How many of you have said, “I would never eat that!” Have you ever stopped to think about why you feel that way? What if you had no choice? What if you had been taught differently?
As a part of the Science and the City series* at the New York Academy of Sciences, entomologist Louis Sorkin of the American Museum of Natural History presented on the future of insects as food. That’s right: imagining the pests that you may spend time trying to kill or control as a source of nutrition in your life. If it gives you pause it shouldn’t. You already consume trace amounts of insects in most of the foods you eat per the FDA’s recognition that “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.” Still, most Westerners would shy away from practicing outright entomophagy unless it was a task on Fear Factor—though they probably wouldn’t hesitate to eat other related arthropods like shrimp and lobster. In the Western consciousness, all bugs are largely created equal: they’re dirty and dangerous, and they should be killed or managed or contained.
A menace to society.
We are taught to be careful as children; we are cautioned that wasps will sting us, that flies carry diseases, and that beetles can bite. Even bees are to be treated with caution: their honeyed gifts are paired with a non-so-sweet stinger. These messages are often reinforced through chance encounters with insect members of the natural world. For example, at the age of three, I disturbed a nest of red ants. I was insatiably curious even at early age and I wanted to know where the ants went after they went into the ground. So I dug the nest up. Or tried to. The red ants swarmed angrily out of the ground and over my chubby, bare feet. My screams brought half the neighborhood running. I learned that insects—all insects—are generally bad and harbor a general dislike for ants. (I also learned that observation would get me farther in nature but that is a story for another day.)
These ideas carry over into popular culture. In The Deadly Mantis (1957) a 200-foot long praying mantis awakes from a frozen slumber and requires military intervention to bring down. A bevy of insects descend from a parallel world in small-town Maine to plague residents in The Mist (2007). And then there is of course Empire of the Ants
We aren’t culturally inclined to distinguish between good insects and bad insects. And I don’t know that we care to make this distinction. Insects are different—they’re like miniature monsters with their antennae and pincers and multiple appendages. By casting them all as “bad,” they’re easier to deal with. It wasn’t until I began gardening this year that I really began to recognize the beneficial insects living in my backyard. Or understand the ways they respond to the ecology that I am cultivating.
Research by Heather Looy (2013) suggests that I am in a minority: most American farmers view insects as pests. When faced with concerns about productivity, any possible pestilent threat to the harvest needs to be eradicated, which often means pesticides. And while chemical products work, they don’t discriminate. Consequently, good bugs and bad bugs are eliminated together which can cause devastating ecological shifts. We know that pesticides can accumulate and trickle down the food chain, but entomophagy often drives the most extreme solutions.
Proteins, fats, fiber and more!
In non-Western cultures insects are an important food source, providing proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Where eating insects is a norm, people can tell the difference between good insects and bad insects and identify seasonal differences in arthropodal food choices (when to harvest larval states, which adults to avoid, etc.) However, what’s becoming clear is that as Western cultural ideas have spread, the potential for this food option is shrinking. In the West African country of Mali, it was common for children to forage for grasshoppers among the crops grown by their families. Their diets consist of millet, sorghum, maize, peanuts and some fish, so grasshoppers were an important source of protein (Looy 2013). However, when their families began to grow surplus crops and make use of pesticides, parents began to actively discourage their children from eating grasshoppers, which means that they’re now short of an important protein option. Elsewhere in the ethnographic record, Looy documents hesitation by locals to discuss their entomophagic tendencies with outsiders out of fear of being judged or misunderstood.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that between 2010-2012 an estimated 870 million people suffered from undernourishment. This number largely represents the populations of developing countries, where economic and political tensions contribute to limited access to food resources more so than scarcity. In light of this, are we overlooking an important food source in insects?
Why aren’t Westerners into grubs?
Sorkin was quick to note the squeamishness of some audience members as he worked his way through slides showing infestations—though he did try to assure the group that most would be quite tasty if cooked in light oil with garlic, salt, and pepper. Or infused with some sort of citrus. Not too many people seemed convinced, which was hardly surprising given our relationship with food
Food plays a huge role in cultural and social identity. For example, following the dismantling of the Soviet Union the emergence of the Soviet sausage in Lithuania was a reminder of a shared history. In Eastern Europe, the “Soviet period” was regarded locally and globally as an era of oppression and want, and minimal cultural growth. Seeking to distance themselves from this past, new governing bodies and their citizenry changed street names, laws and history. Nonetheless, anthropologist Neringa Klumbyte (2010) reports that in the face of this public denouncement, “Soviet sausages” began appearing on dinner tables in 1998. They were fully advertised as a “Soviet” product—and all the things that the Soviet Union represented were wrapped in that casing.
