Could insect cuisine help solve food insecurity?


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Insect food stall USE THIS PHOTO

Keegan Kearney

In a bustling Thai marketplace, the aroma of traditional street food fills the air and draws hungry shoppers and bar-goers to the sizzle of frying pans generously seasoned with oils and spices. The vendors line their tables with a variety of exotic snack foods and customers exchange baht, the local currency, for plastic bags heaped with fried delicacies to satisfy their craving for a crisp, salty and savory snack to munch on as they go about their shopping or hobble home from a drink with friends.

When the typical American tourist approaches the stand, their first reaction may be one of shock and disgust when they peer into the pan and see a jumble of giant grasshoppers frying in the oil and silkworm pupae speared on sticks. However, if the tourist feels adventurous and allows the vendor to give the snack a spritz of soy sauce and a dash of salt and pepper, they’ve now become privy to a cultural cuisine absent from most markets in western countries— a cuisine that some experts tote as a solution to rising food insecurity.

To be technical, the scientific name for the consumption of insects is entomophagy, but only in western countries would such a description be necessary. For a large number of cultures in East Asia, Africa and South America this is just food, and another way that the hungry populations meet their nutritional needs.

That’s not to say that the practice hasn’t gained traction in western countries; in fact, the number of insect rearing operations in the U.S. is rising as curiosity and environmental concerns inspire entrepreneurs to lay the foundation for a new trend, a new frontier, in western agriculture.  

The benefits of utilizing insects as an agricultural product are extensive. The biggest boon to adopting insects into our food supply is that they are incredibly efficient at reproduction. Multiple generations of full-grown crickets can be bred in a matter of months, and it requires very little space and resources to care for the stock in comparison with the large cattle species that have dominated the farm since the emergence of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.

Insects like crickets and grasshoppers are reported to have a much more efficient feed conversion rate than standard livestock. Feed conversion rates are ratios of the amount of plant feed it takes to feed a livestock animal versus the amount of meat that animal produces. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that it takes roughly 2.5 kilograms of feed to raise 1 kilogram of chicken, 5 kilograms of feed to raise 1 kilogram of pork and 10 kilograms of feed to raise 1 kilogram of beef. In comparison, it takes 1.7 kilograms of feed to raise 1 kilogram of edible cricket mass.

Livestock operations also require an astounding amount of water to operate, especially when you factor in the water used to grow the feed that livestock are raised on. The U.N. Forestry and Agriculture Organization reports that, including water used for grain feed production, it takes on average 2,300 liters to raise 1 kilogram of chicken, 3,300 liters to raise 1 kilogram of pork and 22,000 liters to raise 1 kilogram of beef.

The U.N. predicts that by 2025 1.8 billion people will be experiencing absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world population will be under water stress conditions.

Insects also don’t produce as much methane or ammonia, which both contribute to climate change, as chicken, hog and cattle farms.

According to professor Donald Lewis of Iowa State University’s entomology department, another area of efficiency for insect rearing is that in comparison with confined feeding operations for cattle, insects require much less attention; whereas the behavior of pigs in a pen (or, more likely in today’s operations, individual pigs in an enclosed cell) has to be closely monitored for behavior and physical ailments that will be detrimental to the final product (and of course, the pig), crickets raised in an enclosed bin together are much easier to monitor— there’s a much smaller area to watch, as opposed to an entire warehouse of large animals. Cricket farmers have much less work on their hands than the rancher with hundreds of acres of cows to keep track of.

“In some ways this is a brilliant idea, and it’s catching up with what the rest of the world already does.” Matthew O’Neal, a professor of entomology in Iowa State’s sustainable agriculture department, said.

Ironically, most of O’Neal’s work is in Integrated Pest Management, so he spends more time figuring out how to reduce the presence of harmful insects in farm fields as opposed to raising them. However, he said he’s seen the edible insect trend emerging over the past few years and thinks that increased research in insect-based food production could help us overcome some of the hurdles the planet is expecting in the next few decades.

“There’s long term issues here that I think everyone in agriculture is thinking about and is worried about. The human population is increasing, the demand for agricultural goods is going to be greater and ever more efficient and productive systems are going to be needed,” O’Neal said, “It’s going to be interesting to see if our current diet can meet that demand or if we’re going to have to bring in some novel sources of food like insects.”

Although the idea of an insect farming operation may seem like the dream of a sci-fi futurist, the truth is it’s already happening across the U.S.— including Iowa, known more for its corn than for its crickets.

Becky Herman, a former social studies teacher, was just as skeptical as any other westerner when she and her students viewed a CNN Student News special on farms raising crickets for human consumption. However, after watching the special with different classes throughout the school day, her initial reaction of disgust turned to curiosity, and she started doing her own research.

Realizing both the ecological and entrepreneurial potential, she and her husband bought an old restaurant and founded Iowa Cricket Farmer, a cricket rearing operation in Keystone, Iowa.

“It’s a different way of thinking, and I think a lot of times we kind of get stuck in a rut as far as, ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ This is one of those things that thinks outside of that box and brings in different ideas and things that people hadn’t thought of, at least in our country.” Herman said.

