Why Not Eat Insects?

That's the title of a TED talk by Dr. Marcel Dicke, Professor of Entomology at Wageningen University, in which he makes the case for eating insects as part of a sustainable diet. Maybe I was hungry at the time, but I actually found myself hankering for some bugs after watching this video.

I think the reason I found the video so persuasive is that Marcel does a good job of dismantling Western taboos against eating insects by pointing out the fact that we're already eating them. That's right, almost everything we eat has an "allowable ammount" of insects in it. The government actually sets the amount of insects allowed in common foods like peanut butter, chocolate and tomato soup (and they're in there). In fact, it's impossible to avoid eating insects.

When it comes to eating bugs, Western nations are the weird kids, because we don't eat them. According to an article in the Guardian newspaper, more than 1000 species of insects are known to be eaten by choice in 80% of the world's nations.

Marcel also points out that we're already eating lots of other species of arthropods - delicacies like shrimp, lobster and crab, which apparently taste similar to insects like locusts ("flying shrimp"), an insect that Western nations have historically celebrated as a biblical food. Locusts and honey anyone?

Also compelling is the fact that insects contain high levels of protein (with all the essential amino acids), vitamins and minerals, superior to beef, pork and chicken, and because they are cold-blooded, they are extremely efficient at converting food to protein. Commonly reared insects like crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms have an energy input to protein output ratio of around 4:1 vs. raised livestock which has a ratio closer to 54:1. This helps explain why 33 percent of global arable land is used to produce feed for livestock (e.g. genetically-modified corn and soybeans), with 70% of the Amazon's former forests turned over to grazing alone.

In addition to hogging more than their fair share of land and fossil fuels, livestock produce 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions (more than the transport sector). Clearly, any other meat that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical in the fight against climate change, especially with global population and meat consumption on the rise. Farming insects is an important solution, as it produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions, emitting far less carbon, 10 times less methane, and 300 times less nitrous oxide than traditional livestock. Insects also produce much less ammonia, a pollutant produced by pig and poultry farming.

While there is clearly a "yuk" reaction to eating insects in Western society (one unfortunately exploited by reality television shows like Fear Factor), it's all about the way they are prepared. Insect advocates are warming-up Western consumers with ground-up insect flour, incorporated into things like protein bars, cookies and muffins (remember, there are already insects in flour...we might as well eat them properly and really get those nutrients). From there, it's on to more interesting fare, and most people are at least willing to try a bug delicacy.

Personally, I'm planning to give mealworms a try by growing some at home. All they eat is apples and whole wheat or oats (with some brewer's yeast added for vitamins)...when's the last time you felt confident about what your meat was eating? Apples and oats sound pretty clean to me. Maybe it's because I haven't eaten breakfast yet, but mealworm fried rice actually sounds pretty tasty right now. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out.

Why not eat insects?