They are the biggest species group in the world, outnumbering humans 200 million to one. Marcel Dicke, Professor of Entomology at Wageningen University, forerunner in the research of edible insects, says it best - "We are not on a planet of Men, we are on a planet of Insects." Who rules the world?
Around 1900 insect species are already being eaten by two billion people in the world. Two billion. They eat tarantulas in Cambodia, the mopane worm has an annual trade value of over $85 million in Southern Africa and flying termites are a treasured delicacy all over the world from Mexico to the small village in South India that I live in (treasured because they are only in season for the first 4-5 days of the monsoon every year, in both countries.)
Turning to insects is not new. The bible mentions it, South America does it, even ancient Rome and Greece did it. We should know, here in India insects having always been a part of our culinary tradition. From eesal in Tamil Nadu to the ant chutney made by the Gond tribals of Chattisgarh. The Bodos of the North East still consume insects as the main staple of their diet - eating caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles everyday. But we don't, do we? However old our family recipes go - very, very few of them contain insects. Why? Was it a caste thing, or was it perhaps the sneaky colonisation of our food and the way we think about it?
The gross out factor is real, at least, amongst the billowing middle class that makes up the majority of our nation. Ironic, because the FAO (UN's Food and Agriculture Department) declared Entomophagy, or eating insects, as the solution to feed the growing middle class around the world. As economies in the developing world get richer and richer, the demand for animal protein increases. By 2050, the planet won't be able to provide the 9 billion mouths that need to be fed.
Enter the scary future of our planet.
Current livestock production systems are dismal. Rainforests are being razed to grow feed for animals that end up on the plates of a wealthy minority.
“The math is simple,” writes Crowley -- creator of the hugely successful Chapul bars (What? You don't eat cricket-flour protein bars yet?). “If we shift even a small fraction of our protein consumption to environmentally friendly, healthy (and tasty!) insects, we can reduce the huge amount of water…which irrigates the massive, mechanized farms that exist solely to feed cattle and pigs." Forget the land and water it uses - livestock is incredibly polluting, especially with the horrendous hormones and pesticides used to keep operations 'sanitary'. The clincher? Industrial livestock production emits more greenhouse gases than planes, trains and automobiles combined.
On the other hand - let’s compare a cow with say, a cricket. It takes almost 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef while it takes barely 8 litres to produce a kg of crickets. This is mainly because crickets use 6 times less feed than cattle. If a family of four ate insects once a week for a year - they would help save 650,000 litres of water. That’s the size of a lake.
Even better, you can actually use food waste to feed the crickets without having to use any agricultural land (only about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year on this planet). Add to this, upto 80% of a cricket can be used for human consumption - compared to only 40% of a cow. This makes crickets 12 times more efficient than cattle.
And they are better for you. 200 calories of beef contains around 22 gms of protein, compared to 31gms of cricket flour. Crickets have less fat, more than double the omega 3 and lots of fibre (beef has none). I’m not the first to say it - crickets are a perfect workout food. Oh, and the flour is gluten free.
But how do they taste?
Surprisingly, I knew a lot of people who had given it a shot. Mickael ordered these online, “In Asia it's over fried, but this French version is healthy and organic. I am trying to have a better diet and am looking for other protein sources." Elektra tried them out in a fancy restaurant in Mexico but ended with, "For now, I'm gonna stick with dal for my protein." (She’s a ‘political’ vegetarian) Personally, I really enjoy the maggots sold on the streets in Bangkok; perfect as a snack with your beer. But, like Mickael says, ”with their spices and deep frying, the Thai can make anything taste good.”
Luckily, we got none other than 3 Michelin star Chef Rene Redzepi at Noma - arguably the best restaurant in the world, teaching us how to eat them. In 2008, he started The Nordic Food Lab - an open source culinary research institute that 'investigates food diversity and deliciousness'. They ran a 3 year project which involved two researchers - one a chef, the other a Yale graduate, Ben Reade and Josh Evans, circumnavigating the world looking for delicious insects. (Their journey was documented into a movie, Bugs.)
And boy, did they find them. Mexican 'escaroles' (desert ant eggs) that taste of blue cheese, sweet and sour honey ants in Australia and the famed saúva ants of South America. Their aim, though, was never to bring back truck loads of escaroles from Mexico. Noma prides itself on being completely local (they don't even use olive oil!). The aim was to understand how insects can be processed in a kitchen to extract as much 'deliciousness' (it’s one of Redzepi’s favorite words) out of them as possible -- and of course, to find insects they could use in Denmark itself. Danish ants are now on the menu at Noma, providing flavors that otherwise can't be grown there (citronella!).
This is important - top chefs around the world create food trends, literally dictating what we eat. And thus, grow. New foods are served up in fancy restaurants before trickling down to us plebs. Sushi is a great example - yes, it had to be hidden in a roll of rice but who would have thought japanese raw fish would one day become so ubiquitous, we would literally be causing tuna species to disappear (another story).
Farmers are already catching on to the new trend and there is some serious money to be made. Insect farming in Thailand now constitutes a multi-million dollar (and growing!) industry there, with up to 20,000 new farms exporting insects wholesale to Europe, America and the UK.
The chefs at Noma understand that cardinal rule of good food - mise en place doesn't start in the kitchen, it starts way before that. I was going to say, it starts in the farm, but Evans and Reade declared insect farms (in the Netherlands, at least) a failure because the star ingredients were nearly flavourless. As chefs interested in good food, they know that upscaling insect production and creating a global insect trade like other industrialised food systems is not the answer. Farmed, freeze dried insects that have traveled halfway across the world and are god knows how old - taste like cardboard. Ecologically, if those are the problems insects are supposed to cure, it cannot be done within mainstream food systems. You would simply be replacing one industrial protein production system with another.
The best tasting insects are of course, wild ones.
I spoke to Gitika Saikia, who does food pop ups in Mumbai; often serving up insects. She is very certain of their 'deliciousness' but worried the wild insects in Assam are going extinct. Red ant eggs only come for 10-15 days in April, just in time for Bihu - the New Year festival in Assam. They now cost up to 1000 bucks a kilo, and every year, it gets tougher to get a hold of them. She worries they won't last longer than 5 more years.
Perhaps as this BBC documentary highlights, there might be a sustainable way to grow (and make sure they don’t go extinct) delicious insects. Organic farmers spend a lot of time on eliminating pests - the most effective way is to get ducks or chickens to do it for you (it’s what we do!). But, if these ‘pests’ can bring you a value addition to your farm? Plucking insects would be no different from harvesting any other crop. Most people living out in the ‘country’ have a vast knowledge of these insects already and this could become a very viable source of income creating new livelihoods especially where organic crops are grown.
And so, as always, the answer to environmentally healthy eating is diversity in growing and eating good, locally sustainable foods. Reade said something awesome (for another interview), “It’s not the insects themselves that are going to make it sustainable. It’s the humans.”
Simrit Malhi is a permaculturist living on her organic farm in Kodaikanal. She likes hanging out at the intersection between design and the natural world. Follow her at maaliwalli.tumblr.com.