Should we eat insects or people in the future?

Waiter, there’s no fly on my menu. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)

Just before Thanksgiving I joined a somewhat different celebration, a “Bugsgiving” party at Wesleyan University, where Chef Joseph Yoon of Brooklyn Bugs served up six types of insects prepared in ten flavorful ways. I ate a marinated scorpion; crickets and mushrooms on toast; cicada nymph kimchi, cricket mashed potato bombs, plus a whole bunch of sweets: grasshopper blueberry muffins, cricket caramel popcorn, black ant chocolate bark, and mealworm chocolate brownies (actually the best brownies I’d ever eaten, minus the mealworms).

I won’t lie, while it was a fun experience, I did get a little queasy. I’ve eaten a decent number of bugs before (of several species),1 and can proudly say I even collected and cooked up a couple hundred cicadas and served them to several dozen hesitant students from around the world.2 But whether it was the quantity or the fact that many were baked into sugary desserts, I felt a bit sick to my stomach afterward. Though perhaps it was simply the disgust factor. It turns out that eating a couple bugs to make a point is a lot different than eating several dozen as part of a buffet!

My son, Ayhan, joined me, and his reaction mirrored mine: as he would try to eat one his throat would close. I had to put on a brave face to help nudge him along, but my throat tried to do the same. Ayhan did taste all of the offerings though (except the one containing his nemesis, the mushroom)—and I was proud of him for doing so.

The lifecycle of the Brood X Cicada. (Photos from Gadi Kenny and Guilherme Cunha Ribeiro, 2004)

While people in 80 percent of the world’s nations eat insects, according to Chef Yoon,3 it still is hard to imagine Americans (and many other westerners) making the shift anytime soon (other than eating neutered forms of bugs like cricket protein powder).

Instead we pursue highly processed food transitions, like Impossible Burgers and {gag} soy milk,4 and even cloned meat. I bet many Americans would feel more comfortable eating cells grown in a vat than little crickets staring up at them.

But highly processed fake meats are a sustainability fiasco, and compared to growing veggies and legumes (and even neighborhood livestock and even factory farmed bugs), have got to be a far less sustainable path (not to mention the less healthy path as well—including for your gut microbiome).5 This recent New York Times article explores the lack of transparency so far in the fake meat industry: while the total footprint remains unclear, between the intense processing, extended supply chain, and sheer number of ingredients, it can’t be great!

But even if fake meat were more sustainable than growing lentils and soybeans (though I’m not sure how it could be as those are some of the building blocks of that “food”), is this how we want to experience food, and the planet? The industrialized food experience is a dehumanizing, Earth-disconnecting one. No longer can we connect to what our food once was, or the local farmer who grew it, no longer can we use our own bodies and minds to transform raw ingredients into delicious meals. Instead we put a pre-processed bolus of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, salts, and flavor additives into the microwave and then into our mouths.6

Frankly those components could be made to taste like anything (just as corn is made to taste like thousands of different snacks, cereals, desserts, and drinks). They could even be made to taste like people. For example, this Halloween, the Swedish fake meat company Oumph! produced a video for a special limited time burger (sold from a food truck in Stockholm) that supposedly tastes like human meat. Yes, a clever marketing stunt—or plot of a bad horror film7—but also quite gross and definitely blurring of the line between what is and isn’t culturally acceptable (you know, cannibalism, and all).

Just in time for Halloween…. or the post-apocalyptic future we’re all rushing toward.

Eating People?

In the 2012 sci-fi film, Antiviral, the story starts with people buying meat made from celebrities (from their cloned cells). That’s not cannibalism either, I guess, as no one died to make that meat, but it’s awfully close! (And with the cult of celebrity thriving, I bet millions would really be willing to pay for a chance to eat a bit of Kim Kardashian.)8 And what’s stopping other entrepreneurs from doing the same with endangered, even extinct, species? And couldn’t that spark an interest in the real thing, leading to the hunting of those animals?

I’m not trying to be an alarmist—in fact I don’t know if I really even care if people eat Kardashian meat (as long as no one is hurt in the process). The bigger point of using words to weave these two disparate food trends together is to recognize that there are some trends that bring us closer to nature, and others that add another sheet of saran wrap to our ever expanding plastic isolation bubble (a bubble that is breaking down and spewing microplastic into the environment faster than we can build it).

So, yay for bugs, even if it’s gonna take a generation or two to get used to them. And even more yay for local farmers and community cooking classes and prescriptions for vegetables and all the other efforts to help retrain people in the lost art of combining healthy ingredients using the magic of heat into tasty meals. But forget the fake meat and the cloned meat. Those are dead end paths that require high-tech industrialization (a temporary state of affairs) and continue to sustain the myth that we’re separate from nature: gods who can transform fossil fuels into life.9 Instead, let’s start figuring out the bug thing—in their natural not powdered form. And one day perhaps we’ll grow them in every household.10 Or if you’d rather stick to gardening, that’s ok too. Please just skip the basement cell cloning workstation.

