How insects could fix bugs in the food system

How insects could fix bugs in the food system

Photo of Chinese food with insects by Jun Mu via Shutterstock

The media is now regularly filled with articles about how insects are part of the future of our food. And for good reason -- the Earth is rapidly changing, population projections are being revised upward, there is no real progress on curbing runaway climate change and our future is looking more and more like a dystopian science-fiction novel.

Grain prices almost certainly will go up in the future and so will the price of meat, as livestock depend on these grain supplies. Insects, though, offer a good alternative -- healthy, easy to raise and much more efficient in processing vegetable matter into animal protein (crickets use one-twelfth the feed that cattle use to produce an equal amount of protein). The United Nations even released a report this year advocating an accelerated shift to bug consumption in the west.

Overcoming the gross-out factor

But typically when discussing bugs, media stories are served with a large portion of amused disgust. (Just look at the picture from the Sierra Club magazine and BBC News articles: A Lice Cream truck, seriously?) Part of this is cultural, another part is smart business. Shock and entertain the audience, and they'll keep reading. 

So it was funny to see the creation of this disgust first hand at a bug-eating reception at the Dutch Embassy last summer. One journalist, Jenny Dorne of WJLA, couldn't fathom eating bugs and was captivated by Alida Maandag, the wife of Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke -- a leading proponent of incorporating insects into the western diet. Maandag quietly ate several crickets for the journalist while she videotaped the whole thing, scripting each bite to get the most shock value. Meanwhile, Mandaag stood there complying with a bemused look on her face, clearly thinking, "What's all the fuss?"

Perhaps this will be the way that bug eating gets attention and eventually goes from strange eccentricity to fun food event to normal part of the diet. It certainly was interesting to watch how people reacted to the insect cuisine at the event -- the cricket guacamole, the cicadas and asparagus on a stick, the mealworm pancakes -- again mostly with good-humored disgust. But as most guests realized when they tasted the bugs (if they tried them -- Dorne outright refused), bugs don't taste like much when integrated into a complex recipe.

Bugged-out food

As Marcel Dicke and others have pointed out, the easiest way to integrate insects into the western diet will be through processed foods where the distinct crunch and taste of bugs is lost and just the healthful and sustainable source of protein is preserved. 

This already has moved forward to some degree in the Netherlands. At specialty grocery stores, shoppers can buy freeze-dried bug patties (like other frozen burger patties, whether hamburger, soy, Quorn or chicken). At the event, there were even samples of Chapul, a new energy bar for sale in the U.S. that has cricket bits in it. And it was pretty good -- although no bugs could be seen or tasted at all, which was probably the point. 

One imagines a factory-farmed bug future where agribusiness grows and sells insect protein at a large scale to fill the processed foods that now mostly have ground-up chicken, pig and beef bits in them. It's certainly an improvement ecologically speaking, but considering how unhealthy processed foods are -- filled with salt, sugar, preservatives and artificial flavors, and served in unsustainable and often toxic packaging -- it's maybe not as large a step forward as we could take.

During the event, there was a long discussion about a future of factory-farmed bugs, which Dicke assured the audience was just fine, as insects like crowded conditions and their diseases don't easily migrate to humans as the diseases that affect current livestock do. But can't we do better? Massive amounts of waste still will be created -- will it pour down rivers as chicken, pig and cow manure currently does?

In colonies of millions of bugs, conditions will be ripe to spread new insect diseases, which may in turn mean continuing reliance on huge amounts of antibiotics or fungicides for our new livestock (even if there's no risk of these diseases spreading to humans). Perhaps worst of all, the industrial model, with its concentration of profits, will continue -- where Big Ag can employ small numbers of underpaid laborers to maintain their billions of bugs.

What's next

The most exciting moment for me at this event came when Dicke mentioned in passing that 20,000 households in Thailand make part of their living from raising crickets or other bugs. This is the future I'd like to see. 

Everyone can raise a fish tank full of crickets off their own food scraps and rotting plant matter found near their house, and probably generate a free pound of animal protein every month or so -- just enough to live healthy and to lower overall household costs (while having a positive ecological effect as factory-farmed meat is displaced by freegan crickets).

This report details small-scale insect farming in Thailand at length. I could imagine as the U.S. consumer economy implodes, lots of American entrepreneurs will turn to small-scale farming (as is happening in Greece today), and bugs may become part of their crop mix.

It raises intriguing questions: How does one go about raising a small quantity of crickets for personal consumption? What are the hours of work time needed to sustain your flock? What about the inputs? Will food scraps and foraged bits of yard waste from your and neighbors' yards or local parks be enough -- or like larger-scale cricket farmers, would one need to buy chicken feed (which would change the financial equation dramatically)?

With hamburger at just $3.50 a pound, small-scale production of crickets probably can't pay for itself right now (not if time costs are factored in and environmental externalities aren't), but once food is no longer easily or cheaply purchased at the local grocery store, bug farmers may be some of the best equipped to survive food shortages. That's food for thought -- even if you have to catch it first.

This story originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog. Photo of Chinese food with insects by Jun Mu via Shutterstock.