Entomophagy: Creepy Crawly Cuisine?

Entomophagy is a new word to me, and also it seems to the spell checker I’m using. I’ve checked it about five times, so I’m sure it’s right, but it still has a red squiggle under it. Technology eh?  In short it means eating insects for food, something which has been in the news quite a lot recently.

entomophagy chef resources Mark Morgan via Compfight

Eating insects is not nouvelle cuisine

People have been eating insects for millennia, so this is not news for the 2 billion souls currently estimated to eat insects as part of their diet.  What may be surprising is that this practice [I’m avoiding using that word already] is not through “food crisis” but has just been an accepted source of food since anyone can remember. It’s fair to say we do not share that experience in the UK.

There are approximately 2000 species of edible insects recorded around the world, nothing of note in the “civilised” West. Historically speaking this is explained away by stories from the bible, where eating insects was seen as taboo. Naturally this also explains why the use of insects as a food source for animals has been missing from the many great advances in agriculture and farming techniques as these changes have been led from West. Insects which negatively affect crop yields are viewed as pests and have been controlled by the use of insecticides. In developing countries locusts and other insects, attracted by the growing crops are harvested and eaten or sold as a nutritious by product from agriculture. Common sense it may seem.

Wind of change

There is a general acceptance within the scientific community that we need to explore the use of insects as animal feed [as a minimum] and as use for human consumption in the West. This need is in relation to the food demands of an ever increasing world population, set to reach 9 billion by 2050.

That, coupled with limited resources of land available for agriculture, and the Green House Gases [GHG’s] generated by current farming particularly methane in relation to beef [simply put cows eat grass and fart methane gas] which questions the sustainability of the current world food production model.

Insects we are told will cause less environmental impact than our current processes. We are not talking a few niche restaurants here but wide scale commercial production for the impact to be of any significant benefit.  The West is chosen because we have the financial and industrial resources.

In the West are not blind to the ecological benefits of insects particularly in the pollination of plants; we are also grateful for their provision of honey and silk.  We use insects for fishing bait, pet food, and wild bird feeders. There is actually an established industry in the Netherlands providing for this market. We seem however to have been unable to let insects make the final leap onto the dinner plate.

The Facts

Despite the fact that humans have consumed insects since day dot we have not managed to collect any definitive data.  The lead seems to be taken by the United Nations in partnership with Wageningen University in the Netherlands to convince the public that this is necessary and to create an acceptance and generate a demand in order for investment in large scale commercial production facilities. They have recently produced a 200 page document outlining the current situation which is a long but informative read.

The overriding message however is simply we don't know. We are unable to state categorically that it is safe. We think we can estimate impact. It will be a nightmare to police. No legislation currently exists to cover this, and the view is that insects must be subject to the same health and sanitation requirements as current food products. This becomes even more important when you consider that some insects may be fed on animal waste and the health issues and risks involved.

First World Problems

Clever people will point out that you unwittingly eat bugs and insects each time you make toast in the form of ground up insect bodies intrinsic in the flour used for baking. The less lucky might even encounter the odd whole one [why I have a phobia of granary bread]. Seriously, maybe if we raise the limits on the legal requirements and tolerances here we may be half way there?

Factory farming is seen as an abomination of exploitation and cruelty, and rightly so; however I cannot really see a viable alternative when it comes to mass producing insects. To make it commercially viable scale will be important to offset the considerable investment required. Will we see a move towards insect welfare?  Most people are happy to dispatch spiders without talk of suffering, or the need to qualify their actions with a “for the greater good argument” probably because there isn’t one. Somehow these same people seem to care collectively if lobsters feel pain if you drop them in boiling water?

Is biomass the true difference? Size does really matter? Do we care? Enough that experiments are taking place on fruit flies in a bid to find out if the have the sensory perception to react to negative stimuli, using bad smells and temperatures apparently and recording their behavior, and initial indications are that the do indeed respond.  What does that mean? Who knows? It reminds me of a Frankie Boyle joke about two scientists one says to the other “shall we have a go a finding a cure for cancer?” To which the other responds, “no, I thought I’d try and find out how many fruit pastilles it takes to choke a kestrel.”

What Next?

I plan on writing further blogs on this subject devoting more time to the individual aspects involved, so please sign up if you would like to receive these straight to your inbox. It would also be be great to hear what you think on the matter, leave a comment or question in the section below.

I have no doubt the food industry will be able to sanitise and remove all negative connotations and correlation between what it actually was before it ended up in your meal. Think of how this has been achieved with regular animals like cows and fish. I’m not talking swapping cow for horse either. We actually have to write on packaging for fish fingers as allergen advice, product contains fish?

Maybe little boys were right all along. Harvesting and eating your own worms in your own garden may be the future to the survival of our species. For generations this instinct has been cruelly beaten out of them. Maybe that will now stop? So many years from now your children’s, children’s, children’s, children may be gathered around, at some family event or other nonchalantly nibbling caterpillar canapés when someone asks grandad, what was it like in the old days, he may well reply “Well, when I were a lad t’was all different y’know, worms were all free range and natural, not like nowadays grown in factories and force fed shit……Manure Grandad! Manure!”


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