Insects: The Meat Alternative of the Future?
The first time I ate bugs was at a Oaxacan restaurant in San Jose, California. I ordered Taco de Chapulines- a taco with seasoned grasshoppers, avocado, and queso fresco. They were fully intact, with legs and all, as if they were hopping around just minutes before reaching my plate. I felt apprehensive at first. I was wrestling with a repulsion that I didn’t quite understand. Unlike a chicken salad or beef burrito, I wasn’t given that ignorantly blissful separation between animal and food.
My curiosity about insect consumption originated from an effort to adopt an environmentally conscious diet. Around this time, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a report about how entomophagy (consumption of insects by humans) is a promising solution to global food insecurity. We expect this to be an increasingly pressing issue with the world population projected to reach 9 billion people by 2030. To satisfy this increased global demand for food, we must intensify food production through means such as animal agriculture.
Therein lies the problem. Traditional animal agriculture is unsustainable and will continue to stress natural resources as demand for protein sources grows. Agriculture contributes to about one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally and is associated with a slew of other environmental maladies including habitat destruction, antibiotic resistance, water stress, and pollution. Animal agriculture plays such a large role in the anthropogenic warming of our planet that a major change to our relationship with food is necessary in the fight against climate change and ecological devastation. Even if change involves an idea once unthinkable to most western societies- eating insects.
So what makes insect farming more eco-friendly than traditional animal farming? For starters, insects are inherently more energy efficient than our more familiar farm inhabitants. Scientific models like the trophic level pyramid describe this phenomenon well. Each step up the food chain is associated with just 10% of that level’s energy being passed onto the next consumer. Therefore, animals towards the bottom of the food chain (i.e. insects) require less resources to sustain themselves. Insects also have an advantage in being cold-blooded. They do not lose energy in the form of heat, unlike their warm-blooded counterparts. This greater energy efficiency is demonstrated by the fact that insects can convert 2kg of feed into 1kg of body mass whereas cattle require 8kg of feed to produce just 1kg of body mass. Insects also have the advantage of feeding on organic waste whereas animals require their own feed production. In addition, insects require a marginal amount of water with most of it being obtained from feed.
Pound for pound, insects require less land, water, and feed than traditional livestock. 80% of the world’s farmland is used to raise and feed livestock despite animals accounting for just 18% of global food intake. All of these factors contribute to the fact that 1kg of insect mass emits a negligible amount of greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1kg of beef or pork mass. The data spells it out: adopting insects into our diets could significantly decelerate climate change. So what are we so afraid of?
Unlike driving electric cars, recycling plastic, and going vegan, there is an almost impregnable social barrier to adopting this eco-friendly alternative. I felt this barrier as I struggled taking that first bite of my taco de chapulines. It is not immediately apparent why western societies react to entomophagy with repulsion, especially considering it was almost universally practiced by our early ancestors. In fact, a quarter of the entire human population continues to regard insects as a dietary staple. It is thought that early Europeans ceased insect consumption when they migrated further north as availability of insects decreased with the colder conditions. Insects are in their highest abundance in the tropics, where countries like Mexico, Ghana, and Thailand still incorporate insects into their meals. This lends reason to why insects aren’t present in western cuisines, but not why we regard insect consumption with almost violent disdain.
It is theorized that the stigma against entomophagy began with European colonization. Western nations suppressed entomophagy in native populations, considering it an unorthodox, primitive act that would hinder their westernization. “According to Silow (1983): ‘It is known that some missionaries have condemned winged termite eating as a heathen custom.’” Eating insects therefore became synonymous with uncivilized behavior — which the Europeans employed to create an ever-deepening boundary between natives and themselves.
This fallacious idea has persisted for centuries after European occupation, subconsciously passed down through generations. When is the last time you saw an infant terrified of a spider in the absence of an overly reactive parent? Likely never. Anti-entomophagy is a learned behavior and undoing this will almost certainly require generational change. While daunting, we should not be afraid to break social stigmas that shame people out of utilizing a natural and sustainable food source.
Aside from reduced carbon emissions, there are compelling nutritional reasons to consume insects. The composition of edible insects is comparable to that of animal meat. While the nutritional breakdown varies because of the vast amount of insect species, they are generally high in calories, rich in protein, and contain significant amounts of fiber, omega-3 fats, iron, magnesium, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. Humans even produce the enzyme ‘chitinase’ designed to break down the chitinous exoskeletons of insects. Entomophagy is practically written into our genetic code.
While human-grade insect products are less accessible than other specialized dietary products, there are still ways to participate in this climate-friendly lifestyle. El Tejate and Aqui es Texcoco are two Mexican restaurants in San Diego County that incorporate insects like chapulines (grasshoppers) and gusanos (agave worms) into their menu. For the at-home chef, certain websites provide the products and recipes necessary to cook your own insect-based meals. Consider dishes like “thai mealworm butternut soup” and “cricket and mushroom risotto” for your next home-cooked dinner. America’s edible insect market is still in its infancy, but greater demand will bring greater supply. With the pressure of nine billion mouths to feed by 2030 and subsequently more climate change consequences, we will all have to inspect what’s on our plates a little harder. So why not start now?