THERE ARE SO MANY good and tasty reasons to eat insects that the 20-per-cent minority of Earthlings who don't practice entomophagy--insect eating--should listen up.
Ants, termites, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, caterpillars and moths are among some 2000 species of insects enjoyed as snacks and seasonal delicacies by most people in the world, especially those to the South and East who remain closely connected to their aboriginal and folk food heritages. According to a brief but authoritative essay in the Cambridge World History of Food, sago grubs wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over an open fire are all the rave in Papua New Guinea; the Chinese value insects with medicinal properties; large queen leafcutter ants are a delicacy in Colombia; bee brood and honeycomb tucked into banana leaves are hot in Thailand; and desert fruitcake--which gets its crunch from crickets, grasshoppers, pine nuts and grass seeds--was the fancy of Aboriginals and European explorers on the North American plains. Rich diners in the South and East shell out big bucks for grubs in the same way that the affluent in the West and North pay through the nose for snails, frog legs, lobsters, crabs and fish eggs. And non-French speakers beware: Those irresistible crevettes du bois found on menus in the South of France are actually cicada bugs.
With fusion dishes all the rage, and fooderati clamoring for adventurous ways to blend all the world's food traditions in one appetizer, it's only a matter of time before honeyed grasshopper with a watermelon reduction makes the culinary hit parade. French-born chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the toast of high-end fusionista, just tested an ant larvae salad for his global restaurant chain's first Mexican eatery, according to the August 2007 issue of TIME Magazine. Sometime soon, customers at old-fashioned greasy spoons will complain: "Waiter, there's no bug in my soup."
When that happens, the food experts will be nonplussed. Judging by what's available through the Internet, entomophagy advocacy is already accepted in some circles. Adults taking Ohio State University's agricultural extension programs refer to bugs as "micro-livestock," and teen-oriented sites such as eatbug.com and the University of Kentucky's listings of youth entomology resources are filled with so much matter-of-fact bug fun that eating grubs isn't even promoted as a way to gross out Mum and Dad. The niche marketers are ready for bug-eyed "missionaries," offering on-line Westernized recipes for root worm beetle dip, chocolate chirpie cookies and ant brood tacos. And those with a sweet tooth can mail order cricket-lick-it lollipops or chocolate-covered crickets.
Nutritionists ought to be delighted by the trend. Though nutrients vary from insect to insect, just as they do among other meats, bugs and caterpillars generally contain as much protein as beef, pork or chicken, and have more iron, zinc, niacin, thiamine and riboflavin. They win hands-down when it comes to essential fatty acids and are low on the cholesterol scale, according to Gene DeFoliart, a University of Wisconsin bug specialist with a long academic track record. Furthermore, over half of all of the planet's approximately 1.5 million known species are insects, with beetles alone numbering over 300,000.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) lent entomophagy newfound respectability with its 2004 report by Paul Vantomme, who identified insects as "the forgotten food crop," especially relevant for the world's poor and disadvantaged. Based on detailed surveys throughout central Africa, the FAO report on the contribution of forest insects to food security links insect diets to anti-hunger and anti-poverty efforts as well as to forestry and bush-life conservation. In many villages, trees are strategically planted to attract insects for a two-month period when they're rearing their young, a time when the fresh crop can be gathered most easily and economically. This seasonal eating pattern maintains multi-use and community-managed forestry, and provides a readily available and nutritious alternative to bush-meat, the consumption of which can drive endangered species toward extinction. Women and children are the primary gatherers, Vantomme reports, providing women with opportunities to earn extra income by selling the surplus in urban markets.
As the FAO report suggests, environmentalists and conservationists should be big on bugs. Edible insects don't appear on any endangered species lists, and their sustainable use could help conserve other wildlife since the tactic may contribute to habitat protection. Insects also have an excellent feed-to-meat ratio. Living low on the food chain, they consume much less feed per pound of human nutrient than farmed fish or livestock. Forests don't have to be cleared, fields don't need to be ploughed or irrigated, and crops don't require toxic sprays to protect habitat capable of attracting large concentrations of insects so that they can then be efficiently harvested. This is probably why insects were highly valued in the Paleolithic era and why they're still popular among aboriginal peoples.
Insects can also be integrated into modern food production systems. Pasture-raised poultry--appreciated ethically because it features free movement and meat that is high in essential fatty acids--is really a roundabout way of saying insect-raised poultry. A few logs in the grass is all it takes to make insects feel at home and ripe for picking by chickens who are, after all, carnivorous. Yes, chickens eat bugs.
The same goes for urban aquaculture. Knowing what we now know about insects, it's no wonder that insect-eating fish are a rich source of essential fatty acids. Efficiency-minded urban food producers who appreciate the many functions of bugs will situate their compost piles near fish ponds, where the compost will attract insects for the fish to eat. This highly efficient and ecological strategy uses bugs to upgrade compost into lean fish protein, while the fish upgrade the compost from soil conditioner into fertilizer.
Insects aren't even on the taboo list of any of the world's major religions, unless the "cleanliness is next to godliness" doctrine had bugs in mind. Moses was fine with locusts, crickets and grasshoppers, all of which are still widely consumed in the Middle East, and Jesus never rebuked any of his supporters for munching on honey and locusts, even on Fridays.
Food safety authorities may be the fly in the ointment, since they're the ones who insisted on working the bugs out of Western food preparation. They rate insect "infestation" a greater danger than antibiotic "infestation" in cooped-up fish, chicken and cows, or pesticide "infestation" in fruits and veggies. But even our food police permit some bugs to get into our soup. The US Food and Drug Administration allows, for example, up to 75 pieces of insects in 55 millilitres of hot chocolate and up to 60 aphids in a portion of frozen broccoli.
I suspect that the real strike against entomophagy in the West and North goes beyond taste, nutrition, sustainability, safety or established religion. In the history of their relation to humankind, insects share a lot with seaweeds and land weeds. All were critical foods for the erect creatures that evolved into today's humans. They probably played a major role in supplying nutrients that permitted brain development and were important foods for the early hunters and gatherers. All were crucial products of forest, field and ocean economies that were managed--usually by women--as public assets, not owned as property. Likewise, all were managed essentially through understanding and controlling harvesting, thereby making humans feel more dependent on long-term and harmonious relations with the natural environment.
In the creation story most familiar to Westerners, this was the paradise humans left when they were exiled into an economy where "if you do not toil, neither shall you eat." It was an economy in which humans were condemned to earn their keep by the sweat of their brow--sweat earned while gnashing teeth in the battle against weeds and wilds. Victory went to technologies and pesticides that ruled out the need for the expenditure of blood, sweat and tears, thereby shaping our agricultural system into what it is today. This biblical tale explains, at least for Westerners wondering what makes life so hard, why we have so much scarcity and struggle. It is confounded and contradicted, however, by the likes of seaweeds, land weeds and insects--readily-available nature-given assets that are nutrient-dense, self-generating, best managed communally and with little need for centralized hierarchy or social inequality.
As we enter an era of scarcity imposed by climate chaos and the exhaustion of renewable and non-renewable resources, could bugs offer one form of salvation?
A co-author of the book Real Food for a Change, Wayne Roberts is project co-ordinator for the Toronto Food Policy Council, a role that sometimes makes him want to eat bugs.