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Are insects the answer to the global food crisis?

Spicy Mealworm Pizza (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

Spicy Mealworm Pizza (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

By 2050, experts estimate the world population will reach 9 billion. This has many people thinking about how to sustainably produce enough food to feed a growing population. Vegetarianism and veganism are popular suggestions, for the simple reason that the higher you go in the food chain, the more resources are required per pound of food produced. But as we move down the food chain – from those that eat to those that are eaten – we often skip over an entire edible category: arthropods or, more specifically, insects.

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Daniella Martin is the author of Edible: An Adventure into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet

Edible insects inhabit an overlooked space between plants and livestock.

While warm-blooded animals like cows, pigs and poultry spend a lot of consumed calories heating their blood, insects are cold-blooded and therefore put that same energy toward building body mass. During their short lives – typically only a few months – farmed insects manage to reproduce at levels hundreds of times higher than most other livestock.

Farmed insects require less food, less water, and far less land space to produce comparable amounts of protein as other livestock. Meanwhile, they also provide higher levels of other vital nutrients and minerals, such as essential fatty acids, iron, calcium, zinc, and B12 – all things we need, and are hard-pressed to get even from plants.

Author Daniella Martin argues that insects are an overlooked edible category. (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

Author Daniella Martin argues that insects are an overlooked edible category. (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

So why do we overlook a perfectly reasonable, sustainable form of protein and vital nutrients? Is it because of our cultural conditioning – or, as I like to call it, brainwashing?

Most North Americans struggle against programming that tells us insects are not food. Our prevailing culture was imported from a relatively cold climate, where insects were on the small side and not plentiful during most seasons of the year. By contrast, the countries where insect eating is still part of the culture are typically more tropical: for example, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America. Bugs grow bigger and more abundantly in warm, moist places. Just ask the Native American tribes of the southern United States, many of whom were eating insects when the settlers arrived, much to the pilgrims’ horror.

We have reached a point, both in terms of cultural flexibility (sushi, anyone?) and ecological crisis, where it no longer makes sense to maintain our blind spot about bugs. We could adopt edible insects into our culture within one generation if we wanted to. All it takes is not perpetuating falsehoods about bugs to our children, just as we wouldn’t pass on outdated racist and sexist ideas. The falsehoods are these: that insects are gross, dangerous, disease-ridden and dirty.

Crickety Kale Salad (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

Crickety Kale Salad (Photo Credit: Joel Butkowski)

The truth is that most insects are just as clean as you or I, if not more so, and certainly cleaner than the livestock on which we are so dependent. Most insects eat a vegetarian diet, a far cleaner one than scavengers like lobsters and crabs or filter feeders like mussels, clams and oysters – all of which are considered delicacies in our culture.

Insects differ from us biologically so much that we are unlikely to be attacked by the same pathogens. Just as with other meat, as long as an insect is cooked, it is unlikely to pass on a parasite. Most insects are safe, non-venomous, and neither bite nor spread human diseases. While there are a few species that differ from these norms, they are the exception, not the rule.

Going from reviling insects to eating a whole bug might be too big a step for some people to take. Luckily, there are lots of options for ‘baby steps’ in between. Companies like Chapul sell cricket-flour energy bars, while World Ento sells an insect-flour pancake mix. Most processed foods have some bug parts in them anyway. These companies simply add them intentionally, and with much more care as to where the insects come from.

As if there wasn’t enough in favour of eating insects, they also taste good. Most edible insects taste somewhat nutty, occasionally with notes of mushroom and/or shrimp – some of North America’s favourite flavours.

We’re all reasonable people here. Certainly we can trade a few thousand years of old thinking for a few thousand more years of life on our planet.

Daniella Martin is the host of Girl Meets Bug, an insect cooking/travel show. She also blogs about bugs for the Huffington Post.

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