Telling someone to eat a bug used to be a bad thing, but not anymore. Now the United Nations thinks we should all be eating bugs. In the recently released U.N. report, Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, the authors point out that by the year 2050, we can expect the world’s current population of 7 billion to grow to 9 billion. That will require our current food production to nearly double. Making that harder are the facts that most of our fisheries are over fished or near collapse, and climate change will make growing traditional crops and livestock increasingly difficult.
Insects may be a nutritious and economical solution to our problems. They’re almost pure protein. According to the Insects Are Food web site, 100 grams of beef contain 23.5 grams of protein, 288.2 calories and 21.2 grams of fat. An equivalent portion of crickets contains less protein by weight, 12.9 grams, but only 121 calories and a mere 5.5 grams of fat. Unlike beef, pork and chicken, though, the fat in insects is unsaturated and therefore better for us. They’re also a good source of iron, riboflavin, niacin, and many other important vitamins and minerals.
Raising insects for food is also better for the environment. The livestock industry is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gasses. Raising cows, pigs and chickens for our tables produces more CO2 and methane than all the world’s cars, busses and trucks combined. Insects produce only a small fraction of that. They also require much less water and food, not to mention land, to raise than conventional livestock. Producing a pound of beef uses approximately 20 times as much food and 1000 times as much water as an equivalent amount of insect protein.
O.K., but bugs? Really? Yes, really. With the notable exceptions of the U.S. and Europe, insects are eaten by people all over the world. Termites and winged ants are considered a seasonal treat in much of Africa. Food vendors in Thailand and Vietnam sell all manner of insectoid snacks on sticks, and Agave worms are in more than just bottles of Tequila. There are even insect recipe books, and innovative chefs all over the country are integrating insect ingredients into haute cuisine.
If the idea of eating something with an exoskeleton still bothers you, just think of all the weird things we already eat. If you like shrimp, take a look at one with its head still on. You’d be hard pressed to differentiate it from something you’d find lurking under a rock in your backyard. Calamari is a nice euphemism, but we all know it’s squid, and Cajun cooking wouldn’t be Cajun without crayfish. Louisiana natives even call them mudbugs. Those of us who live near the Chesapeake Bay, like I do, know the joy of raw oysters, but let’s be honest. No matter how much lemon and hot sauce you put on it; the dish still looks like nothing so much as snot on the half shell.
Don’t worry about insects being dirty or spreading disease either. They’re actually quite clean, and carry fewer human diseases than cattle, pigs or chickens. The other thing to remember is if eating insects was going to cause massive outbreaks of disease, it already would have. The FDA already allows processed foods to be sold if the amount of insect matter in them is under a certain level. Granted, most of that insect matter is too small to be seen, but if you consider all the processed foods we eat, the average American eats between one and two pounds of insects per year. Get over it.
I’m not saying that eating insects is for everyone. It took me years just to get my kids to try sushi, but as our population grows and our climate changes, we’re going to have to look beyond our cultural biases if we’re going to find sustainable solutions. Eating insects is good for us and good for the environment, and I can tell you from personal experience that they’re a lot tastier than you think, so swallow your apprehensions and give them a try.