If you’re as much of a fan of dystopian future fiction as I am, you know this scene in the 2013 movie Snowpiercer. On a vast train criss-crossing the world after humanity accidentally geo-engineers itself into a new ice age, steerage passengers are grumbling about the oppressive upper class that keeps them at the back of the train through cruelty and force. (Spot the political metaphor!)
One revelation that tips the downtrodden population over the edge into full-blown rebellion? Those rich bastards have been feeding them bugs all along — crushed-up bugs, formed into blood-red jelly blocks and sold to the masses as nutrition. Close-ups of disgusted faces signal that this is horrific news, worthy of a Charlton Heston-level reaction: Soylent red is bugs!
This came as news to any viewer among the two billion humans in 130 countries who happily eat insects already. (It may also perplex nutritionists: What, you prefer they make gelatin blocks out of sugar and give everyone obesity and diabetes?) It’s common in many cultures, as anyone who has had crickets atop a taco in Mexico can attest. (Mexico also hosted the 2020 Festival of Edible Insects, with delicacies such as beetle quesadillas and flying ant salsa, just before the coronavirus pandemic struck.)
Viewed purely as human fuel, insects are amazing. Pound for pound, many of the roughly 2,000 edible insect species contain as much protein as beef, as much vitamin B12 as fresh salmon, and more iron than spinach. They contain all nine of the amino acids we need to live. It’s almost as if we were designed to eat them — because, well, we were. Humans ate bugs with no problem for 99 percent of our evolution. The most commonly consumed bugs, according to the UN: beetles, caterpillars, and ants.
The revulsion we feel in the developed world is culturally and historically out of step, though it may also be becoming more common. “Insect consumption among groups familiar with the practice is decreasing globally due to the spread of Western aversion to insects,” conclude the authors of a 2020 UC Santa Barbara study looking at bug food perception around the world.
All of which doesn’t mean that the billions of us who shudder at the very idea of chowing down on bugs are wrong to feel the way we do. Nor does it mean we face a Snowpiercer future of crushed insect gruel doled out to the masses. So long as land and sea remain unfrozen, and the remnants of humanity are not stuck inside one improbably long train, there will be another way to get sustainably-farmed insects into our food chain.
Because, after all, they’re not just great human fuel. As I was reminded this morning when I fed my backyard chickens their favorite dried mealworm snack, then collected the hens’ eggs and fried them up for a delicious breakfast. You’d never know it was brought to you by bugs.
Give bugs a chance?
You don’t have to look far to find startups betting on a change in our attitudes towards eating insects in a more direct manner. Plenty of food entrepreneurs are trying out insect-based recipes for everything from burgers to smoothies, hoping that just the right cocktail of ingredients will entice a wary public — or at least, garner some media buzz.
Mealworms (beetle larvae) are particularly nutritious and easy to grind into flour and are the current flavor of the month (overtaking crickets, which were hot in 2018). This June, a London-based company called Bug launched a bean and mealworm DIY burger patty kit. Prefer to grow your own? Then sign up for Beobia’s fully-funded Kickstarter project, described as a “truly sustainable insect growing pod,” and make mealworms in your kitchen.
It’s quite a leap from feeding homemade sourdough starters…to growing baby beetles on your countertop.
No wonder these entrepreneurs are on the case, given the rosy economic outlook assigned to the bug business. A report from Barclays investment bank in late 2019 said the global bug food market will be worth $8 billion a year by 2030, with an annual growth rate of 24 percent. The North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA), which may not be exactly neutral, cites research predicting a $1.2 billion market by 2023, with about half of those sales in the U.S. Meanwhile, later this year, the European Union is expected to designate mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers, and even locusts as officially safe for human consumption.
But here’s the thing: There’s no proof such rule changes will change much. Switzerland, which isn’t in the EU, made its pro-insect rule change in 2017. A startup called Essento started selling insect burgers, insect protein bars and various crunchy insect snacks in Swiss stores. After launching in a handful of groceries, these items are now available in 70 of them, plus 50 restaurants.
