It didn’t take long for Dr. Julie Lesnik, a Wayne State University anthropologist, to realize that we in the west are missing out on a highly nutritious, yet much maligned, food source.
As a researcher, Lesnik studies the role termites played in our ancestors’ diets. Bugs, she argues, were a critical source of food for our pre-human relatives.
It’s what led her to help organize the first ever North American conference dedicated to the tasty topic.
Hosted at the Wayne State campus in Detroit from May 26 to 28, the Eating Insects conference featured an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars and vendors, all interested in making the consumption of creepy-crawlers a bit more palatable in the west.
“We’re actually the outliers,” Lesnik says of North Americans’ tendency to scoff at eating bugs. “As an ingredient [insects are] really not weirder than things we already use.”
That “gross” factor, she explains, may be a holdover from our colonial past. Early European explorers saw eating insects as barbaric, pushing indigenous people to abandon the practice.
“There have long been traditions of eating insects... [but] we’ve stigmatized it here,” she says.
Getting over our encultured idea of the grossness of bugs is just the first step in a broader movement that could see insects become, once again, a mainstay in our diet. And that would hold greater implications than having more options at the grocery store.
For one, bugs are high in protein. As the global population grows, so too will the hunger for animal protein, the production of which has a huge impact on the environment.
“If agricultural production remains in its present form, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as deforestation and environmental degradation, are set to continue,” states a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “These environmental problems, particularly those associated with raising livestock, need urgent attention.”
As if heeding that call for attention, a Jiminy Cricket of global environmental conscience chirps, “Let us eat bugs!”
Compared to traditional livestock, raising insects is much more efficient, meaning it takes less energy to bring them to the dinner table. Crickets are twice as efficient as chickens at converting feed into meat, and twelve times better than cows.
Compared to their bovine counterparts, insects emit 100 times less greenhouse gases. For every litre of water a cricket needs, a cow needs 40. They also take up less space, as insects can be farmed vertically, unlike the vast grazing pastures needed in livestock production.
Other environmental concerns, like nutrients from animal waste running off into waterways (which could be part to blame for Lake Erie’s toxic algae blooms,) help to position bugs as a much better candidate for the future of food.
But it’s not just about getting people to choke down grubs for the sake of Mother Earth, it’s also a matter of taste.
That’s where the conference vendors shined. They peddled a wide range of items, from cricket bolognese sauce to Thai cricket curry seasoning salt, to the all-natural pre-workout cacao protein bar made with mealworm flour.
And while most products contained ground up insects, a few vendors tantalized taste buds with full bugs.
“Some say it’ll save the world, but I’m in it for the fun,” says Paul Landkamer, a conference attendee and founder of Missouri Entomophagy (Greek for eating insects).
Landkamer dabbled in the practice of eating bugs in the 1970s, testing out chocolate-covered bees and ants with his friends. But he went full bore in the early 2000s after being approached for information while working at the local library.
“I couldn’t share it and talk about it enough,” he says.
That enthusiasm has delicious results, inspired by flavours from around the world. His jalapeno cricket cookies and teriyaki marinated cicadas were conference highlights for this author.
“After I kill my catch by freezing, I almost always boil, then usually marinate and dehydrate to a crispy crunch,” he explains. “Softer bodied insects like caterpillars and mealworms lend themselves nicely to other cooking methods like frying or in stews.”
He makes a tasty case for bugs, underscored by his passion and playfulness.
“Saying they taste good is so subject to opinion and experience, so I like to let the eater decide. I say it’s fun and it’s food: try it!”
Landkamer is one of many in the “try it” chorus.
Either driven by passion for good eats or the good of the Earth (or a bit of both,) that chorus has momentum on its side, more so with the creation of the North American Edible Insect Coalition, edibleinsectcoalition.org, a trade group which formed during the conference.
They’ll be the chirping away in unison now, the insects and their chorus of champions, as we look for tasty answers to the future of food.