Herman and her husband have entered the ground level of the edible insect industry, taking a chance in the new frontier of insect agriculture. Although they are one of the only licensed operations in Iowa, other farms and retailers of insect products have sprung up across the U.S. in recent years. Iowa Cricket Farmer is certainly not alone in the edible insect market.  

Andrew Brentano, CEO of one of the most successful insect operations in the country, said he thinks the industry is well on its way to becoming a major market force.

Brentano and his team founded Tiny Farms, an agricultural technology company producing food-grade crickets, to streamline the efficiency of insect rearing operations as a solution to the impending environmental crises foreseen by studies on water consumption and land use across the world.

After the beginning of the Syrian civil war, which emerged among tensions stemming from drought and food shortages, Brentano and his colleagues became more aware of the impact that climate change and current means of agricultural production had on every level of human life. They began looking for a solution, and in their research stumbled upon the prospects of insect farming as a way to address some of the majors issues in food sustainability.

“There wasn’t really an industry when we started. We started the company in 2012 based more on an understanding that there was an impending need for these kinds of solutions rather than any sort of market.” Brentano said.

For Tiny Farms, business is booming— in fact, Brentano said that the main problem they are facing in the industry is keeping up with the demand, a problem that Iowa Cricket Farmer also faces. Both operations are searching for ways to increase their output to fill the backlog of orders from distributors. 

However, despite the current demand from niche markets, Professor Lewis pointed out that a major obstacle for any prospective growth in the industry is still reaching the average consumer.

“It turns out, in the Western cultures, we don’t want to eat things that look like insects.” Lewis said.

So far the industry has been able to circumvent the visual aspect by processing the whole cricket into a more palatable form. A quick Google search shows that most of the business for insect operations in the West today, including the customers of Iowa Cricket Farmer and Tiny Farms, is in cricket flour, whole crickets ground up into a fine powder that carries all of the nutritional properties of the cricket while remaining inconspicuous and much more appetizing to the average consumer.

The flour is most often used to fortify baked goods, smoothies and protein bars, hiding all the legs, wings and antennae from the consumer. Although this is a very limiting way to use crickets in comparison with some of the exotic dishes common in other countries, it has created an entry point for insect products in western markets.

“We may never be to the point of some cultures of looking at a plate of cicada nymphs and saying ‘Boy doesn’t that look like a lovely meal?’ but if the ingredients going into a product are not known to us, we’ll probably accept it much better.” Lewis said.

The visual element of insect cuisine still stands in the way of incorporating insect cuisine as other countries do— but why? If insect rearing is so well-accepted in other countries, why do most Americans shudder at the sight of a roasted cricket or a boiled waterbug?

A study from the U.N. Forestry and Agriculture Organization postulates that western people’s unfamiliarity with insects leads is what leads to feelings of disgust and, consequently, moral judgements. To eat what we have generally considered to be vermin or creepy-crawlies invokes a sense of immorality or savagery to audiences raised in cultures unaccustomed to the practice. One only has to look at our media to see how insects became associated with the “foreign”; stories like Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and horror films such as “Arachnophobia” and “The Fly” all showcase arthropods as dangerous, unclean alien creatures to be avoided at all costs.

The stigma around arthropods like crickets, grasshopper and spiders is especially puzzling in the face of some of the West’s more high-end meat products; shrimp, lobster and crab.

“To me, they’re exactly the same,” Erin Hodgson, another entomology professor in the sustainable agriculture department, said. “They’re closely related animals.”

All crustaceans are actually arthropods too, making them much more closely related to a cricket than to a cow. A quick look at the exoskeleton and antennae of a boiled lobster is all it takes to realize that the outward appearance of a cricket really isn’t as exotic as it may seem. Some insects are actually said to have a similar taste to seafood.

According to the U.N. Forestry and Agriculture Organization study, which examines insect agriculture and its applications, insects face a stigma in the West because they haven’t traditionally held a place in large scale agriculture. 

One reason that insect rearing may not have taken off with the rearing of other livestock at the beginning of the Neolithic agricultural revolution is that the seasonality of insect breeds in certain areas made harvesting them as a year-round food source unsustainable. Insects also don’t have as many applications as beasts of burden or sources of raw material for products like leather and wool, making them less versatile in the ancient societies that laid the groundwork for western farm practices.

Food plays a huge part in the recognition of one’s culture, and since the western tradition has never called for the culinary application of insects, it becomes instinctively offensive to most beef-fed Americans. However, with the rise of the $33 million edible insect industry, the crunch of a roasted and seasoned cricket may become yet another familiar sensation in the American palette.

Although the introduction of insect products as a supplement to the protein intake of western nations would reduce the demand for meat products and provide more efficient operations for producing feed for livestock animals, it may be unrealistic to plan on any major changes to the staple western diet in the near future— most people probably won’t replace their steak with a serving of crickets.

However, with the rise of niche restaurants like Don Bugito in California, which serves an array of artisan ento-meals such as chili-lime crickets and toffee brittle mealworm ice cream, it may only be a matter of time before legs, wings and antennae become accepted into the West’s mental conception of what a meal can be.