“Food is very tied to culture, and 20 or 30 years ago, no one in the U.S. was eating sushi because we thought it was disgusting, but now you can get it at a gas station in Nebraska.” — Valerie Stull
At first, the plate in front of me seemed like any other dish at a typical Korean restaurant: a bowl of rice noodles mixed with fermented kimchi, stuffed with fresh seafood and a few chives to garnish the top. As I began to devour the dish, I suddenly felt a subtle crack. Initially, I thought it was a hard chunk of cabbage, but when I spotted round brown eyes cocooned in a swirl of noodles with tiny legs, I freaked. My plate was teeming with larvae.
I’d accidentally ordered silkworms for lunch.
“Beondegi,” a traditional Korean delicacy, contained the first edible insects I’d ever eaten. Once I realized what I’d ordered, and tucked in, I noticed the steamed bugs were crunchy with a rich nutty flavor. It was a dish I could definitely eat, several times a month, without revulsion.
Simply put: a food crisis is ahead of us.
This experience made me realize how much we limit ourselves when it comes to food options in the West. Around the world, people consume insects daily. Why isn’t the West doing the same?
People generally associate the word “insect” with something disgusting. But many creepy-crawlies are incredibly nutritious. Though grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, mealworms, and ants may seem unpalatable, experts indicate insects will become a new source of protein and a key, sustainable solution to help us tackle climate change.
As planet earth warms and the population grows toward 10 billion people by 2050, we will need to rethink our approach to food production. As the planet’s population rises, so will the production and consumption of livestock. This kind of growth will require an additional 70 percent more feed for cattle in the next 30 years, according to The UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
The meat industry already takes an enormous toll on the environment, gobbling up huge amounts of land and water. Livestock production currently accounts for 25 percent of greenhouse emissions worldwide, emitting even more gases than planes, trains, and cars combined. Ramping up the current food production system won’t be enough to handle population growth, and soon, our food production systems will need to adapt to climate change as well. We’ll need to increase the potential output per unit of land while at the same time conserving water.
Ironically some insects, like crickets and some species of worms, pack more protein, pound for pound than traditional meat.
Simply put: a food crisis is ahead of us. Reducing the amount of meat we consume is crucial to avoiding a climate breakdown. Since 1970, Humanity has already wiped out 60 percent of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. There’s nowhere else for us to turn but toward insect protein.
A recent study in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development has promoted edible insects as a sustainable solution to food shortages and global warming. Greenhouse gases would be significantly reduced by switching to insect farming — insects have a smaller environmental footprint than beef. Ironically, some insects, like crickets and some species of worms, pack more protein, pound for pound, than traditional meat.
In countries like Thailand, Kenya, and Mexico, around 1900 species of edible bugs are consumed every day. Many entrepreneurs in the West are taking a cue from insects’ global popularity and beginning to research new business possibilities for edible insects. In Australia and France, companies are looking to harness the potential of bugs on a commercial scale. Insects are now sold at baseball stadiums in the U.S.; a stand at Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, has been selling toasted grasshoppers, dusted with chili-lime salt, for $4 since 2017. The edible insect industry is projected to be worth over $700 million by 2024.
Wholesalers are taking note. Manufacturers like Essento Food are leading the way in Europe by positioning insects as upmarket and delicious. Other purveyors, like Aspire Food Group in the U.S., have raised $18 million in funding. WIRED magazine reported that Aspire Food Group acquired Exo, a maker of cricket protein bars, becoming the largest edible insect megabrand in the North America.
The only obstacle: our disgust. How do we, in the West, overcome our fears? And how can policymakers and companies promote and market insect-based foods?
Sebastian Berger, a professor at the Department of Organization and Human Resource Management at the University of Bern — in Bern, Switzerland — may have the answer. In a recent study, he set out to discover the key to persuading people to eat insects. 180 participants were offered mealworm chocolate truffles. Prior to eating them, half of the group was handed an advertisement stating that eating insects was good for them and the environment, while the other half were told bugs were delicious. Surprisingly, the results showed that 62 percent of those given the health or environmental incentives chose to eat the truffle, compared with 76 percent who ate the truffle after being told it would taste good. The latter group rated the taste of the truffle higher.
The study suggests that switching the message from an environmental incentive to a pleasure-based one could be the key to selling insect-based products in the near future. As previous studies have shown, attitudes based on emotions are more malleable than those grounded in rational claims. As our aversion to insects is usually emotional rather than rational, future marketing campaigns should portray insects as delicious, hip, or even luxurious. Only then might we be able to switch a consumer’s eating habits.
Nevertheless, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. We must develop clear and comprehensive legal and regulatory frameworks for insect consumption, along with securing the support of academia and emerging companies. We need to ensure a cost-effective, reliable production line of insects of consistent quality. A shift in consumer attitudes will be key in order to sell insect-based products. And overcoming human psychology when it comes to creepy-crawlies will be essential to selling the meal of the future.
Time will tell whether entomophagy will someday be considered a viable option for lunch (without making us puke). But with recent technological advances in the industry, it likely won’t be long before we see bars of chocolate filled with crunchy grasshoppers in every supermarket aisle and mealworms tossed into chopped salads all over the world.
The future will be challenging but if we open our minds, and mouths, it’ll also be appetizing.