Imagine sitting down for a three-course meal with a locust stew to start, mealworm stir fry as your entrée, and chocolate-dipped crickets for dessert. Disgusting? Maybe. But for a growing number of people, such meals are a recurrent treat. Entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is becoming increasingly popular for its curious culinary possibilities and environmental benefits.
Entomologist Marcel Dicke posed a simple question to the audience in a recent TED talk: Why not eat insects? The concept may seem foreign in the West but entomophagy has been practiced by most of the world for thousands of years. Around 80 percent of the world’s population eats insects, says Dicke. They are a vital source of energy and nutrients for billions of people.
There are several reasons Americans should consider insect cuisine. To begin with, our current eating habits are largely unsustainable. Our insatiable appetite for meat dwarfs that of even other developed countries. And most livestock production is incredibly inefficient. Beef, for example, has an input-to-output ratio of 54-1, meaning that it takes 54 grams of protein in feed to create 1 gram of protein in consumable beef.
Livestock production is also a huge waste of water: It takes more than 100,000 liters to produce one kilogram of beef. We simply can’t keep sourcing our food like this given the growing scarcity of fresh water.
Insects, on the other hand, are much less wasteful to raise. Crickets have an input-to-output ratio of 4-1. That’s a full order of magnitude more efficient than beef. Additionally, insects require far less water to grow, which drastically reduces water waste in food production.
The benefits aren’t exclusively environmental, either. Insects offer nearly as much protein as lean beef but less than a third of the fat, not to mention more vitamins and minerals.
Dicke also makes the point that eating insects may have public health benefits. There is next to no risk of disease transfer from the food supply since insects are so genetically different from humans. In other words, you won’t be catching “mad worm disease” or “cricket flu” anytime soon.
Another major reason to eat insects is directly related to our food supply. The demand for meat will increase exponentially as the world’s population grows. Unfortunately, livestock production’s inefficiencies won’t allow supply to meet demand. Insects, however, offer similar nutrition, and they can be raised on a much larger scale without incurring the same negative environmental impacts.
But what about the most important question: How do insects taste? Experienced entomophagists describe the range of tastes from nutty to meaty to fruity. The taste depends on the insect, and with an estimated 1,400 species of edible insects—not to mention the nearly endless preparation possibilities—it’s easy to find something that caters to you.
The fact that insects remain something of a culinary taboo in the West is a purely cultural phenomenon. We’re raised to believe that insects are repugnant so we tend to shudder at the thought of consuming them. In the rare event that we do, it may be for novelty or the sake of being adventurous.
Nevertheless, climate change and other environmental factors are challenging our eating habits. Replacing some of our consumption from animal protein to insect protein could become a fun and tasty way to be good stewards of the planet.