The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) wants us to eat insects. The international agency recently reported that there are more than 1,400 species of recorded edible bugs. It turns out that many varieties are rather nutritious. A serving of grasshoppers, for instance, provides nearly the same amount of protein as ground beef. And insects can be farmed more inexpensively, on much less land and using less water.
First, there was the “green revolution” (industrialized farming), starting in 1940s. Then there was the “blue revolution” (aquaculture) hitting its stride in the 1990s. Now, will there be a “creepy, crawly revolution”? (I can’t think of an appropriate color.)
As the global population continues toward the 9 billion mark in 2050, the FAO sees insect farming as a viable move toward not only feeding the hungry, but feeding the general population as well. But getting finicky Americans and Europeans to digest bugs does pose a significant challenge. According to entomologist Gene DeFoliart: “It’s time to take this seriously. Once we do, a fly in your soup could come with the chef’s compliments.”
The idea of eating bugs has generated a lot of tongue-in-cheek comments. One man suggested a change in terminology, “Instead of ‘cockroach infestation’ we could say ‘indigenous nutrition supplementation opportunity.’” Another noted that when he first heard of the proposal for eating bugs, “I thought this was the Republican’s justification for cutting back on Social Security.”
Attempts at humor aside, eating bugs is becoming de rigueur in many parts of the world, particularly Southeast Asia and Africa. It is estimated that as many as 2 billion earthlings already eat bugs as a regular part of their diet.
While in Uganda, I observed grasshopper harvesting firsthand. The insect roundup is done at night and the harvesting sites create a rather hellish nighttime scene. There are bright lights to attract the grasshoppers, smoke from fires to disorient them, and corrugated metal panels to coerce them into rusting metal drums.
After the little green devils are collected, their legs and wings are stripped off, and they are then sold by street vendors. This six-legged delicacy is then fried and eaten.
One day in Uganda, a member of our group bought a bag of grasshoppers and gave it to the hotel cooks to prepare. The insects were served with our evening meal. While most of us only tasted the delicacy, the well-to-do hotel owner came over and ate a plateful, stuffing his mouth with both hands.
The ancient Romans and Greeks dined on insects. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle provided some useful tips for eating cicadas: “At first the males are better to eat, but after copulation the females, which are then full of white eggs, [are best].” Pliny the Elder, the first-century AD naturalist, wrote that Roman aristocrats loved to eat beetle larvae reared on flour and wine.
The Old Testament encouraged the consumption of insects (Leviticus 11:22). John the Baptist is reported to have survived on locusts and honey while he endured his desert retreat.
When Utah State University nutritionist R. Gaurth Hansen was asked about the Baptist’s penchant for locusts, he replied, “Insects are not bad; many cultures have adapted themselves to eating insects. That makes more sense nutritionally than it does aesthetically”!
In the mid-19th century, a Pony Express employee in Nevada witnessed a Paiute Indian hunt where the quarry was wingless Mormon crickets. In 1984, while excavating a remote cave in Utah, which had been intermittently inhabited since 3,000 BC, archaeologist David Madsen found the remnants of millions of grasshoppers. Puzzled at first, he soon found bits of grasshoppers in dried human feces nearby, demonstrating that the insects had, in fact, been eaten.
Even science fiction characters have a penchant for bugs. Trekkies should remember that Worf loves gagh, a Klingon delicacy of live serpent worms. (I am assuming here that they are insect larvae.) Gagh has a revolting taste and is eaten strictly for the unique sensation it provides when the live larvae slither down the throat.
Prehistoric, historic, contemporary, and future civilizations have, are, and will enjoy the pleasures of eating insects. But will they catch on in a big way throughout the world?
There are many reasons why insects should become a regular staple in our diets:
Since they don’t waste energy generating their own heat, insects can be four times more efficient than mammals at turning feed into protein
Insects account for fewer greenhouse gases than livestock
Beef requires 15.8 gallons of water per gram of protein; crickets require only 0.8
Crickets are remarkably space-efficient to raise
Throughout human history, most agricultural innovations have involved dominating the natural environment. But entomophagy—the technical term for eating insects and the like--represents a substantial paradigm shift in our way of looking at the earth. Instead of just killing our pests, we eat them.
Hell, we eat pig ears, cow tongue and brains, sheep intestines, frog legs, mussels and snails, Rocky Mountain oysters, and caviar, why not insects? After all, we will be doing it to improve the future of the earth.