, and it is the way they are farmed and processed, packaged and distributed that can make them more environmentally friendly.
By now we have been bombarded by the idea that the farming and processing of animal livestock is destroying our planet, yet, it is not proven that replacing traditional meat intake with insects can simply save us and our world.
In the colder places, like the UK, keeping crickets warm and cosy requires lots of energy. What is more, if fed with standard feed, used to feed poultry, they are just as harmful for the environment as growing a few chickens.
It is true that they take up less space than livestock and require less feed, but when the arguments about growing and consuming insects are about how sustainable they are, the process of farming them should be sustainable all around. Just because insects take less space to farm doesn’t automatically mean less CO2 emissions.As most vegans preach, it seems that the answer to avoid inefficient farming of animal or insect matter is plant-based food. We reached a point where we are aware that eating beef is not sustainable, so are we just being fooled into another industry with the potential to ruin our planet? However, not even vegans are safe from contributing to the carbon footprint, as their avocados coming from Spain and Egypt, have been transported all the way to London, contributing to inevitable CO2 emissions.
And to make things even more depressing, a recent study by the Department of Organisation and Human Resource Management at the University of Bern in Switzerland, found out that most people would rather eat insects because they are trendy rather than due to their sustainability. Perhaps, being tricked by advertisers to buy environmentally-friendly products masked as “trendy” could be the solution.
Another angle to this issue is that those concerned with animal welfare, as some find eating insects just as cruel as eating a chicken. Maxine Dawson, the founder of VeganApron, explains her concern: “Our point around our disappointment is that humans do not need to be offered any more types of species/animal products to eat. We understand insects will be described as very high in nutritional value and some will say require few sources to farm. However, our counter-response is that it’s completely unnecessary and like all other animal products it comes from death and cruelness.”
“Personally, I’m a bit worried that experts on entomology or insect farming may erroneously think they know enough about insect welfare to go ahead and develop the sector. That’s essentially what led to major problems in existing intensive sectors that later proved almost impossible to fix, once prevailing farming practices were established. For a long time, it was acceptable to say, and some farmers still do, that for example castration or tail docking is not painful for pigs, that fish don’t feel pain,” explains Dr Marc Bracke, who has a background in animal ethics, veterinary medicine and animal-welfare science.
“We do not advocate for mass rearing of insects. There is a real risk that we will end up switching from an environmentally disastrous protein production system to another.”
“Similarly, insect farmers will probably believe that insects don’t feel pain whereas it may well be that they do, and perhaps some sort of pleasure. It is crucially important that we find answers to such questions well before economic interests become established,” he continued.
Whether insects will be replacing traditional meat in the future is still unclear, but we can’t deny the clear benefits that come from farming and eating insects as opposed to livestock.
However, like everything, if done for the whole purpose of filling pockets with cash then its sustainability won’t pull through. If we care at all about the effects our diets have on the environment, we need to be more active, support those businesses that work towards sustainability and reject those who don’t.
Featured image courtesy of Horizon Edible Insects