Last year, a report from the Food and Agricultural Organisation advocated the worldwide munching of bugs, providing the fodder on which the media, like a swarm of starving locusts, fed for months.
Unsuspecting readers were confronted with recipes containing grasshoppers, encouraged to skewer caterpillars, to baste beetles, to fry crickets. I hopped on the bandwagon and helped create a TED Education video for kids explaining what entomophagy—this championed, centuries-old practice of eating insects—is all about. (Inside bonus: chocolate-coated mealworms.)
And now, the world’s first international conference on insect eating has just taken place in Ede, in the Netherlands, organised in response to the FAO’s report, and bringing together academics, government officials, and businesses to talk about the use of insects as food, and feed for livestock.
Edible insects represent a more sustainable alternative to farmed meat, and an accessible, high-protein food source for the nine billion-plus who will need food by 2050. Already, over two billion people around the world regularly eat insects; the FAO’s report highlighted the possibility that the West could develop a similar tradition.
But it’s as if the fad has passed. No heightened media frenzy this year, fewer offerings on how to cook your crickets.
This faddism that comes with entomophagy is what Adena Why, an entomologist from University of California, Riverside, is trying to alter. At the conference held last week, she spoke about the tendency in western nations to dismiss insects with disgust, but also to treat entomophagy as a weird, cultural eccentricity that’s worth just one try.
In America and Europe, entomophagy unfortunately slots very easily into what Why calls “the bizarre food movement”; the reserve of the gastro-clubbing set. This bizarrification might initially help bridge the gap between the West and parts of the world that eat insects, she says, but “there’s only so far you can get with that sort of shock factor. Beyond that, you still have to generate the interest, and then you have to morph that into a more sustainable idea.”
The proposed solution? Targeting ‘foodies‘. First described in the 80s, foodies are an economically well-disposed generation of eaters, who seek their fixes in new, unusual eats, and get a thrill from consuming ethically, and ethnically.
This lifestyle is a mash-up of locavorism and the organic food movement, and in the United States is structured around food trucks and pop-up restaurants. It’s competitive too: amongst foodies, there’s status to be earned by sourcing and eating new foods. It’s also a trend that’s comfortably couched in a lot of cash.
It may just sound like an amalgamation of every other food-focused subculture that’s sprung up in the last few decades, but Why feels optimistic that foodies, specifically, can stretch entomophagy beyond the realm of the bizarre and temporary, into something more permanent.
“It’s a very good avenue to just get entomophagy out there, because foodies will spend the money,” she says. Fourteen percent of Americans count themselves as foodies—people who, says Why, “will probably eat the grasshopper that looks like a grasshopper”—so they’re a worthwhile target.
The food-truck culture at the heart of this trend is predicted to rake in around .7 billion by 2017, Why shows in her research. If some of that could be dedicated to entomophagy, it might become one economic driver allowing edible insects, over time, to infiltrate the wider market.
It’s about going top-down, and bottom-up, says Arnold van Huis, the insect conference organiser, an author on the FAO report, and a tropical entomologist from Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
For him, the top-down part comes in the shape of high-end restaurants willing to take the risk and expose their patrons to an insect-studded menu. In this vein, the Nordic Food Lab, established by the head chef of Noma, currently voted the world’s best restaurant, was on site at the conference to serve insect-based snacks to the over 400 attendees.
“On the other hand we also need to think about a bottom-up approach,” says van Huis. “And that is not to present the insects as a whole, but maybe as a flour.” For westerners—increasingly in need of healthier, more sustainable protein, but perhaps less fond of feelers and legs—making insects unidentifiable in food is now recognised as the way to generate more widespread acceptance of entomophagy.
Of course, insect protein is about more than human appetite; it’s also about providing more sustainable feed, beyond the more resource-intensive fish meal and soybeans, for livestock. Arguably, right now, this should be the bigger focus. Farming insects for feed is a rapidly growing business, and it’s growing much faster than entomophagy in the West.
Yet, it’s entomophagy that pinpoints the true obstacle: the disconnect between countries that embrace insects as food, and those that do not. The west has long attached a stigma to insect-eating, and both Why and van Huis believe that Westerners, in some ways, now have an obligation to at least consider entomophagy, because of this.
“Ethically, especially as Americans, we have a responsibility not to consume as many resources as we do,” says Why, “and if entomophagy is the way do to it, then the faster we do it the better.”
For van Huis, it’s more of a socio-cultural concern. He’s noticed that in some countries, feeling the ever-mounting western influence, people now equate entomophagy with poverty, instead of a rich, timeless, dietary tradition. “I’ve talked to people who’ve said ‘we now have a certain standard of living and we don’t need insects anymore.'” Often, the replacement diet is a western one.
But at the same time, van Huis says he’s also seeing increased investment in insect farming start-ups, especially in Africa—so perhaps this can be credited, in part, to the growth in global curiosity about entomophagy over the past few years. Future acceptance, whether cultivated via food trucks or an increasingly diverse flour aisle at the grocery store, could give entomophagy greater staying power in the rest of the world.
“I think if in the West we started eating insects, everyone else in the world will think, my god, we’ve been doing this for ages,” says van Huis.
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