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.

Many countries already are "entomophagous," feeding on bugs such as beetles, mealworms, and grasshoppers as a culinary delight: 36 African countries, 23 in the Americas, 29 in Asia, and 11 in Europe, National Geographic reports.

Even if Americans can overcome their mental aversion, it will take a bit more to make insect consumption a viable alternative that you can find in the aisles of supermarkets. Torres includes perspectives from farmers and scientists in his TechKnow episode to investigate exactly how this industry might grow wings.

“I think it starts with a heavy investment in the infrastructure,” he says. “The technology in a cattle farm, compared to a cricket farm, is way more advanced and streamlined. Insect farming just doesn’t have the market right now. If the industry got the investment and stayed in contact with the FDA, it would absolutely do well.”

Insect food in the U.S. remains a niche industry, for the time being.

The Audubon Natural Institute in New Orleans offers an interactive dining experience in which the public can watch as chefs prepare insects, then sample at a bug buffet. It was here that Torres tried—and enjoyed—sautéed dragonflies. In the spring and summer time, traffic through the Audubon has them producing 10,000 bugs a week for patrons to consume according to Zack Lemann, an entomophagist at the Audubon Insectarium.

Hotlix, a California candy and snack manufacturer, offers insect lollipops, and an assortment of chocolate covered bugs. For the more athletically inclined, a Salt Lake City company, Chapul, makes cricket energy bars.

“I love seeing people in the emerging industry right now approaching it pragmatically—making cricket flour or protein bars,” Torres says.

“One-hundred grams of crickets has about 13 grams of protein and only 120 calories,” Torres explains. For comparison, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 100 grams of chicken has 24 grams of protein, but 219 calories.

There are ethical arguments for eating insects, too, Torres says. “You can kill them humanely by slowly freezing them. They go to sleep. I’ve noticed when talking with vegetarians that some are open to eating insects. The issues they have with ethics and the environmental factors, you get rid of them with insects.”

To convince people to eat bugs, Torres suggests starting young. “Get kids to eat chocolate covered crickets,” he advises. “They get really excited by it. The kids love them. They taste good. Every once in a while you get a cricket leg in your tooth, that is a little weird. But cricket flour, I can see that being on an aisle in Whole Foods in the next 10 years. No reason why not, it’s super healthy.”