By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center
When I was in second grade, my class went on a field trip to the old Natural History Museum of Utah on Presidents Circle. At the tail end of our visit, one of my female classmates made a daring gift shop purchase: a bag of dehydrated worms with Cheetos-style cheddar flavoring. The girl munched conspicuously on the critters all the way home, and I distinctly remember feeling two emotions. The first (and most embarrassing to admit) was jealousy for all the attention she was getting from our little-boy classmates. But the second feeling was one that I think is pretty common when we Westerners think about our fellow humans eating bugs. I sided with most of the girls on the bus and squealed, “Eeeewwww. Gross!”
Until two days ago, my second grade field trip was the only association I had with entomophagy, that is, the human consumption of insects. That all changed when I learned that January’s Social Soup lecture would feature Pat Crowley, half of the duo that founded Chapul, a local small business that makes energy bars out of—get this—ground up crickets.
The whole idea was just too fascinating not to learn about. For two days prior to Crowley’s lecture, I researched entomophagy, a practice I’ve discovered to be both more common than I thought and more environmentally promising than I ever imagined.
So here, based on my research and Crowley’s lecture on January 29, is why I’m seriously considering eating bugs:
Reason One: Insects make a more environmentally friendly source of edible protein than pretty much anything else.
Insects are the Smart Cars of the animal kingdom; they are just built in a way that allows them to go a long way on very little resources. And this, incidentally, is a feature lacking from nearly every other protein source out there.
If, for example, you give a cow 10 pounds of feed, only 10 percent actually becomes part of the animal, and you end up with one pound of beef. But if that same 10 pounds of food is given to the kind of crickets found in Chapul’s energy bars, you end up with 8 pounds of edible protein.
What’s more, crickets (and other insects) don’t need the same kind of food given to cows, or chickens, or any other animal. Crickets have the impressive ability to survive and even thrive on agricultural by-products like cornhusks and broccoli stalks, materials no other animal would see as food.
According to Dutch ecological entomologist Marcel Dicke, this almost magical ability that insects have will become increasingly more valuable as the world population continues to grow. Even now, about 70 percent of all agricultural land is used not to grow food for humans, but to produce feed for the animals that humans will someday eat. If the population expands as predicted, Dicke says that our agricultural output will have to expand by 70 percent. Eventually, we simply won’t have enough space to grow the massive amount of grain or alfalfa needed to raise traditional meat animals. Insects, and their ability to eat the discarded leftovers and create protein that is just as nutritious as that of beef or chicken, makes them look like a mighty appealing solution to our rapidly growing demand for food.
Additionally, insects require less water than raising beef or chicken, or even the crops that cows and chickens eat. And it’s not just a marginal amount less, either. An article in Sierra magazine reported that “beef requires 15.8 gallons of water per gram of protein; pork, 5.8; chicken, 5.2; and soy, 1.6. Crickets require only 0.8.”
There’s still one more reason that mass consumption of insects would be good for the environment: unlike their mammal or bird counterparts, bugs don’t create massive amounts of the gasses that contribute to climate change. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that raising animals causes 9 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, 35 to 40 percent of methane emissions, and 65 percent of nitrous oxide emissions. Insects, as the efficient protein-making machines that they are, produce about 100 times less of these harmful greenhouse gasses when compared to pigs and beef cattle.
Reason Two: Insects provide us with an opportunity to grow healthful animal protein humanely.
Now, I should preface this next section by saying that, according to the all-knowing Internet, there is no consensus on exactly how humane it is to raise and eat bugs. So I want to be clear that my judgment of the facts about eating insects is entirely my opinion.
That being said, I feel like I’m someone who could be considered pretty sensitive to the feelings or rights of living things. I’ve been a vegetarian for more than 11 years. My reasons for my vegetarianism include preference and health-based ones, but my objections to meat are primarily environmental and ethical. Because of all the information above, I’m totally sold on the environmental benefits of entomophogy. So what about the ethical reasons? I’m pretty sold there, too.
This is partly because what would be considered cruel treatment for other animals isn’t cruel for insects. That’s not because insects are less important or worthwhile, it’s just because their natural habitats happen to resemble modern factory farming where other animals’ don’t. Cows need room to roam and quality food to eat. Putting them in tight quarters and feeding them GMO corn is unnatural and, at least in my estimation, cruel. But in the wild, insects swarm together and eat whatever is available, like agricultural byproducts. Because this kind of behavior is completely natural for them, raising insects in similar conditions strikes me as humane. And perhaps insect farming could even be considered more humane than a natural habitat, since the insects could be protected from pesticides or extreme temperatures.
Secondly, proponents of entomophagy claim that insects can be killed in an essentially painless way. (To be fair, I haven’t been able to find any scientific research to support this claim, but it makes sense to me.) Because insects are cold blooded, a few minutes in a freezer is enough to get their central nervous systems to slow to a halt. Quickly killing and cooking the insects while they are unconscious, it’s been said, is far more humane than any of the slaughtering practices that are currently used on other animals.
Reason Three: Eating insects wasn’t only a common practice of our ancestors, but it’s a cultural tradition that is alive and well in most parts of the world.
Yes, that’s right. If you think eating insects is weird or gross, it’s you that’s in the minority. In his TED talk, Dicke explains that 80 percent of the world’s countries regularly eat insects. It’s only North America and Europe that aren’t on the bug-eating train.
And it’s not because those two continents elected not to get on the metaphorical train either. It’s because, at some point, they jumped off. It’s not only people in distant lands that eat insects; there’s precedent right here in our own city.
In 1984, archeologist David Madsen discovered thousands of dead grasshoppers, along with some human remains, in Lakeside Cave, near the western edge of the Great Salt Lake. At first, Madsen’s team was confused as to why there were so many grasshoppers with the remains. However, analyzing the dried human waste found in the cave revealed that the grasshoppers were a primary element of the ancient humans’ diet.
In modern days, things aren’t as different in the U.S. as it might seem. Ever eaten shrimp, crab, or lobster? Dicke points out in his TED talk that those critters are genetically pretty similar to their insect cousins. If you like seafood, you’re just one tiny step away from entomophagy.
So what about the “ick” factor?
This is where I get stuck. At the Social Soup lecture, Chapul employees provided samples of each of their flavor combinations, which truly sound delicious: dark chocolate, coffee, cayenne; peanut butter and chocolate; coconut, ginger, lime. I wanted to try them, I really did. But, in the end, I couldn’t do it.
My friends who tried the bars reported that they were perfect, and I’ve seen them described in the media as “look[ing] and tast[ing] like healthy cookies.” And since I’m totally on board with the ethical and ecological aspects of eating bugs, the only barrier for me is completely psychological.
This is exactly what Chapul is trying to change. Crowley said at the lecture that he’s attempting to emulate what sushi chefs did in the 1970s: change the cultural perception by baby steps.
Back then, the idea of eating raw fish was considered disgusting by most Americans. Sushi restaurants everywhere were going out of business. Enter Hidekazu Tojo and his invention, the California roll. By hiding the foreign-looking seaweed by putting rice on the exterior of the roll and stuffing it with cooked crabmeat, Tojo was able to gently transition Americans into the idea of sushi.
The strategy makes a lot of sense to me. I have to admit it: eating a normal-looking energy bar is quite a different thing than chomping on a bowl of visible waxworms (another super-healthy bug cuisine option).
If Crowley’s crusade to ease the world into snacking on crickets is even half as successful as Tojo’s sushi introduction, I’m sure I’ll be munching on insects in no time.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.