Eating Bugs

The search for new food frontiers in an era of population growth


By 2050, the U.N. predicts, our planet will be inhabited by 2 billion more humans. If income and body mass continue their current upward trends, those billions will be richer and fatter than we are. That means they'll want meat, not grain. They'll also want seconds. But will 2050's concentrated agricultural feeding operations— much less its free-range heritage pig farms—be able to produce enough livestock to meet the demand? 

A growing number of optimistic soothsayers say yes. But only if we expand our definition of livestock to include such underutilized food sources as mealworms, grasshoppers, and Sago grubs. In January 2012, 37 international experts met at the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome to discuss "the potential benefits of using insects for food and feed as part of a broader strategy to achieve global food security."

Insects, their advocates enthuse, are high in protein and other nutrients: A 100-gram portion of grasshopper meat contains 20.6 grams of protein, just 7 grams less than an equivalent portion of beef. In addition, insect farming requires less water, less feed, and less land per calorie than traditional livestock farming, and it produces much lower greenhouse gas emissions. All in all, 2050's squirrels and housecats appear to be in luck: When worldwide beef supplies get tight, we'll have other options.

To get a taste of the future, I recently visited a tequila bar called Mosto in San Francisco's Mission District, where a local chef named Monica Martinez had been operating her Don Bugito snack bar on Monday nights throughout the spring. Martinez favors gradualism over shock value in her efforts to introduce people to the virtues of entomophagy, or insect eating. Her Crispy Mix appetizer pairs wax moth larvae with thin, inch-long slivers of potato cooked in duck fat and sprinkled with agave worm salt. Side by side in a tiny square serving dish, the golden-brown insects and stem tubers look like brothers from another mother. 

As it turns out, wax moth larvae don't taste all that different from potatoes either. They're a little salty, a little smoky. Mostly, though, the insect fetuses are light and airy, not exactly stick-to-your-ribs food. It seems such fare will deliver future food security only if at least 80 percent of 2050's extra humans are super­models.

Restaurants around the world are showcasing insects in similarly artful ways. At Vij's, an Indian eatery in Vancouver, the flatbread is made out of roasted crickets. At Typhoon, a pan-Asian restaurant in Santa Monica, you can get silkworm larvae stir-fried in soy, sugar, and white pepper. London's Archipelago serves pan-fried locusts and crickets as a starter and chocolate-covered scorpions or baby bee brûlée for dessert. 

Such dishes suggest the fundamental irony that informs contemporary entomophagy. While insect evangelists champion bugs as a potential solution to looming food shortages for the masses, we eat them today largely because food for the comparatively well-off is so boringly abundant. For millions of people, food is no longer just a form of sustenance, comfort, or sensual pleasure; it's a medium for exploration, discovery, and self-expression. Like a roiling army of ants clear-cutting their way through the Amazon jungle, today's foodies devour everything in their path on the hunt for new flavor combinations to taste and new textures to tweet. Having exhausted the possibilities of seaweed ice cream and frog-ovary soup, they turn their restless palates to boiled cockroaches.

But what will it to take for such fare to cross the chasm from novelty to staple? Couple the artisanal cachet provided by talented chefs like Monica Martinez with insect husbandry's tiny environmental footprint, and it's easy to depict the whole cuisine as a utopian endeavor, a radically out-of-the-box solution to the corporate industrial food system and all the plagues it has unleashed upon the world.

Yet who is best positioned to make the green, sustainable, cruelty-free promise of large-scale insect farming a reality? To augment 2050's food supply in a significant way, to have a real impact on greenhouse gas emissions, an industry that essentially doesn't exist today will need to figure out how to produce hundreds of billions of pounds of insect meat per year in just three and a half decades.

Today's insect farms primarily serve the pet food and bait markets. In the U.S., they produce enough food to keep approximately 13.6 million pet frogs, toads, and lizards satisfied, but humans tend to have bigger appetites, and there are a lot more of us. In the future, we will not only need far more insect farms; we will need bigger, more productive farms as well. 

Regulation of the industry is likely to get more stringent when people replace tarantulas as the target consumer. As insects inch their way toward the food pyramid, disease management capabilities will need to improve. (In the last few years, for example, cricket paralysis densovirus, which is harmless to humans and other creatures but fatal to Acheta domesticus, the common brown house cricket, has wreaked havoc on the commercial cricket industry in the U.S.) 

There will also be a great demand for processing—increasing shelf life, ensuring product safety and consistency, and, most of all, making mealworms and crickets look and feel and taste a little less like mealworms and crickets. While many people may never eat insects even after they've been beheaded, declawed, and dewinged, they might eat insect flour or sports bars fortified with insect protein.

Especially if these products taste good, come in attractive packages, and are aggressively advertised. A shot of tequila does wonders for the palatability of a roasted grasshopper, but entomophagy isn't going to hit the big time on tequila bars alone. It will take experimentation in state-of-the-art R&D kitchens, consumer testing, alluring packaging design, massive advertising campaigns, and probably some help from Shrek and SpongeBob SquarePants. Indeed, given that adults are more likely than children to harbor longstanding, hard-to-change biases, it makes more sense to target kids, positioning insect gobbling as a fun, rewarding activity.

Will Big Food accept the challenge? Corporate behemoths like Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and Cargill have more experience killing insects than cultivating them, but they also have the expertise it will take to create a robust insect farming sector in just a few decades. As do companies such as Kraft Foods, General Mills, Walmart, and McDonald's.

So far these food giants haven't expressed much interest in bugs. But given their reputations for relentless cost cutting, it's only a matter of time before they discover the profit-boosting efficacies of grub nuggets and mealworm burgers.

Even with such powerful companies on board, it will be difficult to grow a business from zero to, say, one-third the size of the current livestock industry by 2050. To establish insect farming as a significant enterprise so quickly, its practitioners will have to innovate in radical ways. Is it possible, for example, to grow a grasshopper the size of a hummingbird using growth hormones? Will we need new laws that require TV networks to air commercials promoting the benefits of entomophagy during shows aimed at children? 

For those who have been envisioning the future of insect farming as a local, small-scale, farm-to-fork endeavor, a way to exterminate the corporate food system once and for all, the idea of using free collectible figurines to help sell genetically modified grub nuggets may be as hard to swallow as a cockroach sandwich. Yet unless 2050 has many more tequila bars than we have now, it seems unlikely that entomophagy will catch without Big Food at the table. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.