For the Conservation Curious

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Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

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