Edible Insects: The future of food?

NB: This blog has been reposted from 2013. It will form part of a series on eating insects, or entomophagy. It is incredibly interesting to see how much has progressed in this field in the past year, and I will be writing about this soon… watch this space!


In January, I read the article What’s for dinner in 2035 and, at the time, thought it was relatively unrealistic prediction of the future of food. In 20 years, the ‘hard-off’ will be eating nano-fruits, locusts and rice made from reconstituted potato, and the ‘rich’ will be eating satiation foods (i.e. naughty but oh so delicious foods that release hormones to make you feel full…because everyone wants that…), and the last of the ‘real’ meat in the world. I closed the article, told myself it was too overly dramatic, and went on with my day.
Insectivores R Us, Turl Street Kitchen, Oxford
It then got to March. My friend told me that she was doing her thesis on eating insects, looking mainly at the public perception of eating the six-plus legged creatures. A week later it happened. Going from what I thought was a pretty ‘out there’ topic, insect eating (or entomophagy) started appearing everywhere. In the news, in celebrity chef menus, in international development reports, and even in my local coffee shop.
If change like that can happen in the space of half a year, maybe the above predictions aren’t so unrealistic after all…
Eating insects has been a long-standing tradition within many developing regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia, but in Western culinary cultures it is incredibly rare and usually only found if someone has recently come back from their overseas travels with a bunch of chocolate covered ants, toffee locusts or, at worst, worms. I remember the latter being passed round our Year 9 class from someones ‘exotic travels’, and eating one of those salted, crispy morsels was seen as more an act of courage than culinary delight.
So, what has changed?
The UN FAO recently published a list of more than 1,900 edible species of insects, framing insects as a highly abundant but underutilised, low cost, carbon-friendly and nutritious food source. It truly is seen as the new ‘silver bullet’ for solving world hunger, climate change and natural resource scarcity all in one.
 
Source: un.org
I agree that eating insects could be a genius way to: reduce the consumption of more input-intensive and carbon-unfriendly meats as a main source of protein; reduce pressure on land and crop resources (especially corn used in animal feed); and could help to shift the annoyingly stubborn culinary barriers within the global food system. However, I have some questions…
Insect sweets, salads, fries, sushi…but what about plain, unadulterated grubs?  A lot of the promotional focus is on insects within processed products, with the actual insect itself being drowned in a sea of thick sauce, hidden in pasta, or ground into an unidentifiable pulp. This raises a few questions.
 
Source: washingtonian.com
First, who will be fed? Despite the UN framing entomophagy as solving ‘world’ hunger, who will be able to afford these products? Also, will insects be a major part of people’s diets or simply sprinkled on top of a pizza, sushi or steak? If this is the case, I really don’t see the amount of insects being farmed and marketed as enough to ever replace the water, land and greenhouse gas intensive meat production system we have currently.
Second, who will be farming and producing these products? With insects not traditionally seen as ‘high quality’ foods in the West, I would argue that there is a risk that the quality and safety standards needed to produce, market and process insects will have to be so strict and stringent that only the very richest, very largest certified ‘insect farmers’ will be involved.
So, are insects simply a food for the ‘ethical consumerists’? An ethical consumerist is someone, like me, who chooses particular foods and diets according to their ethical/environmental/socio-political values. As the film Food Inc concludes, we can vote as consumers for a particular food system every time we eat. With this being three times a day, it’s probably the most important and easiest vote we can make.
Source: theguardian.com
However, at risk of creating stereotypes, most ethical consumerists are people with choice. In other words, they have the economic or social ability to afford the more expensive ‘ethical’ (local, organic, Fairtrade) foods. They also have made an active decision to shift to this lifestyle, and have cut foods out of their diet (e.g. meat, non-seasonal foods) not because it’s their only option but because they can.
Overall, it seems as though there’s a bit of a contradiction: international development agencies want insects to be a staple food item and a means to solve chronic malnourishment and world hunger; markets want insects to be a niche food item catering to ethical consumerists. Both want ‘food security’ but for different groups and probably by different means. Until a common goal is agreed upon, how likely are all promises going to be fulfilled without divided interests along the way?
Having said this, the push for raising the ‘prestige’ of grubs could be a positive in the long term (i.e. over generations). And oh boy, are they pushing it. Here are just some of the quotes I found: “this acquired taste is sensible, stylish and sustainable”…” and probably the best so far, describing a bug as an “elegantly poised” creature.
 
Marketing insects?
Source: dailymail.co.uk
A lack of social status for a particular crop or food item is one of the main drivers of lower consumption rates, even in areas where there were few alternative food sources. For example, my research on millet consumption in India found that, if rural households thought it was a ‘poor person’s food’ and opposite to ‘Western diets’, they (particularly the younger generations) did not want to eat it. In this sense, removing the social taboo among Western consumer attitudes could in the long term diffuse down to the individuals who need food security the most.
The final question is of power.
Even the above statement that entomophagy could ‘diffuse down to the individuals who need food security the most’ is an odd one to make. Aren’t these the individuals who gave us the idea to eat insects in the first place? Who have been eating bugs as a source of protein (in the natural form, rather than drowned in syrup) for centuries? How is it that the notion of ‘entomophagy’ has somehow been transformed into a bright idea of the international development agencies, the ethically conscious consumers and the West as a ‘win win’ solution to solving global crises? In this process, an entirely different geography of who produces, accesses and eats insects has been formed. Despite every article and report framing entomophagy as a ‘traditional practice in over 80% of the world’, why has all the power to control, produce, market and promote insect eating shifted to the other 20%?
 
These are questions I want answered, and I would love your comments and thoughts.
 
Advertisements

2 comments

  1. Dear Maria,

    Thank you for your comment – it's great to see people really starting to engage with entomophagy! Especially at the local level via creative, interactive means…hopefully this means the progress made will be beneficial and owned by the local communities too 🙂

    Keep up the good work, and I will be posting more insect-related blogs on here soon!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s