Entomophagy for a Healthier Planet

A few weeks ago I wrote about my distaste for eating insects.  At the end, I included a poll to determine whether my readers agreed with me or not.  Apparently they don’t!  The results looked like this:

bug eating graph

Percent of people willing to eat bugs, would not eat bugs, or might eat a bug under certain conditions.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised by this results.  Seriously?  64.3% of people would be willing to eat an insect?  Then I considered my audience.  The majority of readers of my blog are a) entomologists by vocation or avocation, b) naturalists by vocation or avocation, or c) interested in insects enough that they were able to find my blog.  People who study bugs (or just really like them) are admittedly more likely to willingly eat an insect than people who do not.  In my experience, people who love nature are more adventurous than the average person you encounter on the street, which also makes them more likely to eat an insect than the rest of Americans.  So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that 78.6% of people polled would be willing to eat an insect under at least some condition.  Apparently my anti-entomophagy stance  in the minority.  I’m comfortable with that.

Dr. Marcel Dicke of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands might find the results of my poll encouraging.  Dr. Dicke recently gave a talk at the TED Global conference in Oxford about the importance of insects for human consumption.  As an entomologist, he is trying to convince people that insects are nutritious and something that we need to consider eating if humans are going to continue to eat animals as food.

eating insects

Dr. Marcel Dicke offers insects to the TEDxAmsterdam host. Photo taken from http://www.tedxamsterdam.com/2010/marcel-dicke-and-the-critters-that-go-‘crunch’/.

Dr.  Dicke’s talk hasn’t been made available on the TED Global conference website yet, but his talk was chosen for the conference after he gave a similar talk at the TedxAmsterdam conference last year.  I highly recommend that everyone watch the 16 minute video!  During his presentation, he discussed the importance of insects in the world economy, their abundance and diversity, and the services that insects provide for humans.  He also briefly covered how many insects we already consume without knowing it.  He mentioned the limits the US limits of insect parts determined and regulated by the FDA.  We eat a LOT of insects every year without our knowledge (Dr. Dicke says it’s 500 grams, or a little over 1 pound, per year!).  The cochineal bug is even used as a natural red food dye.  Next time you buy something red, look for Red E120, carmine, or Natural Red 4 in the ingredients and you’ll know you’re eating an extract made up of mashed insects!  Dr. Dicke said that cochineal dye is a great moneymaker too: 1 gram of cochineal sells for 30 Euros.  In contrast, 1 gram of gold goes for 25 Euros.

Dr. Dicke strongly believes that humans should eat more insects.  In his talk, he stated that 70% of the world’s population already happily eats insects.  Humans currently eat over 1400 different species of insects and they are considered a delicacy in many regions where they are regularly consumed.  If this is the case, there isn’t any reason why Europeans and North Americans shouldn’t be eating them too.  Dr. Dicke suggests that it’s all a matter of perception.  In Europe and North America, we are taught that insects are gross, so we don’t have the proper mindset to consume insects.  But, he also said that this might have to change.

The world’s population is expected to increase by 1/3 over the next 40 years.  By 2050, we might have 9 billion people on Earth.  This increase in human population means that we have to increase our food production to keep up.  In fact, projections suggest that with that 1/3 population increase, our food consumption will increase by 70%!  This figure apparently takes into account the expected increase in quality of life in second and third world countries, which would translate into increased food consumption even if the population remained the same.  All in all, we humans are going to need a LOT more food to survive.  But what should we eat?

Dr.  Dicke stated that animal proteins are a valuable part of our human diet.  However, this introduces a problem: just how much further can we increase livestock production?  Dr.  Dicke said that we’ve nearly maxed out our livestock production already and that this form of protein production isn’t going to be sufficient to feed all of those extra people on the horizon.  Even if we chop down all of our forests, we’re still going to need more space for livestock than is available if we’re going to feed 9 billion people.  So where do we turn?  To insects of course!

Dr. Dicke believes that we will have to start eating insects if we are going to continue to consume animal protein in the future.  He also thinks this is a great idea.  He outlined 4 reasons why we should eat insects instead of the livestock animals we currently consume:

  1. Insects are distantly related to humans.  Livestock animals are much more closely related to us than insects are, which means that they can transmit diseases to us when we grow or eat them.  Insects don’t have any known diseases they transmit to humans when we eat them, so they are a safer source of food.
  2. Insects utilize their feed much more efficiently than livestock animals.    Animals don’t use every bit of the food they eat.  Some animals process a lot more of their food than others though.  Dr. Dicke said that for every 10kg of feed, you get 1kg of cow, 3kg of pig, 5kg of chicken, and 9kg of insects.  Clearly insects give you the biggest bang for your buck.
  3. Insect wastes are less harmful to the environment than livestock wastes.  Insects produce far less waste than livestock animals, but they also produce less toxic wastes.  Livestock animal waste is full of nasty compounds like ammonia and methane that harm the environment.  Eating insects would reduce the cost of animal protein production on our planet significantly.
  4. The nutritional value of insects is excellent.  They’re full of high quality protein, have a reasonable amount of fat, and provide serious calories.  According to Dr. Dicke, one kilogram of grasshoppers is equivalent to 10 hot dogs or 6 Big Macs!

Dr. Dicke is trying to convince people in Europe and North America that they need to shift their perception of insects away from gross things that should be avoided to something that is a valuable food source.  He doesn’t think this should be hard.  After all, people in these countries already eat shrimp, and, according to Dr. Dicke, “Insects are just the shrimp of the land.”  He suggests that insects might first need to be hidden in foods and that this might start happening over the next few years.  He predicts that in 10 years, we will be openly eating insects as part of our regular diet and won’t need to hide them any longer.  I personally think this estimate might be a little optimistic (have any of you ever asked an average American if they’re willing to eat an insect?  The look of revulsion on their faces speaks volumes!), but I think he’s right.  Insects ARE the best thing we can produce as an animal food source.  There are so many good reasons to eat insects.  And this, a snack provided at both the TEDxAmsterdam and TED  Global conferences, should be one of them:

insect and chocolate covered strawberries

Mealworm and chocolate covered strawberries. Photo taken from http://www.tedxamsterdam.com/2010/marcel-dicke-and-the-critters-that-go-‘crunch’/.

Yum!   Even I might be inclined to try one of these…


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