This is my last editorial at the helm of the Ecologist. After four years here – and a little over twelve months in the hot seat – the time has come for me to take my leave. During those four years the Ecologist has tackled some extraordinarily thorny stories: GM crops; so-called sustainable biofuels; aviation; the toxic waste dumping scandal courtesy of Monsanto at Brofiscin quarry in Wales... the list goes on (and is available in our online archive).
The Ecologist hasn’t always been easy reading, even for those for whom it seemed like a natural choice – our meat issue in particular aroused a storm of controversy. But I firmly believe that part of being an environmentalist should mean repeatedly questioning your own beliefs too – in a world in which new research and updated information comes as thick and fast as we now expect it to, nothing but the most basic principles of ecology should be held sacrosanct.
And so it is that I hope you will allow yourself to be challenged by Kurt Hollander’s overview of the impacts of eating insects in this month’s issue. Let’s be honest with ourselves –for most westerners, it’s not an attractive thought. But our initial disgust is a useful reaction, as long as we let ourselves explore why we feel that way. For starters, it does seem that it might be a peculiarly western response – other cultures have been happily chomping on multi-legged prey for centuries without a qualm.
Plus, the end product for squeamish modernites need not necessarily look anything like an insect: after all, what we should ultimately be interested in is the protein it contains, not whether you can carve the roasted hindquarters in front of your in-laws on a Sunday afternoon. And the ecological and social justice imperatives behind broadening our sources of protein become more pressing by the day.
What we will see in the coming decades is not so much a fight for food – producing sufficient basic carbohydrates should never be beyond the scope of any civilisation – but a fight for protein as the less-industrialised world increasingly develops a taste for what the rich world has enjoyed in abundance for centuries. Clearly, current models of livestock production are unsustainable, and extensive organic options would produce much lower yields than at present. Other sources of protein are problematic too – aquaculture, whilst it can be done sustainably, has been dogged by marine pollution stories for years.
Of course, we can produce sources of vegetable protein sustainably (soya monocultures notwithstanding) and we should continue to incorporate into our diets as much as we can from beans, pulses, nuts and seeds. But, whilst we might hope for it, expecting to world to turn vegetarian in the time available to tackle climate change is a hopeless aspiration. Substituting intensively-produced animal protein with a more sustainable alternative, however, might yet have legs. It might even have six legs...