Brooklyn Bugs 2017 featured fifteen edible insect experts and proponents speaking on a range of relevant topics. They represent a diversity of backgrounds, expertise, and involvement with the field. The following is the sixth in a series of topic-specific articles woven from the threads that ran through their individual talks. The Edible Insect Experts on… the reasons to eat insects.
Why are people excited to eat insects? The previous article focused mainly on the internal benefits: what insects do — and don’t — put into our bodies. But insect cuisine is great for reasons beyond our bodies.
Is eating insects compatible with a vegetarian diet?
It may seem like a silly debate initially. Insects don’t have roots; therefore they aren’t plants. End of story. But many people have chosen to follow a vegetarian diet due to reasons of animal welfare. And for them, insects pass the test.
The well-being of livestock is not a new concern. A national ad campaign sought to sway consumers with the tagline that “Happy cows come from California.” And researchers have shown that happy cows do produce more milk. But the happiness of livestock comes with a price tag. The conditions they need to be happy are costlier than the ones they need to merely survive and end up on our plates. So, while you’re not likely to see a “Sad cows make cheaper meat” campaign anytime soon, that doesn’t make it any less true. And when consumers vote with their wallet, they aren’t always thinking about animal welfare.
In contrast, Ryan Goldin laid out the living conditions of Entomo Farms’ crickets.
“They’ve lived out their full life cycle by the time they’re harvested, from baby to adult. They’ve reproduced. They’ve laid their eggs. Just before they’d naturally die is when we harvest. So, in terms of being a humane food, where the animal has lived out its lifecycle, crickets and most other insects are ideal.”
Along with living a full life, farmed insects generally live a happy life. Being so small and needing so little space, overcrowding isn’t an issue. For most insects, recreating their ideal living conditions is easy and inexpensive.
Resource Efficiency & the Environment
One of the reasons that insect growing conditions are inexpensive is because they are resource efficient.
Much of the Western edible insect movement has come out of a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Their 2013 “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” is their most downloaded. Goldin summarized the report’s initial premise simply. “As the population grows, we’re going to have a really hard time in feeding the world’s population in terms of protein.”
Brooklyn Bugs founder Joseph Yoon distilled the report’s conclusion. “We do know that eating insects will prove to be a viable and sustainable source of protein for future generations.”
Why are we going to have a hard time feeding the world, and why are insects the solution? Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) pointed to the major problem. “As we look at meat, as we look at all of the dairy products and so on, it’s totally unsustainable. There’s no question about it!” Looking at the numbers, it is hard to come to any other conclusion.
For anyone working with insects, the numbers — along with the FAO report — are familiar. When compared to cows, crickets use 22,000x less water, 6x less feed, require 14x less space, and give double the protein (along with all the other nutritional value discussed previously). The graphics below (courtesy of Little Herds) illustrate how these numbers stack up against other traditional livestock. (Spoiler alert: insects perform very well.)
This isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a resource management issue. It might be one thing if our resources were unlimited and we had the freedom to be frivolous, but we don’t. A large percentage of the world’s energy usage is dedicated to raising livestock. Twenty six percent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of the world’s arable land is being used just for livestock feed. We’re running out of land to use for farming. We actually ran out a long time ago and have been bulldozing rainforests to plant fields for fattening cattle ever since.
These maxed out resources are working with current conditions, with 7 billion people on the planet, 11 percent of whom went hungry in 2016, according to the latest data from the UN. With an expected population increase of 30 percent (to over 9 billion) in the next 30 years, we are going to need to produce much more food with fewer resources. And we’ll have to do it while finding enough land to house an additional 2 billion people.
One of the more surprising aspects of micro-livestock (edible insects) is where you can grow them. Cattle need space. So do pigs. But you could grow crickets in your closet, which is actually how several farms got their starts. Or you could grow mealworms on your kitchen counter. And because the space required is not tall and insects are light, vertical farming is an option.
In addition to their limited use of resources, Goldin pointed out that insects “have a very low carbon footprint.” Comparatively, cows contribute nearly 3000x more greenhouse gases than crickets.
Taking these cow vs. cricket comparisons the next step, what happens when you actually start substituting micro-livestock for traditional livestock? Lee Cadesky, co-founder of One Hop Kitchen, pointed to a bottle of their cricket bolognese. “Every jar saves over 300 gallons of water by directly displacing a meat option.” Saving 300 gallons — or 3 full bathtubs — of water simply by choosing an alternative protein pasta sauce that tastes every bit as delicious. Yes, it really can be that simple.
Miller offered a challenge. “The amount of water we’re using, the amount of greenhouse gases we’re generating… When you have a slice of beef, start thinking about what kind of impact it’s having on the world.” Think about the world that you want to live in and look at whether or not your actions are helping to create it.
“We have free energy [from the sun]. We have enough food to feed everybody [from insects and plants]. There’s no need for poverty. There’s no need for starvation. But we’re still basing our consumption on an 18th century model that doesn’t fit in the 21st century,” Miller concluded.
At the end of the day, though, our food choices are not always driven by logical, moral, or emotional reasons. They are driven by sensation. Eating brings us pleasure and food should taste good. Which brings us to possibly the most important reason that people are excited about eating insects.
Lou Sorkin, in a matter-of-fact tone, mused about watching people try insect cuisine for the first time at a New York Entomological Society banquet. He recalled seeing their faces shift from hesitance to excitement, as they echoed a common realization. “Actually, these taste good!”