While politicians opposed the meats and cast them as threat to the values of the emerging state, Lithuanian customers swore that these were the tastiest option available to them. Their enthusiasm crafted a niche for the sausages, which were held as symbols of innovation and luxury in the face of stark conditions. As a mass produced food, the humble sausage was an accessible food item, made under consistent conditions regardless of the person who purchased them. In the 1970s and 1980s they were viewed as symbols of modernity and marketed to the bourgeois under the label of pleasure and well-being. When “Soviet sausages” emerged in the post-Soviet era, Lithuanians claimed a piece of themselves as they navigated the boundaries of what it meant to be Lithuanian in the eyes of a non-Soviet global community. (You can read more about Soviet sausages and identity here.)
It’s a pattern that’s repeated throughout the world: food plays a strong part in social and cultural identity. Daniel Miller has written extensively about the relationship Trinidadians have with Solo-brand soft drinks. These sweetened soft drinks have a niche market among Trinidadians, who are exposed to them from an early age. In Trinidadian immigrant communities, these drinks are a staple in shops, helping to connect people with their homelands, beliefs, and the family and friends they have left behind. And reminding them of what they believe to be “Trinidadian”.
What does this have to do with insects?
We take in nutrients from our foodstuffs, but we also absorb the associations connected with it. It is not that sausages make you more Lithuanian or Solo brand drinks make you more Trinidadian, but they have become linked to local culture and local experiences. These items can instantly connect you with friends and family and experiences in ways that are meaningful to a larger collective.
Hot dogs and hamburgers help us identify with popular American activities such as baseball and cook-outs. Steak and oysters can suggest wealth because they are expensive to produce and purchase. Organic foods may help communicate a commitment to environmental awareness. In this context eating insects seems base. It’s a last resort act that suggests you don’t have the means to access sanctioned food items.
There is a mythology around prepackaged food. It’s clean and packaged attractively. It’s sanctioned—someone has approved it for consumption. Who that someone is matters less for some. What does matter is that it is readily available and it’s a normative act. Most people aren’t exposed to the processes that put food in their supermarkets. While they may know of the processing centers and the distributors and have some awareness of carbon footprints, these mechanisms are largely removed from public view. Consumers are instead faced with the final products.
Furthermore, insects are strange. They’re alienness surely alter us if we consumed them. We would acquire their characteristics, have to frequent the places they’re found, and possibly contract any diseases they’re carrying. These things would make us unacceptable to our connection.
Disgust colors how we see the world.
When confronted with entomophagy, many people express disgust. It’s an interesting response. It has a biological basis in the form of distaste, which prevents us from consuming foods that are potentially harmful. For example, eating rotting food or food that has toxins is probably a bad idea. We interpret the ways these types of foods taste as distasteful and we learn to avoid them. But we also learn disgust through the reactions of others. Wrinkled nose, a grimace, and physically stepping back are all social cues and they can be applied to almost anything.
Disgust is deployed to maintain boundaries. It can extend beyond food to behaviors, contributing to the frame of social order. According to psychologist Paul Rozin, disgust helps us prevent social contamination. Our parents and caregivers teach us the social meanings of disgust. Through gestures and facial expressions, we learn that certain behaviors can separate us from the group. Eating things that are distasteful challenges an individual’s identification with a social group as well as that group’s acceptance of the individual. Disgust represents an easy means of weeding out undesirable behaviors. If eating insects can trigger ideas of primitive or poverty, condemning these actions can be seen as a way of protecting the social order.
Dealing with food scarcity.
Growing populations may trigger shifts in these perceptions however. As global food demands grow, so too do prices for feed and crops that help produce high-quality animal protein, such as beef, pork, and poultry. Insects, or mini-livestock, offer a cost effective means of feeding people, and they can be funneled into the food chain by also serving as nutrients for mini-livestock themselves.
Insects are more efficient at converting feed to body mass. For example, chickens contain 55% edible weight, while crickets can be eaten entirely in the nymphal stage or provide 80% edible mass as adults. Crickets are twice as efficient as chickens, four times as efficient as pigs, and twelve times as efficient as cattle in generating edible weight. And they take up less space too because insects generally don’t have to expend energy to maintain a consistent body temperature, so that energy can go towards fueling their growth.
It wouldn’t be a new idea. Entomologist Arnold van Huis [pdf] points out that silkworms, bees, and cochineal are farmed and harvested in some form. The challenge will be to get people to see insects differently. Food perceptions can change. Right now, somewhere, there is a person having sushi for the first time. The concept of “raw” is no longer disgusting. So you know, the next time the opportunity presents itself, in the words of Andrew Zimmern, “If it looks good, eat it.”