Would you eat insects for the planet’s sake?
Entomophagy — the technical term to eat insects — is often put forward as a sustainable solution to the problem of how to feed a growing population with fewer natural resources. As healthy and sustainable as they are, can insects make their way into the mainstream of a food culture that has actively excluded them for so long?
Across the food system, scientists, researchers and policymakers are all acutely aware that the population of the planet is on track to be 9 billion by 2050. If the planet is going to accommodate such a large number of people without losing any of the precious biodiversity that is already under threat due to climate change, we are going to need to eat wisely. Diets, particularly energy-intense Western ones as consumed by many Australians, need to evolve to be healthier and more sustainable for the people’s sake as well as the planet’s … And they need to do it fast.
Edible insects are set to play a starring role in this process. Although the idea of eating crickets, ants and mealworms seems novel and niche to modern Western eaters, insects like these have been eaten in Asia, Africa and Latin America and by Indigenous Australians for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. However, since the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations launched their 2013 report Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security there has been an explosion of activity designed to make insects appealing for Western consumers. In fact, in 2018 the global edible insect market was worth around US$1 billion and some reputable forecasters predict it will be worth $8 billion by 2030, if not before.
Big bug business
Interest in edible insects is growing exponentially. One person who has directly witnessed this growth is Skye Blackburn, an insect farmer, entomologist, food scientist and entrepreneur from Western Sydney. She’s been working with edible insects for over a decade and has seen attitudes change significantly over that time.
“When we started in 2007, if we were doing a special event where we were giving out samples it would be like there was a big force field around us. People didn’t want to come near us because they were afraid,” she says. Fast-forward to 2019, when she presented the edible crickets, mealworms and ants she sells under her Edible Bug Shop label in a cooking demonstration on the main stage of the Sydney Royal Easter Show, and she sees very different reactions. People are generally more educated about sustainable food production. They approach her with curiosity, driven by knowledge of the pressures the food system is under.
The most commonly eaten insects are beetles, followed by moths and butterflies, which are mostly eaten as larvae.
They also bring adventurous palates. “They’ve already had that internal dialogue with themselves [about whether or not they might consider eating insects], so it makes it a lot easier to take that step and try insects for the first time,” says Blackburn. And why not? They are, after all, a nutritious wholefood.
There are approximately 1900 edible insect species across the globe. The most commonly eaten insects are beetles, followed by moths and butterflies, which are mostly eaten as larvae. Only three species (the house cricket, the yellow mealworm and the greater mealworm) are permitted to be farmed in Australia. Although the nutrient profile varies between species, insects are generally high in protein, calcium and iron as well as a range of micronutrients vital to human health. They are also good sources of things that our modern diets often lack, like pro- and prebiotics and vitamin K, particularly K2. Some contain vitamin B12 and have a complete amino acid profile which makes them a nutritious substitute for red meat. A tablespoon of cricket powder, for instance, contains 30 per cent of an adult’s recommended daily intake (RDI) of iron, 40 per cent of calcium and all their daily needs of magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, zinc and potassium.
Insects provide this nutrition without some of the environmentally devastating consequences often attributed to other animal agriculture. There’s no need to clear any extra land or bulldoze any rainforests to farm them because they can be grown in climate-controlled labs. They require much less water per kilo to produce than most other protein sources, emit no methane like livestock does and can be fed entirely from food waste. So, in theory, they get big ticks for their environmental sustainability.
Although the nutrient profile varies between species, insects are generally high in protein, calcium and iron as well as a range of micronutrients vital to human health.
There is another benefit to edible insects as a food of the future: their short life cycles mean they can go from farm to fork in a very short time frame. This speeds up the trial and error process when it comes to experimenting with new farming methods and is part of what motivates Skye Blackburn as she develops her growing operation. “When you think about other sources of protein that have had hundreds of years to get the process down pat, we don’t really have that leisure time. We need to be able to do this to be able to support our population now,” she points out.
Recreating a broken system
But Louise Morris urges caution. She is an insect farmer from northwest Tasmania, where she grows crickets and mealworms using the waste from local cafés, winemakers and breweries as well as incorporating them into her own products under her Rebel Food Tasmania label. She worries that in our excitement around edible insects as a sustainable food of the future we risk recreating the problems inherent in the industrial agriculture model.
“That model of industrial agriculture is broken. It requires a lot of chemicals; it damages the soil. It creates nutrient-deficient food. If the edible insect industry is to fulfil the promise we have in terms of being a sustainable and healthy food source and something that can feed us into the future, we need to really make sure we learn the lessons of industrial agriculture.”
