Cricket “sushi” prepared by BugsEndHunger. Photo: Lara Hanlon

Food to Feed the World

Insects : the sustainable and delicious food of today.

An excerpt from a 2017 TEDx talk: Food to Feed the World.

NYC — a concrete jungle. Photo: Lara Hanlon

I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to travel quite regularly. For both business and pleasure, I have visited some of the greatest cities in the world. But one thing I notice every time that I travel to these cities, is that they seem to begetting bigger and bigger…and bigger.

It is estimated that by 2050 there will be over 9 billion people living on the earth — that is 2 billion more than today!

Cities across the globe are growing upward and outward in an effort to accommodate more businesses and homeowners. Sprawling cityscapes demand extra land for construction and these growing populations demand greater sources of food production. In fact, by 2050 we will need to increase food production by an estimated 60 percent. But land for agricultural use is depleting, and quickly. It is becoming increasingly hard to source natural, sustainable food, particularly in concrete jungles such as the cities we build and inhabit today.

By the end of this century, the average global sea level is expected to rise 7–23 inches. While 7–23 inches does not sound significant, you may want to consider that half of the world’s population lives within 37 miles of the sea while three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast, according to the United Nations. Sea levels are in fact rising three- to four-times faster along parts of the United States’ East Coast than they are globally.

Unfortunately, the meat and dairy industries are one of the biggest drivers of pollution and climate change. As countries like China grow wealthier and adopt more of a Western diet, the demand for meat is expected to increase rapidly, putting even more strain on the environment.

Furthermore, in a world that is driven by capitalism, our lives have become extremely fast paced. Our environment and careers require us to move at an alarming speed. We rely upon, and seek out, convenient options to help us get through the day. Convenience, often, in the form of highly processed and fast-foods.

Scientific and medial studies show that processed food can significantly increase your chances of developing heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes.

Scariest of all, traces of additives and toxins that are often used in cleaning solutions such as Sodium bisulfite are often detected in processed foods! We’re putting this inside our bodies and back into the environment — a pretty scary thought, don’t you think.

Simply put, for Western society to sustain and progress we need to find and create better, more viable models of food production. Our society requires new answers to the “wicked problems” we are all faced with such as population overgrowth, climate change, and poor health & well being.

In 2013, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) published a report entitled Edible Insects. The report set out to assess the viability of insects as a global food supply to end world hunger in the face of these global issues.

When I first learned about the term ‘entomophagy’, meaning the practice of eating insects, I simply couldn’t imagine myself or anyone I knew for that matter chomping down on a plate of crickets or mealworm any time soon. Insects, to me, were creatures of the earth, of damp dark corners! They didn’t belong on my plate, never-mind in my mouth. But considering all of these looming, wicked problems, I was curious…so I continued to research.

Surprisingly, the FAO Edible Insects report revealed that:

  1. Edible insects improve and sustain many local diets due to the high nutritional values found in many species.
  2. Western society is not averse to edible insects. Although insects are treated as ‘novel’ food types in the West, they are still accessible.
  3. Edible insects provide new business opportunities in the mini-livestock sector and so they can enable economic growth.

If we look even closer we can also learn that insects convert organic waste such as grass, leaves, legumes, fruit pulp, and vegetables into edible protein. Meaning less food waste, packaging and antibiotics or hormones often used in traditional farming production. Insects release far fewer greenhouse gases, too. A pound of protein from mealworm has a greenhouse gas footprint 1% as large as a pound of protein from cattle.

Insects, including crickets, grasshoppers and mealworm are high in protein, calcium, iron and low in saturated fats. They are healthy for you!

If you visit Cambodia, Thailand, South America or parts of China will find street vendors roasting, frying and selling tasty insects to locals and tourists alike. Edible insects are part of many diets across the world. In fact, over 2 billion people worldwide eat them every day.

Cricket powder has an aroma similar to cacao and nutty flavour

Insects can be consumed in a myriad of ways but when it comes to edible bugs, people’s initial thoughts and reactions are often psychologically driven. The visual component — actually seeing the insect in its entirety (wings included!) as something you can eat — can be so powerful, but not always in a positive way.

Cricket powder is a fun, accessible and healthy way to win this mind-over-matter battle. Gram for gram/pound for pound, insects can provide similar and sometimes more protein than beef, pork, chicken. We need protein — it’s an essential compound to our diet. And here we have it in the form of cricket powder. It’s a natural, versatile alternative to meat that can be used to bake bread and cookies, to make pasta and chips or protein shakes.

Edible insect treats in high demand at the 2017 Austin Texas Bug Eating Festival
There is a movement happening across mainland Europe and America today. Startups in the food and innovation industry are launching energy bars, pasta and other food products, in an effort to introduce insects as part of our daily diet.

Believe it or not, insects are regularly served to adventurous, curious gourmands in fine-dining restaurants all across the world. For example, Alex Atala, head chef of D.O.M fine-dining restaurant in Sao Paulo, serves up raw ants in one of his dishes featured in the Netflix series Chefs Table. Yum.

Edible insects have, for hundreds of years, provided billions of individuals across Asia, Africa and South America with a rich source of protein, iron and calcium. However, when we look at Western Society — who are responsible for urban development, mass deforestation, food production, industrialisation, pollution — we are somehow behind with adopting this food source. But we have a responsibility to pay attention and consider these facts and alternatives. The onus is on us to make a positive change.

Not only are insects scientifically proven to provide the nutrients we need as part of our daily diets, they also provide us with opportunities in food innovation and development — an opportunity to improve economies in rural and urban areas around the world.

In the end, if we all work together to overcome the cultural taboos associated with insects as food, we would collectively help to create a healthier society and happier planet. Sounds good, right? So why not start that journey together and #eatbugs!

Lara Hanlon is a Designer at IBM Design (most of the time) and a passionate insects-as-food advocate at éntomo (the rest of the time). You can view Lara’s latest TEDx talk in full here.