When travelling in Misahualli, Ecuador, a small touristy town in the Amazon basin, the first stop that my friends and I made was to a food cart to order a famous local delicacy: grub worms fresh from the jungle. They cost $0.50 a piece and upon ordering, they were sliced, skewered, salted, and grilled for about a minute. With some trepidation, each of us took turns plopping the grubs in our mouths, chewing and swallowing.
To my surprise, it was actually quite delicious. It tasted like the fatty part of bacon but with a grittier texture. Despite my initial enjoyment, I was still unwilling to eat another. Though I'm trying to fight it, I am not alone in my resistance to integrate bugs into my daily diet. Many Westerners hold negative opinions about eating insects, believing that it is either gross, horrible tasting, or uncivilized. These perceptions are preventing us from tapping a healthy and potentially abundant food source. A recent publication from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) purports that increasing insect consumption can help alleviate pressure to feed the projected 9 billion people that will inhabit Earth in 2050.
One argument in favor is that there is a huge commercial potential to grow insects for mass consumption. It is estimated that nearly 2 billion people mostly in developing countries traditionally eat insects as a part of their diet. Through industrial production or local gathering, the "insect trade" could become an income-generating activity in emerging markets. However, it is important not to encourage an exotic food trap, where locals are no longer able to afford staple foods because demand from abroad raises prices. Current demand for some trendy super-foods, such as quinoa or acai berries, may be straining local production and diverting an important food source from locals.
In addition, insect production is more energy efficient than other protein sources. According to the report, "The environmental benefits of rearing insects for food and feed are founded on the high feed conversion efficiency of insects … Insects are reported to emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and they require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing." Though farming for feed or for biological controls is fairly common, the authors admit that more research remains to be done on how to farm for food production.
Part of the new research should include investigating how to make eating insects more palatable. One way is processing them to look like something else, thereby overcoming our aversion to whole insects on our dinner plates. They can be integrated in soy patties, or processed to look like a chicken cutlet. Companies like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek foods are exploring ways to process plant proteins in this way; insect processing should be the next step.
Like all silver bullets to sustainability, it is likely that benefits of insect consumption may be overstated. Until we know more, the best we can do is to be open-minded to new types of food. Becoming adventurous eaters will diversify our diets and help us to accept new food realities: there is not enough space for cattle, chicken, pigs, and fish to satisfy future global demand for protein and other nutrients. Reducing animal consumption and adapting to eating insects can help relieve pressure on the environment to feed a growing population.