From the moment she began farming in 2017, Morris was committed to small-scale, local production and determined to source fresh food waste from the community around her rather than importing powdered meal. Not only does this lower the environmental footprint of her operation because she isn’t participating in the global trade of corn and soy products, it helps her grow healthier food. She explains: “Feeding the insects in this way actually has higher returns for their health and our health as a direct result because they are eating fresh real wholefood, as opposed to some manufactured powdered meal.” It’s not just her saying so; she conducts rigorous lab testing on her insects to understand the exact nutritional benefits of the small-scale way she farms.
Consider the lobster
There is no doubt that edible insects are on the ascendancy in Western food culture. But will there ever be a time when edible insects are served with relish on suburban dinner tables that are more familiar with the meat and three veg staples? Although a handful of supermarkets now stock bars and powders made with cricket protein made by savvy start-ups hoping to win over adventurous, eco-conscious consumers, their appeal is still niche and relies heavily on novelty value. For many people, the “yuck” factor is hard to get over.
It is culture that largely determines whether or not people eat insects, and culture is notoriously stubborn and resistant to change. Our Western diets come from a food culture passed down through Europe that favours animals that can provide meat as well as other benefits like warmth, dairy products, leather, farm work, wool and transportation. Because we don’t have that same tradition with insects, we see them as “dirty”, “disgusting” and devoid of potential deliciousness. But since they can, and arguably should, be eaten, it helps to look to history for guidance about how a change in the collective imagination around eating insects might occur.
One food that has managed to move along that spectrum from disgusting to delicious is lobster. Maine, on the east coast of the USA, is now famous for lobster which has always been plentiful in that part of the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, when lobster was abundant, canneries opened up to process the large crustacean that the coast produced and to ship the canned product around the country. But the lobster flesh that turned pinky-red when cooked was generally seen as “trash” by locals. It was fed to prisoners and pets, but respectable people wouldn’t touch it.
But when enterprising folk realised that the attitude to the food wasn’t connected to an objective response to its flavour, the marketing machine swung into action. Railways saw that they could stock their cross-country trains with Maine lobster and sell it as an exotic product to consumers who were unfamiliar with it. Many people liked the flavour when they didn’t have any preconceptions about it as a poor persons’ food. At about the same time, chefs realised the taste of the lobster was enhanced by cooking it alive rather than dead. So, the same railways that allowed people to try their first taste of lobster were also able to transport lobsters (both canned and fresh) around the country so more people were exposed to and enjoyed the flavour. Of course, once more people got a taste for it, the demand for lobsters outstripped supply which is why now, even in Maine, lobster is one of the most expensive items on the menu and no longer a food for paupers.
Prawns of the sky
It wasn’t just the increased availability of lobster that allowed it to be embraced by the mainstream, and then move to become the delicacy it is today. Shifts in understanding around how to cook the flesh properly — how to create maximum deliciousness when cooking — also needed to take place.
Chefs and culinary leaders are already taking this lead and developing an understanding of edible insects in the mainstream of our food culture, just as farmers like Blackburn and Morris take the lead on the production side. Insects have been part of the menu in high-end restaurants like Sydney’s (now closed) Billy Kwong and Melbourne’s Attica for several years. As a wider variety of insects (including fresh-frozen, freeze-dried and powdered products) become available to home cooks, more people will have access to them as an ingredient to cook with. Perhaps then our food culture will reach a turning point where insects become an accepted ingredient and included on shopping lists because of their nutrition potential rather than just their niche and novel appeal.
According to Morris, understanding crickets as the “prawns of the sky” may well be the key. “Understanding insects in the way we understand small seafood is really where that niche would be. For instance, you handle them in the same way as school prawns. Insects cook up in the same way, and school prawns have a really similar flavour profile to crickets.” In fact, shellfish are so closely related to crickets that people with shellfish allergies are advised against eating them in case of reactions.
A question of hunger
Of course, the other factor that may move us towards eating more insects on a regular basis is hunger. It is, after all, what drives much of the insect consumption in the developing world. People have simply learned to eat insects when they have no other alternatives. As apocalyptic as it feels to imagine such a scenario, there may well come a time when, whether because of over-consumption, over-population, climate change or some other similarly devastating reason, the food systems we have built during our times of plenty collapse and we have to find new ones to support us.
It wouldn’t be the first time that Western culture has done this. Despite being resilient against the idea of insects, Western food culture has managed to incorporate a number of other things that are, on the surface at least, just as objectionable. When considered objectively, a flabby watery-grey oyster or googly-eyed prawn is no less revolting than a cricket, grub or worm.