Which is a decent showing, but still — there are thousands of supermarkets and restaurants in the mountain nation. Essento’s product remains an acquired taste, a novelty item. Insect food, we can safely say, hasn’t conquered refined Swiss palates. Will it conquer the consumers of Europe and the U.S.? “The insect market is still niche,” the Barclays report admits. “However, this space could soon be swarming with small brands disrupting the landscape and acting as catalysts for change within the food industry.”
But will it, really? Compare and contrast the Impossible and Beyond burgers. Like insect burgers, they are marketed as sustainable solutions to a food system that is overly dependent on livestock. Like Essento’s products, they were barely available anywhere in 2017. Now they’re everywhere, with Impossible sausage sold as far afield as Starbucks in China and Beyond sausage rolling out to 9,000 Dunkin’ Donuts across America as I write this.
Granted, Impossible and Beyond are Silicon Valley darlings with over a billion dollars in funding between them. But if there really is big money yet to be made in locust burgers, mealworm smoothies, and cricket flour, don’t you think at least one company would have attracted that level of investment and a rabid fanbase by now? Where is the Musk of mealworms?
Instead, arguably, media exposure for these products makes matters worse. It feeds into a narrative that eating insects is something to gawp at, to be disgusted by. You can trace this thread back to the popular 2001 MTV reality show Fear Factor, which regularly had contestants eat live insects; it was also commonly used as a challenge on Survivor starting in the same year.
Feed the fish
With a growing population and a looming climate crisis, there are good reasons to encourage the use of bugs in our food chain. We’re going to have billions more people on the planet by 2050, and we’re going to have to feed them something that doesn’t significantly raise carbon emissions or use way too much H2O in the process. (Producing a pound of beef takes about 2,000 gallons of water; a pound of crickets requires just one gallon.)
But maybe the low-hanging fruit, as it were, doesn’t involve persuading billions of humans to stop themselves from gagging.
“We have very strong disgust reflexes when it comes to insects,” food writer Michael Pollan told NPR earlier this year. “My suggestion for insects as a protein source is… we should farm them and feed them to animals, like chickens and fish, who really like to eat bugs, and then we eat the chicken and the fish.”
Indeed, there’s potential for a quiet revolution in aquaculture in the EU, thanks to a 2017 rule change that allowed fish farms to use insects as feed. Previously, fish had been fed on fishmeal, or the ground-up parts of other fish. Sure, that mimics some of their diet in the wild. But think about it: What could be tastier for a fish than the thing you stick on the end of your hook to catch them? The business of selling fly larvae to fish farms is starting to ramp up, slowly but surely.
As for feeding chickens, I can confirm in eight years of chicken ownership that nothing my wife and I have ever fed our hens has ever produced more excited clucking than dried mealworms. Currently, these cost around $6 per pound at retail, so we use them as occasional treats. If more industrial-scale production could drive that price down, we’d ditch our organic grain feed (about $1.20 a pound) and produce entirely insect-powered eggs. (Which is how Pollan’s suggestion would end up working out for vegetarians too.)
We’d also happily feed more insect protein to our dog and cat, if that were more widely available as pet food. It would definitely help on the climate change front. Dogs in the U.S. alone consume 32 billion pounds of protein per year, much of that coming from livestock. This is why your dog likely has a carbon footprint comparable to your SUV. A number of dog food companies are attempting to redress the balance, led by Jiminy’s, which makes canine chow and treats out of crickets and grubs.
Perhaps in the next decade or so, we can reach the stage where most of our fish, our chicken, our eggs, plus our dog and cat food, are powered by sustainable, industrial-scale insect farming. All of that would take a bite out of climate change — not as substantial a bite as fossil fuel corporations changing their ways, but noteworthy nonetheless.
If we can get there, we will have fulfilled the potential suggested by those rosy forecasts for the edible insect market without ever having to eat them ourselves. An insect-powered utopia is on the horizon, with no Soylent red required.