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From: Ben Whitford, Ecologist, More from this Affiliate
Published August 29, 2013 09:50 AM

Why eating insects is good for the environment

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.

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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.

Read more at The Ecologist.

Insect food image via Shutterstock.

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