Not yet. But one day perhaps…. (Image crafted from the CloneSelect Single Cell Printer, via moleculardevices.com)

Endnotes

1) I started with grasshoppers when launching State of the World 2010, sharing those with the audience. I added crickets, mealworms, cicadas, silkworm caterpillars, and ant eggs to the list over time.

2) The Brood X in 2004 but sadly not this year.

3) And, according to this journal study, 130 countries comprising of 3071 ethnic groups. It’s not surprising considering insects are filled with lots of nutrients, proteins, fats, and are readily available, making eating bugs a healthy, sustainable, and resilient dietary choice.

4) Now, looking on the web, homemade ‘milks’ don’t seem that bad (like this recipe for oat milk). But if you’re buying it in a store, the odds are there’s a bunch of added oils, flavors, sugars, stabilizers, and preservatives. But ultimately, why bother liquefying oats in the first place? Why not just eat a bowl of oatmeal?

5) That’s right. This NOVA documentary on entomophagy, “Edible Insects,” explores how eating bugs improves gut microbiome health and reduces inflammation. One more reason to make the dietary shift. And for more on the microbiome, visit here.

6) That’s not to say you can’t enjoy these sometimes intentionally. As Neil Postman notes in Amusing Ourselves to Death, TV for escape is fine, if that role is clear (so comedies, dramas, action movies, etc.). It’s when the shows pretend to be informative and educational, or in food’s case, healthy and sustainable, that the problems arise.

7) “Wow! Isn’t this food truck great? How can they sell their burgers so cheap? Mmmm. And they’re so rich and juicy! I wish Sven was here. Where is Sven anyway?”

8) And if you don’t believe me, click this link. Warning: not for the faint of heart. I found it while reading this Smithsonian Magazine article describing what human meat might taste like. I hope that first story isn’t real, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.

The fish is as scared as I am….

9) As many have noted, with our industrial agricultural system, that’s pretty much what we’re doing. We use oil to manufacture and run the farm equipment, to make the pesticides and fertilizers, to process and ship the food—mainly generated from just a few different crops: corn, wheat, soy, and rice.

10) Household insect production is common in many parts of the world and is a good way to convert food waste into food and increase household food security. A final note: many will argue that industrially processed insect powder is good, because at least that way people are eating insects. But that just sustains the industrial diet. I’m not against drying and grinding bugs for recipes, but as the NOVA documentary points out disgust is more nurture than nature. Once we get through the first waves of cultural shift (look to sushi as a case study) that’ll be that. Fortunately no one ever tried to sell powdered sushi.

Share this Reflection:

4 Responses

  1. Bart Everson

    I do think there is a strong argument to be made for plant-based “milks” over dairy milk, based on environmental impact: land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t you?

    • Erik Assadourian

      It’s strange, but I react more viscerally to soy milk than I do to bugs! Why? Because I can’t imagine how it’s made, how unnatural fake milks are. Giant machines pureeing soybeans, adding additives, etc. I grant that if you make them at home they’re probably fine. But as I note, why not just eat oats, or almonds, or fermented soybeans then (which are better for you anyway)? If it’s for a specific use, such as eating cereal or drinking coffee, I kind of get that, but then why not just switch to black coffee or oatmeal (the latter is easier than the former probably) and do away with “milk” altogether. And if you use it for cooking, perhaps there is a natural alternative there too? I admit that we use a bit of cow’s milk–for coffee and for making kefir and a bit for cooking, and I’m not quite ready to give it up, even though I recognize it’s unsustainable. But I can’t bring myself to drinking processed “milks” instead. But this is a good prompt to get me to shift more to oatmeal again and drink less coffee, and more of it black. Thanks for the question, Bart!

  2. Stefanie

    I think I will keep to my vegan ways and let my chickens eat the bugs.

    As to soymilk and other non-dairy milks, if you make them at home you avoid all the additives. We make our own soymilk from organic soybeans–add water, cook, puree, strain out the bean mash and that’s it. We save the bean mash to add into things like pancakes and muffins, or give it to our chickens. The milk and the mash are high in protein. When making a recipe that calls for milk, there really is no substitute. You need something thicker and creamier than water or your recipe will not work. We also make hazelnut milk sometimes as a treat; it’s great for hot chocolate in winter or a cold carob drink in summer.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Those sound much better. Thanks for sharing those details. Maybe I’ll try to make some hazelnut milk when we make hot chocolate!

Leave a Reply to Erik Assadourian Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.