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Presumptuous Insect

A few months ago, I was interviewed on a radio station about changing attitudes towards food and eating. After a caller commented that when he’d lived in rural Limpopo, he’d happily eaten frogs, but preferred McDonald’s having moved to Johannesburg, I managed—somehow—to talk myself into an urgent appeal to the nation to eat insects. I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, but I think it was partly connected to the recent slew of articles on why we need to eat insects to save the planet.

This insect turn in culinary fashion is, of course, nothing new. In 1885, the entomologist Vincent M. Holt published Why not eat insects? To some extent, current arguments for eating insects deviate little from this little manifesto. Holt remarks, rightly, that there is nothing inherently dirty about insects—in fact, crustaceans, being bottom feeders, are potentially more dangerous to eat—and that they can form part of a balanced diet. He suggests that Western aversion to eating them is linked strongly to culturally specific ideas about what is fine and not fine to eat. He cites the example of a Chinese banquet at an exhibition in London, pointing out that Britons happily sampled a menu which included cuttlefish, sea slugs, and birds’ nests because it was both exotic and, apparently, healthy. Past Europeans ate insects, and societies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere happily, according to Holt, eat insects:

Beginning with the earliest times, one can produce examples of insect-eating at every period down to our own age. Speaking to the people of Israel, at Lev. xi. 22, Moses directly encourages them to eat clean-feeding insects: ‘These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.’ …

Cooked in many and various ways, locusts are eaten in the Crimea, Arabia, Persia, Madagascar, Africa, and India. … From the time of Homer, the Cicadae formed the theme of every Greek poet, in regard to both tunefulness and delicate flavour. Aristotle tells us that the most polished of the Greeks enjoyed them… Cicadae are eaten at the present day by the American Indians and by the natives of Australia.

He appeals to his readers:

We pride ourselves upon our imitation of the Greeks and Romans in their arts; we treasure their dead languages: why not, then, take a useful hint from their tables? We imitate the savage nations in their use of numberless drugs, spices, and condiments: why not go a step further?

Contemporary interest in eating insects is, though, strongly connected to anxieties about a food chain which seems to be increasingly ecologically unsustainable. Current methods of producing enough protein for the world’s population are to the cost of animal welfare and good labour practice, consume vast quantities of water, and produce methane and other greenhouse gases. Something needs to change, and insect enthusiasts argue that crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars are a viable alternative to beef, chicken, and pork. In a 2013 report for the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dutch entomologist Arnold van Huis—academic and author of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)—notes more than 1,900 species of insects already form part of the diets of ‘at least two billion people.’ A lot of these insects are high in protein—higher, in some cases, than beef—and other nutrients. Many of them consume waste, and farming them is comparatively cheap and requires little labour.

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This promotion of what Dana Goodyear calls ‘ethical entomophagy’ in Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Easters and the Making of a New American Food Culture, has met with some commercial success. There are now—outside of regions where insects are normally part of diets—businesses dedicated to farming insects for human consumption. It’s possible to buy cricket flour; Selfridges sells chocolate covered giant ants; and pop up restaurants and Noma have featured insects on their menus. The logic is that these high-end sales of edible insects will gradually influence the middle and bottom of the market. A kind of ‘trickle down’ revolution in diet.

While it is certainly true that we can and have chosen to eat foodstuffs once deemed to be dangerous or socially taboo—potatoes in eighteenth-century France, beef in Japan during the Meiji Restoration—these shifts in attitude take time to achieve. Also, in the case of potatoes and beef, these societies were strongly hierarchical with powerful aristocracies. Thankfully, most of us no longer live in a world where the king’s decision to consume a formerly shunned ingredient changes the way that all of us eat.

As every recent article on entomophagy notes, the main obstacle to the widespread incorporation of insects into, particularly but not exclusively, Western diets is a strong aversion to eating them. If only, the argument goes, picky Westerners would give up their hypocritical dislike of insects—they eat shrimp and prawns, after all—and then we’ll all be fine. But I think it’s worth taking this dislike seriously. As Goodyear makes the point, a lot of these insects aren’t particularly delicious. She tries embryonic bee drones picked from honeycomb:

the drones, dripping in butter and lightly coated with honey from their cells, were fatty and a little bit sweet, and, like everything chitinous, left me with a disturbing aftertaste of dried shrimp.

I’ve eaten fried, salted grasshoppers at a food festival on London’s south bank, and they were crunchy and salty—improved, like most things, by deep frying—but otherwise memorable only for having been grasshoppers.

Making insects palatable involves processing, something which almost inevitably increases the ecological footprint of the product. Perhaps even more importantly, as the caller I referred to at the beginning of this post said, insects are widely associated with poverty and deprivation. Modernity—life in the city—requires a new diet. While it is true that in many societies, people do eat insects out of choice, it is equally significant that when they can, people stop eating insects as soon as possible.

Our current anxiety about sustainable sources of protein is driven partly by concern that the new middle classes in China and India will demand to eat as much beef, in particular, as their Western counterparts. I wonder to what extent this concern is part of a long tradition of Malthusian yellow peril: that China, in particular, will somehow eat up all the world’s resources. I don’t have any objection to promoting entomophagy—although trickle down strategies have a fairly low level of success—but I think we should look more carefully at the reasons underpinning our interest in investing in alternative forms of protein, and also be careful that we won’t take seriously the interests and tastes of people clawing their way out of poverty.

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. I see your point that bugs are healthy to eat but I would have a hard time with the texture.

    January 20, 2015
  2. Really enjoyed reading this article. I think eating insects in their natural state is just too alien to Western diets to be much more than a novelty snack like the chocolate covered ants you mentioned. Processing them somehow, perhaps into a way that behaves more like the meat we’re used to, is something I think society will be happier to get behind, especially if it remains healthy and competitively priced — I for one would quite happily buy something like insect-based minced meat. Shopping habits are far easier to change than our preconceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable food.

    January 20, 2015
    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

      I don’t know. I can see some inclusion of insects – possibly in heavily processed form.

      -Sarah

      January 20, 2015
  3. kamrynwhowanders #

    Hmm. Maybe if it was marketed towards vegans/animal cruelty activists/eco-conscious people in a processed form, without eyeballs? “EAT CRICKEN, THE NEW, HUMANE MEAT SUBSTITUTE! TASTES LIKE CHICKEN!”
    Also, the chitin taste could probably be offset by eating things like snails and larvae of various species, which are just kind of… gelatinous. Considering the fact that American backyard snails are all of the edible species (French people brought ’em over to eat, they escaped, drove the native snails out of their ecological niche) it’s definitely highly sustainable, and escargot already has a “classy” reputation. Caterpillars, maybe? Caterpillars seem clean when I think of them, peaceful creatures eating leaves and preparing themselves to become beautiful butterflies. I could never eat a maggot, though. Slugs, but they couldn’t be slimy or look like slugs. Worms. Things like that, all of which must absolutely not look anything like its original source.

    http://kamrynthewanderer.wordpress.com/

    January 20, 2015
  4. I have a hard time with the idea that, in eating an insect, I’m eating it’s digestive tract. Which may still be filled with frass.

    January 20, 2015
  5. solsdottir #

    It’s basically an “I dare you” food. Although those of us in northern Canda might enjoy a revenge on the mosquitoes and black flies if there was any way of making them palatable.

    April 20, 2015
    • Ha! I agree entirely about the mosquitoes.
      -Sarah

      April 21, 2015

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