Eating bugs could save the planet. But can we stomach it?

Swapping cows for crickets would be a boon for the planet. But can environmentalists convince consumers to embrace insects as food?

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
Cornbread stuffing with mealworms appeared as part of a 2011 Thanksgiving-inspired meal featuring foods made with insects at the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans.

Between global warming’s rising tides and scorching droughts, industrial pollution, and a population predicted to reach 9 billion within the next few decades, keeping all of us fed poses a challenge. Scientists agree that the developed world’s current diet is unsustainable: our love of meat, in particular, simply requires too much land, grain, and water.

Many researchers say they just might have a solution. Their idea? Entomophagy: eating insects. But the biggest challenge, of course, is convincing consumers to swap meatloaf and bacon for fried mealworms and chocolate-covered crickets.

Charlotte Payne, a researcher at the University of Oxford, may have figured out the recipe for persuasion: storytelling. In an interview with TakePart's Sarah McColl, Ms. Payne, who studies insect-eating cultures around the world, describes how she borrowed the Slow Food movement’s philosophy of “taste education” to entice revelers at Wales’ recent Green Man Festival to try grasshopper brownies and cricket fudge.

Once you know the traditions and stories that go into a dish, she told Ms. McColl, "eaters can learn to value the social importance of food – any food."

Take wasps, for example. Though our normal instinct is to run away and not to pop one in our mouths, wasp-hunting is a Japanese tradition that combines family fun with dinner prep, not so different from clam-digging or fishing. There’s no guarantee of avoiding stings, of course, but Payne says that element of danger increases the appeal, particularly for some youngsters who need help getting over the ‘yuck’ factor.

For now, advocates like “Bug Banquet UK,” who organized the event at Green Man, stick to gentle persuasion. Eventually, however, some scientists caution that, unless we go vegetarian, we may not have a choice about putting larvae or bees on the menu.

As Time magazine has reported, nearly one-third of all land is dedicated to raising livestock: the cows, pigs, and poultry that have become an ever-increasing percentage of the Western diet

The problem? Meat just isn’t efficient, nutritionally or environmentally. Animals take up more than land; they consume vast amounts of grain and water – 30 percent of all fresh water, by Time's count – that could otherwise nourish people directly. What’s more,  livestock produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

For every ten kilograms of grain (roughly 22 pounds), we have a choice, Bug Banquet claims: do we produce one kilogram of beef or pork, or nine kilograms of locust meat? With rising oceans decreasing the amount of arable land, and population growth still headed upwards, relying on meat may someday be not just irresponsible, but impossible. Even the UN is concerned: worries about food security led them to co-host an “Insects to feed the world” conference in 2014, after publishing an entomophagy report in 2013.  

Understanding the issues, though, can only go so far: for now, consumers need to be persuaded to like bugs, not just grudgingly taste a few. Writing about cricket-flour protein bars in 2013, New Yorker writer Silvia Killingsworth argued that bugs needed their “sushi moment – the normalization and subsequent integration” of a food other cultures have been enjoying for centuries. 

So, did the Bug Banquet win any converts? The group plans to follow-up with some of its 5,000 taste-testers to see how their views, and diets, shift over time. Payne expresses optimism: compared to several years ago, fewer people think she’s “crazy,” she told TakePart magazine. 

It’s a start. As Bug Banquet tells its donors, “we hope that more people will be finding a fly in their soup on purpose.”

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