Not Your Average Grub: Why we need insect-based food

by matthay44

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We all know the impact animal agriculture has on our planet. We all know it’s unsustainable. The methane emissions, the deforestation for pastureland, the vast quantities of grain grown to feed the animals we slaughter all combine to make the consumption of meat one of the most environmentally damaging practices we undertake as individuals. If all 7.2 billion people on earth ate as much meat as western societies, our planet would unravel, both ecologically and climatically, before the end of this century. We all know this.

Unfortunately, despite the clarity of the problem, the solution could not be less visible. How are we to combat a millennia-old human tradition, a deeply entrenched free-market ideology and a global infrastructure committed to the everlasting creation (and destruction) of animals for meat? We can’t, surely? There is no way that every individual is going to voluntarily become vegan, no matter the weight of the evidence they encounter. Equally, there isn’t a single western government that will dare to impose the environmental cost of animal agriculture on the industry itself, let alone attempt to police their electorates’ diets.

Like fast-fashion, aviation and fossil fuels, it appears meat-production will continue to externalise its environmental costs ad infinitum; the rest of society (and future societies) will have to foot the bill.

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Now, hopefully I am wrong, my pessimism is unfounded and we do in fact square up to the true impact of animal agriculture in the near future. But confronting this issue will not  be straightforward; it will require a radical cultural shift in our attitudes to food.

Importantly, we’re going to have to source much of our protein from lower down in the food chain, to limit the energy lost between the trophic levels of organisms. This doesn’t mean that everything we consume must come from plants though, far from it. Undoubtedly, plant-based foods will have a large role to play in paving the way to a truly sustainable 21st century diet, but veganism is not the panacea that it is sometimes purported to be; many of the staples of a vegan diet such as chickpeas, lentils and soya are grown far away, in much warmer climes, and the latter in particular is a huge driver of tropical deforestation (though much of it is, admittedly, grown to feed livestock).

No, animals will have to feature in our dietary equation, just perhaps not in the quantities we currently stock and perhaps not in the species we currently keep either; the rise of pisciculture in recent decades is an example of how our farming is changing. Unfortunately, even eating fish in the 21st century is fraught with environmental issues. Until fish-farms can be moved onto land and their stock fed on a plant-based diet, the rearing of fish for our consumption will continue to pollute the sea and endanger the populations of wild fish and krill that are made into aquaculture’s staple food, fishmeal.

So what then? If not mammals, fish or birds, what can we rear sustainably and in the quantities required to feed 7.2 billion people? The answer: INSECTS.

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Already eaten by close to 2 billion people worldwide, insects have been a staple part of the human diet since prehistoric times. The only really surprising fact about people eating insects, or ‘entomophagy’ as it is sometimes called, is that we don’t do more of it. If different animal groups’ suitability as a (sustainable) food source were turned into a game of top trumps, the insects card would be the gem of all gems. Let me walk you through a few of the vital statistics…I challenge you to find nothing in the next paragraph that appeals to you:

For the eco-warriors reading this, you’ll be pleased to know that insects generate only 1% of the greenhouse gas emissions of beef production, as well as taking up very little space and requiring almost no water. For those of you who hate waste, you’ll be delighted to discover that 80% of the body of most edible insects can be consumed, compared with just 55% for chickens and 40% for cows and pigs. For the gym monkeys out there, insects pack more protein per gram than either chicken or beef. They also contain similar levels of B vitamins to the latter and are as rich in Omegas 3 and 6 as fish! If you’re worried about iron then you’ll be reassured to know that many insects, such as crickets, contain twice as much of this metal as conventionally iron-rich foods like spinach. Needless-to-say, insects also grow very much faster than birds and mammals and can reproduce rapidly, and in enormous quantities.

Given these compelling stats it’s hard to fathom why insects aren’t already more widely consumed in the west. The reason of course is that we have strong cultural barriers to eating bugs. Insects are an alien-looking, often feared and generally despised class of organisms that we are normally intent on exterminating from our homes and work places. Welcoming them onto our plates and into our bellies is going to require the shifting of quite a few of our social norms.

I guess the good news is that it is only really these cultural barriers that need to be overcome for us to start munching on crickets until the cows (don’t) come home (and never return). Consequently, I highly recommend challenging yourself to try some insect-based food in the near future. Earlier this year I found a French company, Jimini’s, who turn bugs into snacks and the results are delicious. In fact, I enjoyed their high-protein cricket bars – which look and taste much like a nutri-grain but are packed full of a flour made from ground crickets – so much that I took a whole load of them to the Arctic this spring. Being lightweight, nutritionally valuable and delicious they formed an important part of my team’s diet, helping us to recover from the exertions of pulling a sledge and climbing snowy mountains.

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Me on a frozen fjord in Greenland getting ready for some tasty cricket bar

That’s the crux of this post, really. Buy, try and testify. Not all insect foods look scary or exotic; some just contain a flour or paste made from bugs. Give them a crunch and I have a hunch you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of waiting for our useless governments to legislate change, why not get out there and start driving a shift in our dietary perceptions yourself. If your friends question why you’re eating insects ask them why they aren’t? The science is clear; bugs are better for the planet. Its time to stop being squeamish about our six-legged friends and tuck in!

(P.S. I highly recommend this insect snack from Jimini’s for pure shock factor, next time you have a group of mates round!)