Winner winner, cricket dinner
A journey of conscience from vegetarianism to entomophagy
In November of last year I resolved to attempt vegetarianism for a second time. My previous effort had been as an angsty teenager. Dismayed by the killing of innocent animals for food, I announced my intentions to my parents and embarked on what was to be almost 2 years of refried beans, Quorn mince, Linda McCartney sausages and of course lots of vegetables. My mother tells me I was very determined but after a 24-hour charity wake-a-thon I came home to the smell of spiced chicken and the other members of my well-rested family licking their fingers and devouring the crispy, well-done thighs of some unfortunate bird. I caved, HARD.
In the succeeding years, food became something of a passion. I come from a multi-cultural, multi-faith background. Family gatherings have always centred around food, and the running joke was that the minute we would all sit down to eat, conversation would inevitably turn to what we would be eating the following day. Vegetarians are well-catered for in the Hindu faith and many of my favourite meals growing up could be described as plant-based. While Ireland is not renowned for its culinary culture, in the years since the bottom dropped out of the Celtic Tiger, the country has been undergoing its own food revolution. During the recession, bleak austerity policies curtailed household spending but inexplicably, small independent cafés, delis and restaurants began to spring up and thrive on every street corner and in many of the empty retail units dotted throughout the capital. Smart marketing made affordable casual dining a reality. There were pop-ups and retreats, street feasts and festivals and neighbourhood food initiatives. Even today the appetite for our expanding food culture (excuse the pun) shows little sign of slowing down.
At the same time, concerns about our ever-growing global population and climate change have come a long way since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Serious questions are being asked about the rise in resource-intensive global beef production and the practices therein. Intermittently over the past 30 years, the agriculture industry has been — quite literally — plagued with disease: swine flu, avian flu, BSE and foot-and-mouth disease have caused economic losses and in some cases led to human infection. Factory farming conditions have come under intense scrutiny and the practice of using high levels of antibiotics on livestock has contributed to building antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans.
All this added up to an impending sense of urgency, on my behalf, to make some small effort to reduce my contribution to our stressed eco-system and prompted my second attempt at cultivating more principled eating habits. Being a firm believer in the power-of-one I made a new year’s resolution to cut meat from my diet. My resolve was strengthened by one thing, a proviso. The all-or-nothing premise would not work for me. My new lifestyle had a get-out clause allowing me to indulge the meateater within on the occasion of going to a restaurant. Not an everyday or every-week scenario, maybe a monthly extravagance — or less … But could I really call myself a vegetarian?
I’m not alone in this lifestyle change and while it’s not a modern phenomenon, there are some new buzzwords that satisfy our hashtag culture and appease the vegetarian and vegan groups that would not want a sometime-meateater counted among their number. Was I a flexitarian? The implication that I was merely flexible about when I ate meat didn’t seem to embody the struggle and the principles upon which my new diet was founded. Reducetarian failed to cut-it either nor does it elegantly roll off the tongue. Climatarian seemed a better fit. According to Biba Hartigan co-founder of the London-based Climates, a climatarian diet strictly speaking only involves cutting out beef and lamb, but to me it could equally refer to someone who considers the threat of climate change a factor in their daily eating habits. Maybe I’m just a really flexible, meat-reducing climatarian! That said, I probably won’t be bandying the term around my local pub for fear of rolled eyes, barely-stifled snorts and sheer ridicule.
Insects are considered to contain equal — and in some cases — more protein and less fat than conventional meats
All things considered then, how should I feel about entomophagy? While having long been common practice in some Asian and South-American countries, eating insects is now being touted as the way forward for western diets. I was first introduced to the concept when I encountered éntomo, a new food perspective and online resource that seeks to promote insects as a sustainable and exciting global food source. The evidence put forward for entomophagy is encouraging. Considered to contain equal — and in some cases — more protein and less fat than conventional meats, insects also thrive in what would be considered poor farming conditions for agricultural animals. In an article entitled “Crickets vs. chicken? We’re missing the point” by Daniel Imre Situnayake it’s claimed that crickets need less space, prefer heat (which as a colony they can generate for themselves) and as natural recyclers they can live primarily on food waste. They require no antibiotics or pesticides and Situnyake goes on to describe how flexibility in location, ease of harvesting and the benefits of the by-product “frass” as a fertiliser are compelling arguments for crickets as a sustainable crop. What’s not to love? The much-evidenced claim of insects being a sustainable global food source should fit in nicely with my newly-acquired soapbox. However, I have found that I’m re-discovering my original aversion to eating animals, perhaps because of the agenda put forward on the vegetarian and vegan food blogs I have started to follow in search of recipes and adorable pig videos. Many people who follow plant-based diets do so because they don’t believe in killing sentient beings for food but is veganism the answer? In an essay entitled “Bugging the Strict Vegan” author Bob Fischer suggests that even the strictest plant-based diet may not be as ethical as its proponents might have hoped. He argues that for all its good intentions, the harm caused to definitely and probably conscious beings in plant production, i.e. those creatures that we know to be or are probably sentient — field mice, voles, rabbits, toads and songbirds —compromises the argument of the ‘least harm’ principle of the strict vegan diet. He proposes that because we have no clear evidence of sentience in insects that a diet based on bugs — the perhaps conscious — trumps the plant-based diet that definitely causes harm to the aforementioned definitely conscious and probably conscious beings. It’s food for thought and may well satisfy the qualms of a flexi-reducey-climatarian.
Studies investigating whether invertebrates can experience pain in anything like the human understanding of the word have yet to yield conclusive proof. ‘Pain and Suffering in Invertebrates’ by Robert W. Elwood (Professor of Animal Behaviour at the School of Biological Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast) looks at the distinction between nociception (“the neural processes of encoding and processing noxious stimuli”) and pain experience, defined in humans as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Some invertebrates display behaviours analogous to human responses to noxious stimuli. They may tend to the site of a bodily injury or learn to avoid the source of the stimulus. Some undergo physiological change responses, others withdraw protectively. While one researcher felt confident to say that fish feel pain but invertebrates do not, Elwood claims to be hesitant to share his confidence. He concludes the essay by recommending that it should be considered a possibility that at least some invertebrates might suffer pain and as a precaution these animals should be subject to humane standards of care.
So perhaps until we know further, it’s best to progress with these considerations in mind. The question remains: can a balance be found that benefits the human global population while showing due care to the other living species with which we share the planet? For my part I intend to continue my endeavours to eat more responsibly and if that means entrusting my future meal plans to a bunch of science guys, then so be it!