With seven billion people to feed, agriculture is feeling the strain. So are creepie crawlies the solution? Gavin Haines takes a closer look
It might not be the shrewdest observation made by a journalist, but snail poo stinks. Of course you can't smell it when one of them goes to the toilet in your pansy beds but in large quantities, the stuff reeks. My visit to Dorset Escargot, a commercial snail farm near Wimborne, was certainly an aromatic experience. Owned by Tony Walker, he has the unenviable job of hosing out the excrement created by the tens of thousands of snails he breeds on the farm - a chore he was finishing when I arrived.
Tony started the business in 2006. Celebrity chef, Anthony Worrall Thompson, was his first customer and since then Dorset Escargot has been doing a roaring trade. 'They're becoming so popular we can't keep up with demand,' beams Tony, who supplies some of London's top restaurants, including Claridges. 'We're hoping to farm 10,000 snails per week by the end of the year.' Britain's steadily growing taste for snails has been a long time coming. They might be de rigeur on dinner plates across the Channel but we have been slow, even by a snail's standards, to embrace these Marmite molluscs (you either love them or hate them). But chefs and diners across the country are finally discovering the delights of snail meat and some of Tony's clients, which have also included Gary Rhodes, are producing all manner of exciting escargot dishes; The Waldorf Hilton in London serves them with black pudding, wild garlic and boar bacon, The Bridge House Hotel in Beaminster, Dorset offers them as part of an all day breakfast, while Club Gascon in London has taken it one step further, having just introduced snail caviar to their Michelin star menu.
'I've been experimenting with snails for two or three years, I'm coming up with new dishes all the time,' says Steve Pielesz, head chef at Dorset's Bridge House Hotel. 'On the dinner menu at the moment we've got a mini snail pasty with chips, baked bean puree and homemade ketchup.' Dishes like these might sound like a gimmick and, to a certain extent, they probably are. But there are many nutritional benefits to be had from eating these gastropods; snail meat is packed with protein and is fat free. I'm also told they are a great vehicle for flavour. 'They work really well in Asian dishes,' claims Tony, who eats snail several times a week.
But why stop at snails? Not only are most insects good for you, they're also good for the planet because farming them requires a fraction of the energy needed to produce other meat. What's more, according to the UN, insects, which are eaten in many countries around the world, are an better source of protein than the usual cows, pigs and sheep. On top of that, there's no need to chop down rainforests for grazing because leafy forests and woodland provides precisely the sort of conditions in which insects thrive. 'The environmental footprint of insects as food is far smaller than other meat-producing animals,' says Patrick Durst, who works for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). 'Insects are approximately six times more efficient than cattle and more than twice as efficient as pigs or poultry in converting the feed they eat into insect tissue suitable for human consumption. They also emit fewer greenhouse gases in growing (and in processing) than other livestock.'
Historically, a considerable portion of the world's population has dined out on insects and it's only in western culture where the practice has died out. 'The FAO has documented insect consumption by humans in nearly 100 countries around the world,' says Patrick. 'Most commonly in Africa, Asia and Oceania, but also some in Latin America.' More than 1,600 species of insects are eaten by humans - the most common being beetles, ants, grasshoppers, crickets, wasps and silk worms. To many, the idea of guzzling such creepy crawlies is disgusting and indeed it can be: the scorpion I ate to research this article was comfortably the most unpleasant 'food' I have ever tasted, although the deep-fried crickets were delicious â€“ slightly nutty and perfect with lager. But with the global population booming and many already going hungry; could eating bugs help to ease the world's food shortages?