To Save the World, Eat Bugs

Two billion people worldwide already eat 1,900 insect species. The United Nations hopes that one day Americans will, too. What would it take for that to happen?
A dish that contains grasshoppers at the Corazon de Maguey restaurant in Mexico City (Henry Romero/Reuters)

The average American may have a hard time imagining adding crickets to a stir-fry, but Phil Torres, an entomologist credited with the discovery of several insect species and Al Jazeera America’s newest science correspondent, says he thinks it is only a matter of time before we get over the psychological “ick” factor. Or are forced to because of greater environmental concerns.

Two-billion people worldwide already eat 1,900 insect species as part of their diet according to research by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization done in partnership with Wageningen University in the Netherlands. As that leaves quite a bit of the world’s 7 billion people, eating insects has been offered as a sustainable solution to meet the protein demands of a growing population.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a report last May entitled Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. It advocates for the inclusion of insects in a daily diet, as an alternative to resource-intensive staples like beef, poultry, and fish.

Anticipating the obvious pushback, the report devoted a chapter to theories on why Americans may have a difficult time stomaching the idea of plopping a baked caterpillar in their mouth.

“It is hoped that arguments such as the high nutritional value of insects and their low environmental impact, low-risk nature (from a disease standpoint) and palatability may contribute to a shift in perception,” the report reads.

Torres adds that the conception of bugs as pests contributes to Americans’ distaste for the idea of them as food. “One of the factors is we see insects on a daily basis,” he says. “We see them as a bug on the wall—not as, oh that looks good! But we should be eating bugs to save the world.”

The bug-obsessed scientist made the U.N. report his nighttime reading, and says he agrees with its essential argument: that the world population is slated to hit 9 billion in 2050, having enough arable land for farming will be an increasing concern, and insect farms offer bountiful nutrition at a less environmentally-impactful cost.

“The environmental factor of farming insects is so much lower,” Torres says. “Basically there are no greenhouse emissions, you can feed bugs side product from other industries, you can grow them vertically. You don’t need huge, grazing cattle ground. Theoretically, you could make a towering skyscraper and fill it with different types of insects.”

On an episode of Al Jazeera’s TechKnow, Torres enthusiastically tries sautéed dragonflies and consults with top chefs for easy-to-replicate recipes.

“There is such a diversity to eat, depending on the flavor or method of cooking,” he says. “There’s a bug for you.” Chefs have tried to popularize gourmet bug dishes, but Torres says he hasn’t seen it trickle down much, though he would love to be able to order such a dish on a first date.

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Cayte Bosler is a journalist based in Boulder, Colorado.

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