Saturday, 8 September 2012

Entomophagy (insect eating) - the healthy, tasty, eco-friendly and sustainable future of food!

We all like steak every now and again, but that is the important point - once in a blue moon is fine. However, our increasingly affluent world population is demanding ever more beef on the dinner table, which is unfriendly to both the environment and our health.  Recent research carried out regarding red meat, including beef, suggests that too much in our diets can lead to increased risk of premature death from a range of ailments including heart disease and cancer.  One look at the nutrition facts of beef tells you everything you need to know - a serving size of 308g provides 356% of our daily recommended allowance of cholesterol, a build-up of which in the blood can lead to a variety of heart problems.

Now it's true that we can eat lean meat to reduce the risks of these problems but therein lies another shortcoming - animals of any sort require food and water while they are reared.  In cattle-ranching areas such as the USA, where beef production occurs on a very large scale, it can take between 7-9kg of grain to produce 1kg of meat.  For pork the figure is closer to 4kg.  In the UK and Europe these figures are much lower due to grazing, however, ranching is the only efficient way of meeting an ever-increasing demand for meat around the world.  Of all the grain produced on this planet, one third goes into feeding livestock, while only 40% of this is converted to edible meat.  In the United States for every 156kg of grain or legume fed to livestock, only 28kg is returned in the form of meat - the rest is lost via waste.  In total, 70% of agricultural land is spent on rearing livestock, much of which competes with land that would be better served producing crops for human consumption.  Considering that there are 930 million people going hungry or who are malnourished today the grain spent on feeding unsustainable cattle in ranches (and other livestock) could go to much better use.

Grain is not the only factor that makes our dependence on meat unsustainable.  The more pressing issue is that the world is quickly running out of fresh water.  Countries such as Saudi Arabia in the middle east have now completely run out of water for irrigation due to depletion of fossil aquifers - the underground stores of water that so many countries around the world rely on to grow crops.  Considering there are 930 million people to be fed it seems ridiculous that we allow such large scale use of water to nurture farm animals.  It takes around 9000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef (FAO and UN official statistics quote up to 15 000).  Added to this is the fact that in order to produce cattle deforestation occurs on a vast scale - a particular example being Brazil where up to 40% of cattle are ranched within the boundaries of the Amazon rainforest.  Forests are vital for cloud formation over continents (leading to rain), therefore huge deforestation added to the increased strain on water resources by cattle grazing suggests a bleak outlook for water security based on the current status-quo..

A groundwater depletion map of the world.  Areas in orange, yellow and red show where groundwater is depleting fastest from aquifers.  The worst affected areas are California, the middle east and most worryingly India, which will soon be home to the largest malnourished population in the world. (

This needs to change.  But how?

Here's the hard-sell.  Insects are the most abundant form of animal life on the planet, and can be found in their trillions from rainforest to savannah.  To point out their incredible abundance - chitin (which forms the exoskeleton) is thought to be the most commonly found protein found on Earth (though it's also found in fungi, plankton and crustaceans), and the second most abundant natural polymer other than the cellulose of plant cell walls.  Their incredible numbers also mean that there are over 1500 edible species of insect worldwide.  Edible insects range from the tiny, such as honey ants, to the huge water bugs, stick insects and sago grubs of South East Asia.

Insects are, in fact, eaten by over 2.5 billion people worldwide.  In Mexico and Vietnam ant eggs are considered a luxury commodity, much like caviar to someone in Europe and the USA.  Bùi Ngọc Chương of Vietnam has a project called Bug Corporation, which offers a diverse range of incredible insects. Crustaceans such as prawns, crab and lobster have been eaten as a luxury item for many years in Europe and North America, the latter of which can fetch up to £50 at an overly-priced restaurant.  It's strange that we see insects as something disgusting when, in reality, they aren't much different than something we consider luxury.  Other animals that fall into the entomophagy category are spiders and scorpions, which, although not insects (but arachnids), taste remarkably like crab!  Tarantulas are oven-baked in Cambodia, while you can find skewered scorpions on sticks in China and Thailand.  Anybody who has seen the HSBC advert filmed in Thailand must have noticed the smile beaming from the little girl as she gets hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled onto her fried scorpions!

Insects are a healthier and more sustainable choice than eating meat.  Recent research suggests that Grasshoppers contain 47-77g protein per 100g and are more calorific per kilogram than even beef and pork.  This compares favourably with beef, which has a protein content of around 25-27g per 100g. However, the health bonus of eating insects is that the amount of saturated fat is half that of what you find in beef, which means much lower levels of cholesterol.  Nutritionally insects stand up favourably too, with crickets having 3 times more iron than beef, while termites have a whopping 35.5mg iron per 100g compared to only 3.5mg in beef.  Considering there are millions of malnourished people worldwide who are at risk of, or suffering from, anaemia it seems that insects would be a sensible way to increase the amount of iron in our diets.

In terms of sustainability insects compare even more favourably against meat.  It takes 9000 litres of water (lower estimate) to produce 1kg of beef yet it requires one thousand times less to produce the same amount of insects.  While it requires around 9kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef in the USA, it requires just over 1kg of foodstuff to produce 1kg of locusts.  In terms of environmental damage insects stack up well too.  Cows, sheep and other ruminants produce an obscene amount of methane, which contributes massively to the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Insects produce relatively little waste in comparison, therefore have a much lesser negative affect on the environment.  Furthermore, insects could be reared sustainably using vertical farms, which means rainforests would certainly not have to be chopped down in order to cater for them.

The good news is that insect eating is on the rise in North America and Europe!  People such as Daniella Martin (Girl Meets Bug) and Chef David George Gordon (who hosts the annual feast of St. Gratus)  are flying the flag for entomophagy in the USA.  In the Netherlands Ger van der Wal, the owner of DeliBugs, is also promoting insect eating and supplies delectable bugs such as locusts and mealworms for human consumption (rather than bearded dragons like the ones I have to buy).  There is also a restaurant in London called Archaepelago where you may find locusts as part of your meal.  Hopefully, with some willful encouragement, and the opportunity for eating insects (such as in the videos I have shown both above and below), we will eventually convince people that insects are a delectable and viable food, as well as healthy and sustainable - for the good of humanity and the planet.

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