Feeding insects to livestock delivers many of the environmental benefits of directly consuming them
The other day, at a busy restaurant in the middle of Washington, D.C, I had bugs for lunch. Sitting at a polished table in Oyamel - a high-end Mexican eatery a stone's throw from the Capitol - I was presented with the house specialty: a fresh corn tortilla cradling a fist-sized heap of glistening chapulines, the roasted grasshoppers prized as a delicacy in the Oaxaca region of Mexico.
Reader, I ate them. The carapaces were disconcertingly crunchy, but the taste was subtle - mostly chipotle chilli and lime, with a pleasant nuttiness from the grasshoppers themselves. Later, after picking the legs from my teeth, I chatted with Oyamel head chef Colin King, who sells two or three dozen tacos de chapulines a day to curious diners. Many guests first try them on a dare, King said, only to order second and third helpings. "People generally end up liking the flavour," he adds.
Grasshopper tacos won't replace crab cakes and steaks as D.C. power-lunch staples, but the dish's popularity points to the gradual mainstreaming of entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs.
A growing number of forward-thinking chefs are putting insects on their menus - often grasshoppers and mealworms, but also more exotic fare such as creamy bee larvae or zesty carpenter ants. "It's amazing to me how it's snowballed," says David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook and one of America's top edible-insect evangelists: "In the last five or six years there's been a real trend ... when I give talks, and ask who in the audience has eaten insects before, I'm amazed how many people raise their hands."
That's music to the ears of Afton Halloran, a consultant with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation, (FAO), who co-authored a recent report suggesting that insect consumption could help feed the planet's growing population. Insects are a cheap, reliable protein source, Halloran explains, requiring a quarter as much feed, pound-for-pound, as larger livestock. Insects also need negligible space and water, can eat waste that would otherwise be discarded, and are far less flatulent than conventional livestock: one study found that pigs belch out up to 100 times more greenhouse gases than insects per pound of meat produced.
Halloran knows that insect-eating is a hard sell: while 2 billion people around the world regularly eat insects, Westerners are typically disgusted by the idea of consuming bugs. (That doesn't mean it doesn't happen: many processed foods are permitted to contain a certain proportion of insect parts, and it's been estimated that the average consumer unknowingly ingests more than half a kilogram of insects per year.) Still, Halloran is hopeful that culinary innovators like Oyamel's Chef King will pave the way for the broader acceptance of insect consumption, and eventually the full-scale commercial development of insect-based foods.
To some extent, that process of commercialisation is already underway: a handful of startups now sell products such as candy and protein shakes made from insects. Pat Crowley, a laconic former rafting guide, launched Chapul, a Utah-based power-bar company, in 2012; he now sells about 5,000 bars a month, each containing a dozen ground-up Jamaican crickets. Using cricket-flour rather than whole crickets was an important strategic move intended to make the bars more palatable to squeamish consumers, Crowley says. "Everything we do is focused on the psychological aspect of trying insects for the first time," he explains.
Crowley hopes to take a big bite out of America's $3 billion energy-bar market, but for now he's constrained by the limited availability of food-grade crickets. Raising edible creepy-crawlies has long been a cottage industry, says Harman Singh Johar, the 22-year-old founder of World Entomophagy, one of America's biggest producers of insects for human consumption. Still, it's a growing niche: Johar started raising crickets in his dorm-room closet while a student at the University of Georgia, but now ships well over 120,000 crickets a month to a roster of clients across North America. "We're pioneering an entirely new industry," he says. "As the ball rolls faster, we'll see massive expansion."
For all their optimism, Crowley and Johar admit that it's tough to convince Westerners to eat bugs. Ohio businessman Glen Courtright, though, thinks he's found a way around consumers' aversion to insects. His company, EnviroFlight, runs a 6,000-square-foot plant that produces millions of soldier-fly larvae every day. The wriggly larvae are nutritious and perfectly edible - they taste like soda crackers, Courtright says - but he doesn't expect anyone to pay money to snack on them. "I might do it for fun, but I can't base a business on that," he says.
Instead, EnviroFlight roasts and grinds its larvae to produce animal feed - chiefly for fish-farms, although the company is also working on a blend suitable for pigs. Feeding insects to livestock delivers many of the environmental benefits of directly consuming them, Courtright says, and sidesteps the marketing challenges that have held back other edible-insect pioneers. "We don't want to base a business on something where we have to change your behaviour," he explains. "We aren't hobbyists growing bugs in a little bucket - we've got a big industrial system here."
It will be a long time before startups such as Chapul and EnviroFlight reach the kind of scale that could put a serious dent in the global food industry's environmental footprint. Still, says the FAO's Halloran, edible-insect entrepreneurs are doing important work, both by slowly eroding Western consumers' anti-bug prejudices, and by forcing regulators to establish rules for the safe manufacture and trade of insect-based products.
That groundwork makes it more likely that major industrial food producers will one day make use of insect proteins - and if that happens, Halloran says, the sky's the limit. "This isn't something that's going to happen overnight, that's for sure," she says. "But once people have seen this is a safe area, the rest will follow."
This is one environmental trend, it seems, that could have legs!
Ben Whitford is the Ecologist's US correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @ben_whitford
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