The future of food: why isn’t the West eating more insects? They’re packed full of protein, cheap to produce and environmentally responsible – long touted as a nutritious partial solution to world hunger and over farming, edible insects have not yet been as warmly embraced in new markets as many campaigners hoped.
According to a report released by the UN in 2013, two billion people around the world eat insects on a regular basis, both as a practical part of their diet and as celebrated delicacies on special occasions.
Over 2000 species of insect are edible, including long-horned and dung beetles, butterfly larvae, red ants and grasshoppers. They’re not just technically safe to consume, either; from a nutritional and environmental standpoint they’re the ideal food source. In comparison to other more conventional meats like chicken, fish, pork and beef, insects pound-for-pound provide similar (if not more in many cases) amounts of amino acids, healthy fats and essential minerals. They also require far fewer resources to farm; accelerated growth periods increase production efficiency, while putting less of a strain on the atmosphere through greenhouse gas generation.
One theory as to why they just haven’t caught on in Europe and countries with a strong European cultural influence is evolutionary. Europe’s colder weather and relatively small size have not allowed for the biodiversity seen in Africa and Asia; only 2 per cent of the world’s edible insect species can be found in Europe. These unfriendly conditions also mean that European insects are smaller on the whole than their hot-weather counterparts. Their modest size may make them significantly less terrifying to find in the house, but more inefficient in terms of effort-to-reward ratio to farm, hunt and eat. This lack of an insect-eating legacy is proving hard to overcome.
Western squeamishness is by all logic hypocritical, considering that honey (a bee by-product formed from regurgitated nectar) is an uncontroversial item on most menus. Moreover, food safety bodies already allow a certain amount of insect matter to be present in processed products as an inevitability, while the red food coloring found in many cakes and flavored drinks is made from the organs of cochineal beetles.
Food is, of course, as subject to the whims of fashion as any other cultural object; it wasn’t long ago that lobster was abhorred as dirty and disgusting by those who had the economic power to choose what they ate. Only coastal paupers and prisoners once consumed what we now consider to be a signifier of wealth and good taste.
Forward-thinkers have decided that the time has come for Europe and Northern America to overcome their reluctance. Rising to the challenge, various start-ups have sprung up in recent years determined to change the public’s perception of insects. Research and strategy consultancy firm Global Market Insights suggests that the American market for edible insects could increase by 43 per cent or more by 2024.
The strategy seems to be to start small, by presenting insects in an unrecognizable form to trick people into developing a taste for them. Aspire Food Group is gearing up to produce cricket flour in industrial quantities using robots to automate the entire process. If this enterprise proves to be a commercial success, it would help make the case that the Western palate is finally ready to expand into entomophagy.
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