Human beings are a diverse bunch. We hold differing opinions on almost everything – from politics to sports to who we marry and who we worship. Endlessly creative, we find an almost infinite number of ways in which to differentiate our group from others, consciously emphasizing our differences over our similarities. One look at the current US election cycle will serve to demonstrate this clearly. But there is one way in which we are united, a common bond that no political ideology can shake: our requirement for food.
Across the globe, different cultures and nationalities have their own cuisines and preferences. To channel national stereotypes here for a second, we can all agree that the Italians love their pasta, the Germans their Laugengebäck, and the Brits their fish and chips. Here in the US, our cultural and culinary melting pot draws from the best – and sometimes the worst – of the rest of the world.
And as the population rises and our usable agricultural land shrinks with the effects of climate change, we – like the rest of the planet – are facing a metaphorical fork in the road. The global population currently stands at around 7.4 billion and, according to United Nations projections, is set to reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100. Perhaps this is a second point on which we can all agree: that’s going to be a lot of mouths to feed. Especially if we continue to eat the way we currently do.
Scares about global famine and predictions of food scarcity are nothing new. In his 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus, a British academic whose work later influenced Charles Darwin, predicted that the world’s supply of available nourishment would be exhausted by the mid-1850s, assuming a geometrical population increase and only an arithmetic increase in food production. A similarly dire warning popped up again in 1968 when Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich and his wife Anne published The Population Bomb in which they predicted a catastrophic global famine by the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, in our 21st century, a 2004 meta-analysis Reconsidering the Limits to World Population: Meta-analysis and Meta-prediction published in the journal Bioscience pulled no punches when it estimated the maximum sustainable limit for world population as only 7.7 billion people – far fewer than the United Nations’ projection.(1)
And what all of these predictions and analyses have in common is the assumption that we will continue to feed ourselves in the ways we always have. We will go on sourcing our protein mainly from animals and will look no further than the traditional meat and two vegetables as a way to decorate our plates. In short, what all of the prophets of doom agree on is that we will neither evolve nor change with our circumstances.
So let’s look at what we put on our plates. In broadest terms, food is broken down on a macro level to around 40 basic nutrients of which protein, carbohydrates, and fats are the most frequently cited in everyday conversation. And alongside vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water, they combine to offer a healthy, life-sustaining diet. In our Western paradigm, we have come to associate protein as coming only from animal sources – chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs etc – and vegetables being only a source of carbohydrates. And the problem with this sort of thinking is that, in a world of dwindling resources, it is an incredibly resource-intensive and wasteful paradigm.
Take, for instance the fact that 4200 gallons of water are required per day to produce the meat for a meat-eater’s daily diet. This includes the water used directly for the animals and indirectly for the irrigation of crops to feed those animals and the processing of those animals to become meat. Let’s compare that against the daily water requirement to produce food for a non meat-eater – just 300 gallons.(2) And water is not the sole resource in question: there’s also land usage, with one acre of land producing only 250 pounds of beef versus a potential 53,000 pounds of potatoes or 50,000 pounds of tomatoes.(3) Additionally there’s the matter of the fossil fuel-derived energy necessary to raise, maintain, house, and transport living animals to the slaughterhouse.
At any given moment it is estimated that there are 10 quintillion individual insects walking, creeping, crawling, burrowing, or flying their way around the planet.(4) This figure equates to 200 million insects for every one human. Entomologically-speaking, insects are arguably the most diverse classes of organisms in the animal kingdom. Of the phylum ‘Arthropoda,’ subphylum (or superclass) ‘Hexapoda,’ creatures in the class ‘Insecta’ are characterized as egg-laying invertebrates with segmented bodies and jointed legs. Living on every continent, they may have inhabited the planet as far back as the Silurian period which began over 440 million years ago.(5) The Smithsonian Institute estimates that some 900 thousand different kinds of insects exist, with fresh discoveries constantly being made.(6)
And with this diversity and availability in mind, could insects become our next source of protein?
