Insect replacement therapy
Perfectly natural protein without the beef
Chocolate covered locusts, courtesy of Archipelago
One Christmas as a stocking filler we bought the kids amber coloured lollies. The twist was each one contained a very black ominous something which included scorpions in one or two. The more revolting and off-putting the better. It was all entirely edible but I don’t remember there being any takers to delve too deep beyond the sweet outer casing. Most sat on shelves next to books or Gameboys until they were finally binned.
The Yuck factor
Outside of Europe and North America, eating insects is common - 2.5 billion people in 113 countries. How about a main course of grasshoppers fried with onions, as in Uganda, followed by tom kati kai mod daeng, ants eggs boiled in coconut milk for dessert; a delicacy in Thailand? The biggest insect eaters are Mexicans and Chapulin (grasshopper) farming is common in some regions.
Let’s not get too squeamish. How many of us have eaten prawns slathered in garlic butter. A ritual which includes removing all of the creature’s armour before feasting on the encased, pupae-sized, sweet meat inside.
As Emillie Filou, Buzzing says, for insects to be a common part of our diet they need to be readily available, easy to use and taste delicious. New food trends take decades to catch-on, think sushi or olive oil with everything. Neither were an overnight success. Perhaps the immediate urgency of climate change and needing to act now will prove to be more of a catalyst. It also needs to be supported by lots of readily available information.
A quick test
I decided to do some quick research and see whether any London restaurants are offering insects on their menus?
The Greyhound Cafe, an up-market Thai fusion establishment in W1, was serving a green salad with deep-fried silkworm pupae which you drown in a soy wasabi dressing. I couldn’t find it on their menu and the article was 2 years old.
Archipelago also in W1 still talks about chilli and garlic locusts or meal worm faux caviar. They also serve zebra, which suggests that more unusual food is their raison d’être.
What about supermarkets? Sainsbury’s made the headlines in November 2018 for stocking, smoky bbq crunchy roasted crickets, but a search on their web site only reveals cricket cigarette lighters now.
Where I found edible critters in abundance was at Eat Grub, the original superfood. Their web site is very compelling. It’s easy to understand why we need to wean ourselves off meat to indulge in this amazingly efficient protein source. I was also reminded recently (again) that it would be sad to take the pleasure out of eating purely for efficiency’s sake while watching The Matrix, (science fiction, Keanu Reeves). Keanu and his mates were forced to eat cold, tapioca style slop, perfectly balanced for human consumption. But then they were fighting a deadline with some ruthless machines and inscrutable software programmes.
Why eat icky critters?
One of the most compelling reasons must be because we eat them already, just not here. It means that a cultural precedent exists which could be fast-tracked like other foods the west has fallen in love with.
Insects are also a complete protein which means they contain all 9 essential amino acids and important minerals. Mealworms, for instance, provide the equivalent amount of protein, vitamins and minerals as fish and meat. Grasshoppers have less fat per gram than lean minced beef but pack the same protein punch. Insects only generate 1 gram of greenhouse gas, per kilo of protein. Even a chicken produces 300g of gas and I suspect you were expecting a cow to be a trouper at nearly 3,000g. Cows are also thirsty and need thousands of litres of water and lots of feed. Insects eat a lot less, need virtually no water and can be grown anywhere in the world.
70% of the world’s cultivatable land is used for traditional meat production today. Insects can be farmed vertically and need 13 times less room than a cow for 1 kilo of protein.
Eating insects, or entomophagy, can be traced back to the first century, when Roman aristocrats used to snack on beetle larvae. But perhaps the thought of a plate of crispy grasshoppers in a Szechuan sauce is still far too real for many of us? It might be full of protein but it still looks remarkably like something with legs last seen in a field. If we’re not going to eat them, what about feeding them to the animals which we do want to eat?
In July 2020, Nando’s announced that its chickens were going to be fed algae and insects as part of a trial to reduce carbon emissions. By reducing their reliance on soya bean, a common food source for chickens, they will be helping to sustain the world’s forests. Deforestation for soya bean plantations is only second to clearing woodland for beef cattle.
Perhaps they’ve enlisted the help of Cambridge University start-up Better Origin and its X1, an insect farm in a shipping container which converts food waste into insects using black soldier fly larvae which chickens love. It’s already been tested successfully on UK chicken farms. The 10 million tonnes of food that the UK wastes every year, could now be used to feed a long term, sustainable process.
The less fortunate
Insects offer a sustainable food source and could ensure food security for the world’s continued population growth. Pilot studies have already happened in undernutrition-afflicted countries like Congo. School children were given biscuits which contained 10% cricket powder, (Homann et al., 2017). Dietary protein has also been used in Nigeria using edible insects such as moth caterpillar, crickets and grasshoppers, (Oibiokpa et al., 2018).
Because farming can be undertaken in a closed, indoor environment, food is available on an all year round basis. Animal welfare is also considered to be high because many insect species live in large groups in small amounts of space so farming schemes are close to natural conditions.
Insects in space
Because insects can be farmed in almost any setting, they could be an ideal food source for space travellers. In Beijing, 3 astronauts were locked up for 105 days subsisting happily on a diet of meal worms for all their protein requirements. It’s already been proven that insects can reproduce in space so a likely partner for flights to Mars. Aside from the protein hit, they will also be used for recycling and producing fertiliser.