By Tara O'Neill
For many of us the song of crickets is a pleasant sign of summer, but having them served up on a plate, for most westerners at least, quickly erases any feelings of joy. But why is the idea of eating insects so quickly dismissed by so many of us? And why are we still talking about it?
We have all seen food prices rise over the last few years and meat particularly can strain the purse strings. Animal proteins however provide vital amino acids and minerals, including calcium, iron and zinc, which are difficult to get from a vegetarian diet.
The flexitarian diet, with its reduced meat consumption, has been a growing trend, adopted for reasons of health, environment and wallet. But eating insects, known as entomophagy, has yet to take off as a mainstream public trend, despite clear benefits for our health and the environment.
Cricket Versus Cow
So how does the humble cricket, a perfectly edible food already widely farmed around the world, compare to the mighty cow? Weight-for-weight, crickets and beef are roughly comparable in terms of the nutrients they provide, but when it comes to the environment, crickets are a clear winner.
Beef production requires huge swathes of land, either for grassy pastures or growing grains for feed and even barns take up a significant amount of land on the farm. Insects on the other hand are perfectly happy munching and growing in simple crates that can be stacked on top of each other; think sprawling suburban two-story housing estates compared to skyscrapers.
Crickets are also far more efficient at turning plant proteins, including grains, into animal proteins we can eat. Only 2 kg of feed is needed to produce a kilo of edible cricket, while 25 kg of feed would be needed to produce a kilo of beef. There is less waste too, with 80% of a cricket’s body being edible (and palatable) compared to just 40% of a cow.
Crickets also need only a fraction of the water used by cows, and contribute far less to the emission of green house gases, such as methane.
You may see a pattern beginning to emerge here…
Insect farming would use less of our valuable resources and contribute far less to the driving of climate change. But there is a major barrier standing above all others to the widespread adoption of entomophagy (insect eating) in Britain.
The Yuck Factor
In the West, eating insects is just not something most of us have grown up with; it is not part of our culture. On the whole, we don’t like insects. Creepy crawlies do just what they say on the tin. But what if the tin said something different? Something not instantly associated with negative feelings, but something that could entice curiosity to taste this new food?
It is well know that first impressions are everything. Had insects appeared on the supermarket shelves with an elegant serving suggestion on the packet, our first impression could have been so much different. But alas, for many our introduction to this exotic delicacy came from celebrities in the jungle biting the heads off raw locusts.
Eating a raw locust is almost as bad as raw chicken.
No one would consider eating a pink drumstick, yet chicken is rarely considered repulsive. Likewise, the majority of insects would not be palatable raw, but roasted, toasted or grilled they have a delicate, almost nutty, flavour.
Substituting meat with insects in everyday dishes can introduce these protein-packed power foods with minimal disruption to the daily diet; disguising insects within familiar flavours.
While our attitude towards insects is undoubtedly a major stumbling block when it comes to insects featuring in the weekly shop, for those of us open to the idea there is another hurdle: access.
Insect based foods are rarely found on the shelves. Countries and cultures in which insects feature regularly in the diet are those often in warmer regions, with lots of clean, easy to catch, veg-eating insects. But under the cloudy British sky no opportunity to sweep such a bounty from our fields exists. The bug-eating Brit must instead resort to farming them oneself, or turn to the web.
As with all that is weird and wonderful, an array of dried, roasted and seasoned insect products can be purchased online, but they come at a price. The relative novelty and speciality in the few producers of ‘human grade’ edible insects have kept prices up. For now.
With increasing pressure on agriculture from climate change and growing populations, we should keep the idea of insects as food at least in the back of our minds. And when the time is right, they will start appearing more and more on our plates.
For an excellent, in depth account of insect eating, entomophagy, see the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation report, Edible Insects.