by Quinn O'Neill
Climate change, pollution, and dwindling natural resources are growing concerns. “Green” products are widely popular and discussion of environmental issues is constant in the media. Increasingly, people are recycling and reusing, and thinking twice when they reach for plastic bags.
Despite increased public awareness of environmental problems, the role of livestock is generally underestimated. A comprehensive 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN indicated that livestock are a major factor in water use, depletion, and pollution, and also in loss of biodiversity. The report estimates that, in the United States, livestock account for more than half of all soil erosion, 37% of pesticide use, and half of the volume of antibiotics used. Their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change is described as enormous.
Nevertheless, the demand for meat products continues to grow. The FAO report predicts a doubling of global meat production by 2050. This will have devastating effects on the environment. Livestock represent a slowly progressive, man made environmental disaster.
If the environmental consequences of our meat consumption aren’t enough, there are the implications for our health. High intake of animal fats and red meat contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. Livestock products are also highly susceptible to pathogens. The consumption of animal products can transmit tuberculosis, brucellosis, and parasitic diseases caused by tapeworm and threadworm.
These problems, and concern for the welfare of the animals, have led some to adopt vegetarian and vegan diets. More recently, the possibility of in vitro meat has been proposed. But petri dish carnivory won’t be an option any time soon. Other alternatives are worth considering. What about insects?
The practice of eating insects is known as entomophagy. Though the very thought is disgusting to some of us, in many parts of the world insects are a normal part of people’s diets. Over 1400 species are consumed – not out of desperation, but as a dietary preference. And they’re not just delicious – they’re nutritious. Insects range in nutritional composition, but generally serve as an excellent source of protein and other important nutrients, like fatty acids, iron and zinc.
Europeans and North Americans, unfortunately, have a somewhat irrational aversion to eating insects. We spray our crops with toxic chemicals to kill pests that are more nutritious than the grain they eat. Yet we’ll readily eat the pests’ arthropod cousins, like lobster and shrimp. Shrimp look quite a lot like insects. Locusts, which are considered a delicacy in some places, are even referred to as “sky prawn”.
When we think of eating insects, images of Fear Factor contestants stuffing live critters into their mouths might come to mind. Others might recall the last creepy crawler that turned up in their homes and imagine popping it into their mouths. Certainly these images are revolting, but not more revolting than taking a bite out of a live chicken or a live cow. Most of the animals that we eat are killed, prepared, and cooked in a manner that renders them difficult to identify as animals. The slaughter and gutting of animals is unappetizing to say the least, but we tend not to think about these things when we’re eating hamburgers. Similarly, insects must be well prepared for consumption. Crickets, for example, are cleaned first and their heads and legs may be removed prior to seasoning and roasting.
To get around strong aversions to entomophagy, pulverization might be useful. Insect flours could be used in baking or as a protein powder in shakes. The source of the products wouldn’t be readily identifiable.
It’s worth noting that we already consume insects. Extracts from cochineal beetles are commonly used as food coloring agents. Grain beetles and weevils are milled along with grain, and some of the fruits and vegetables that we eat contain small insects. Most varieties of figs are pollinated by wasps and typically contain some insect parts. The FDA allows up to 13 insect heads per 100g of fig paste. Yum.
Inadvertent consumption of insects generally isn’t harmful. Nevertheless, it’s can be good to know what you're eating. A large number of insect species are edible, but this number is small compared to the number of insect species in existence. There’s no guarantee that the insects that we eat unintentionally will be healthy.
Some people are allergic to certain insects and their components. Severe allergic reactions to cochineal extracts have been reported. This shouldn’t deter us from entomophagy in general any more than allergies and sensitivities to wheat should deter us from using wheat as a human food source. Rather, it’s a good reason to insist on the complete listing of ingredients on the labels of our food products.
In cultures that consume insects, the insects are often harvested from the wild. This can cause a couple of problems. For one, over-harvesting can devastate the insect population. Careful monitoring of population dynamics is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the harvesting practices. Unintentional exposures to pesticides can also be problematic. Monitoring the insects for the presence of potential contaminants, and cautious use of pesticides would minimize the risk of toxicity.
Raising insects is a reasonable alternative. “Mini-livestock” could be incorporated into existing farms. Insects are generally easy and inexpensive to raise, and they can be used to feed livestock as well as people. In fact, some insects are so easy to raise that raising them in one’s home is a viable option. A number of guides for raising crickets and mealworms can be found with a quick internet search.
Concern for the welfare of animals is a common reason for vegetarian and vegan diets. On factory farms, high production is the top priority and less attention is paid to animal suffering. Routine practices are often cruel, and numerous cases of exceptional cruelty have been exposed. From a moral standpoint, the killing of insects is much less objectionable than killing larger, sentient animals. Though some people prefer to relocate the wayward insects that they occasionally find in their homes, for most, the killing of insects isn’t much of a moral issue. It’s also pretty much unavoidable unless we pay neurotic attention to where we step.
From an evolutionary perspective, incorporating insects into our diet makes sense. Many of our primate cousins, including chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are entomophagous to some extent. Our earliest known hominid ancestor, Ardipithecus ramidus, is also believed to have eaten insects. Bugs have been a part of our diet for a very long time.
Entomophagy figures prominently in religious scriptures too. Leviticus recommends any kind of locust, katydid, cricket, or grasshopper. John the Baptist liked his locusts with honey. Some varieties of grasshopper and locust are kosher, and with a few exceptions, the Quran permits the consumption of insects.
Entomophagy offers a range of culinary and gustatory experiences that have yet to be discovered by Western palates. It’s also environmentally friendly, sustainable, and nourishing. The real question is not whether we should explore insects as a food source, but how to make entomophagy easier to swallow.
On the surface, overcoming such aversions would seem to be a big challenge. When one considers the popularity of hotdogs, however, and the fact that they’re made from a puree of assorted animal scraps, it seems quite possible. Perhaps the marketing, presentation, and taste value of our foods is more important than their content. In any case, keeping an open mind can’t hurt. Cricket anyone?