Insects are the future of food

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I stared into its black, beady, little eyes. Then I popped it in my mouth, expecting the worst, but it was crunchy and tasted like garlic, lime and chili. I was in a market in Oaxaca, Mexico, and mounds of fried grasshoppers, called chapulines, are a common sight. They’re addictive the way chips are, so I munched away. I tried not to think about the beady eyes or antennae, but one long hind leg got stuck between my teeth. As I picked the little bit of chewed grasshopper out, I decided I was done with bugs — for now.

Interest in entomophagy — the fancy term for insect-eating — as the future of protein seems to come and go in waves. We’re in the middle of a surge now. An NPR story last Thursday suggests humor or clever re-branding might be the ticket to overcoming American squeamishness. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which published a detailed report last year on “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” some Native Americans who were accustomed to eating insects named the first shrimp they saw “sea crickets.” The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries in Australia has proposed that we call locusts “sky prawns.” Insects aren’t so different from other invertebrates that we eat regularly.

Maybe this movement is finally building enough momentum and we’re on the brink of a market flooded with cricket chips (a small New York company called Six Foods already makes them), tarantulas covered in chocolate and bread made from cicada flour. At the very least, farming insects as livestock feed would be more sustainable than current livestock agricultural practices. Then when it becomes financially feasible to grow bovine muscle tissue in labs on a large scale, we can stop eating insects and raising livestock altogether — that is, if we haven’t already become enthusiastic entomophagists in the meantime. According to Ensia magazine, in terms of calories alone, we already produce enough food to feed 13 billion people. But we fail to feed even 7 billion, because we divert large quantities of grains and other food to raise livestock, which are inefficient food converters.

I remember raising silkworms in the third grade after a classmate gifted me six little ones. With a steady diet of leaves from the front yard, the silkworms swelled into big, fat creatures, busy spinning cocoons inside empty eggshell cartons. Moths emerged and laid eggs, and before my parents and I realized what was happening, we had hundreds of silkworms in a cardboard box big enough for me to fit inside. I’m embarrassed to confess that out of sheer panic, we left them outside in the sun, and they died from heat and starvation.

In retrospect, we had a very successful little silkworm farm run on nothing more than the neighborhood’s plentiful, organic mulberry leaves. All we needed was to cook some of them for population control. Raising chickens, goats or cows wouldn’t have been half as simple, straightforward or productive.

The psychological obstacles towards entomophagy in the Western world aren’t insurmountable. What we need to overcome isn’t a natural aversion towards insects but a natural aversion toward unfamiliar foods. There used to be a biological advantage for humans to be wary of food they didn’t grow up eating, but we’ve outgrown the usefulness of that biological urge, much as we’ve outgrown the usefulness of sugar and fat cravings.

We also need to overcome the racial and cultural undertones embedded in our aversion — the perception that entomophagy is something countries with less sophisticated cultures and agricultural practices do or need to do. The United States’ industrial agricultural system is part of the global food problem. The U.S. food system is not a solution. Entomophagy in the Western world can be an opportunity to accept the reality of today’s unsustainable practices, embrace the unknowability of tomorrow and adapt to a future that will look radically different from our world today.

Embracing entomophagy is an opportunity to live by our values rather than our emotions. If it’s worth putting in that extra effort to rinse out paper cartons and tear out the unrecyclable plastic bits before we throw them in the blue bin, then maybe the next step is feeling grossed out for a second while we explore and design food systems to feed not only everyone on Earth today but everyone who has yet to come.

Maybe we’ll be eating fried grasshoppers — healthier than popcorn — in giant buckets at movie theaters and drinking Soylent for breakfast in the future. Maybe not. Either way, why not dive headfirst into the possibilities?

I’m waiting for some mail-ordered crickets to arrive from Rainbow Mealworms, an insect farm in Southern California that feeds its crickets cacti, and I’ll definitely be waiting in line for Don Bugito at the San Francisco Street Food Festival this Saturday for a mealworm taco. Until I’ve tried bugs at least three different times and in dozens of different ways, I’m withholding all judgment on their palatability. I suspect I just need to get used to it.

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @sophieylee.