Although this might seem like an outrageous suggestion, insects already form a significant dietary component in a variety of world cuisines. In Mexico, chapulines are a delicacy, grasshoppers are harvested in Laos, scorpions find their way into street food markets in China, and caterpillars inch their way nervously around the Democratic Republic of Congo. And here in the US, we already consume bugs in a couple of ways. The food coloring cochineal, for instance, is prized for adding a pop of red to cakes and pastries, and is derived from the extract of crushed beetles. And, although disturbing to most consumers, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently allows no fewer than 71 insect-related ‘defects’ in processed food, ranging from ‘whole insects, insect parts and insect larvae in foods like canned fruit, cornmeal and chocolate.’(7) Additionally, fruit fly eggs are permitted in tomato-based products, with up to 30 individual eggs permissible per 100 grams of product. Bottom line: however unappetizing this is, we are already eating bugs without even knowing it.
So is it really a huge leap to moving our source of animal protein from one class to another? According to the North American Edible Insects Coalition (NAEIC), founded by Robert Nathan Allen, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’ “[The] ‘OMG, eating bugs!’ phase is done and most consumers have heard of consuming crickets as an alternative protein. The edible insect industry is now in the consumer mainstream with entry to grocery stores like Publix and retail outlets such as Disney World…Our goal is that soon the average US consumer will enjoy cricket tacos as easily as we now enjoy a sushi roll.”(8)
And the goals of the NAEIC are broader than simply creating a new trend by shaping consumer taste in a temporary novelty way. Allen also foresees the fashioning of procedures to control the automated processing of insect-based foods. From devising SOPs and cGMPs to initiating a written Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol per the Food Safety Modernization Act (2010), Allen contends that insect-derived foods are no different from any others in terms of the importance of contamination control.
So could we see the safety measures we already have in place being applied to the mass production of insect-derived products? If consumer demand for items such as cricket powder protein bars, fried cricket snacks, seasoned roasted crickets, and instant oatmeal made from insect flours continues, the FDA will catch up in terms of regulation. In an interview with Food Navigator USA, a food and beverage news site, an FDA spokesman stated that insects will be considered food – and will therefore be subject to the same manufacturing constraints as any other food item – if they are to be used specifically for food or as components for food:
“[A]ll that the FDA requires [… is that the insects] must be raised specifically for human food in a good manufacturing practice facility (GMP). Insects raised for animal feed cannot be diverted to human food. They cannot be ‘wildcrafted’ (collected in the wild) and sold as food due to the potential for carrying diseases or pesticides.”(9)
And of course, if they are to be treated as any other food product, insect-derived consumables will be subject to the same recall mechanisms in the case of potential contamination. For public safety, we have to assume that there will be no difference in the recall processes for a contaminated batch of bug-flour oatmeal or a wheat-based pizza crust. The same standards should apply to the quality of the raw ingredients and the cleanliness of the food contact surfaces and equipment on which the products are created as for any other food item. And, in addition, since we do not yet have available data on insects as allergens, all bug-derived food products will need to be produced separately on dedicated equipment and will carry the same levels of warning as those containing, or in contact, with shellfish. But if we set aside our general queasiness, the FDA sees no reason why edible bugs should not become part of our national diet. With protein levels of 13-28 grams/100gram for adult termites or 35-48 grams/100gram for the Mexican chapulines (compare against 19-26 grams/100gram for beef), it’s clear that the creatures we have long considered pests could be soldiers on the frontlines of the fight against global hunger.
Still not feeling peckish? We understand. And, as we suggested earlier, there is another alternative. The daily protein requirement for an adult is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, so for a 35-year old sedentary male the recommended daily intake is 58 grams.(10) This amount is way less than is commonly assumed, with some (non insect-based) power bars packing 20-30 grams of protein in a pocket-sized 60 gram bar. Even small servings of peas or beans are protein-rich (0.5 cup of soybeans offers 15 grams of clean protein, for example) and a 100 gram serving of almonds or pistachios contains over 20 grams and 25 grams of protein respectively. In short, the plant kingdom can also satisfy our protein demands.
So the options are there. Quell our arguably natural queasiness and tuck into a handful of crunchy crickets or re-frame our dialog around protein sources and acknowledge that we can easily meet our requirements on a plant-based diet. The choice is ours and, if our world population increases as anticipated, it is one that we will ultimately be forced to consider. Deep-fried locust anyone…?
Do you have thoughts about the future of insects in our national cuisine? Have you ever experienced a meal in which bugs were the main attraction? If so, we’d love to hear your stories!