If the thought of eating insects makes your skin crawl, you’d actually be in the minority.
Entomophagy, or the use of insects as food, is commonplace across four continents and it’s reported that over half the world’s population eat them as part of their regular diet.
In Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America people have been eating creepy crawlies for thousands of years. But the same question keeps bugging us:
Why don’t we eat insects in the West, and how long will it be before we catch up with the rest of the world?
The sight of an insect on the dinner table would have most Europeans and North Americans hopping mad.
But this is understandable given the way public perception has been shaped over the years.
Agricultural communities, built on sowing grain and rearing cattle, grew to see insects as a pest that would ruin their crops and threaten their livelihood. Down the centuries, this distaste morphed into a belief that insects were inherently dirty and had no place in our sophisticated diets.
Let’s face it - with their unsightly antennae, bulbous black eyes, and multitude of legs, who in their right mind would eat such a thing?
Well, anyone who’s ever slurped the meat out of a lobster claw, or crunched the head off a tiger prawn might need to reconsider their answer…
The idea that insects cannot be eaten is something that we have learnt over time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t unlearn it.
After all, some of our most revered ancestors had a serious craving for critters. Roman aristocrats used to dine on beetle larvae grown on flour and wine, and lets not forget this passage from the Old Testament:
“You may eat insects that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper.”
Who needs milk and honey, when you can have whatever katydids are.
With over 1400 different species of insect appearing on menus around the world, it makes us start to wonder - what have we been missing out on all these years?
During the Spring rains in Ghana, winged termites are caught and sautéed to be served as snacks. They are also commonly ground into a powder and made into a nutrient rich flour for bread.
In Cambodia, brined and deep fried tarantulas became hugely popular during the famines caused by the Khmer Rouge regime. Known for their crunchy exterior and sweet tasting meat, demand for this local delicacy continued long after the famine was over and are sold across the country to this day.
But arguably the most well known destination for edible arthropods is Thailand, with its market stalls filled with insects of all different shapes and sizes.
Locals and tourists flock to buy bags of these bugs - from salty deep-fried crickets (think corn nuts with legs!), to silkworms stir fried in soy sauce and kaffir leaves (think tofu with a head!).
If we’re honest, the idea that the children of the future will rush to the dinner table after hearing “Your mealworms are ready!” seems… remote . But as the future begins to look more and more choppy, insects might prove to be a life raft for millions around the world.
The global population looks set to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, and finding a reliable source of food for all those people will be no easy task.
In 2020, a whopping 75% of all agricultural land is used to rear livestock, and that’s not to mention how inefficient this process is.
From every 10kg of feed, you get 1kg of beef, but if you compare this to raising crickets for example, you only need 1.7kg of feed for the same return.
And while we're weighing things - for every human on the planet there is around 2000kg of insects! That means the total weight of all the bugs out there is around 70 times larger than all the humans, a fact that we cannot continue to ignore when looking for ways to combat global malnutrition.
Some western companies are cashing in on this potential, and new insect farms are popping up across the United States and Europe. Businesses such as the Texas based Aspire, have invested millions into robotic feeding systems and pin-point climate control to grow their crickets as quickly as possible, and this huge investment is just a sign of things to come.
But besides profit as a motivation, the biologist Marcel Dicke made this prophecy in a speech about the benefits of entomophagy over a decade ago:
“The animals we eat share similar DNA to us and can share diseases with us as a result… viruses then combine and create new deadly viruses." Sound eerily familiar? Well he went on to add this - "But because insects are so distantly related to us - this does not happen."
So for all those kids that are facing the prospect of another coronavirus lockdown - I bet those mealworms are starting to sound pretty good...