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Grub’s up: is entomophagy our future?

Insects are the last things many would associate with a meal. They buzz, bite and butcher our food. They’re pests to be controlled.

As I sauté my locusts a nutty – slightly burning – waft of baked mealworms rises from the oven. It’s the end of a long day and I’m craving a Papa Johns’ double pepperoni.

I recount in my head the disgusted reactions of friends and family to my latest venture and briefly my body convulses. The spare pan quivers in my left hand, anticipating a thwack. God forbid one of these locusts revives.

Across the Atlantic, Daniella Martin, 36, a bronzed, athletic TV host and food blogger, enjoys her second waxworm smoothie of the day.

She needs the extra protein. She’s jetlagged. Last night she returned to San Francisco from a three-week tour of Asia researching her book Why I eat bugs and think you should too. 

“Frozen bugs were sold in bulk at Makromart in Chiang Mai” she gushes. “I was so excited.”

“I’ve been the freak show at more parties than I care to remember but eating bugs is not weird at all. It’s logic; they’re abundant.”

There are over 1,700 known species of edible insects including grasshoppers, beetles, ants, bees, wasps, cockroaches, termites, dragonflies and butterflies.

Martin first encountered entomophagy – insect eating – as an anthropology student in pre-Columbian food and medicine.

“Travelling through Wahaca city, Mexico, I saw a Mayan woman selling roasted grasshoppers, chapolinas. I just had to try.”

“I was so nervous that I bought the bag of grasshoppers and went straight to a café and ordered something to drink, ready to wash them down.”

18 years later and having eaten 30 species of insect Martin has “converted to the bug’s life.” She is part of a growing global community advocating insects an ecologically sound, tasty alternative to conventional meats.

“In the context of global warming, a booming population and rising food prices,” she says, “bug eating must stop being a novelty and become a reality.”

Research by the Wageningen University, which specialises in food and food production, demonstrates that the worldwide adoption of insects into the diet is essential.

Between 2013 and 2050 the global population is expected to boom from six to nine billion. With it, the demand for animal protein will rise by 70 per cent.

Insect expert Marcel Dicke said: “The world population isn’t just increasing, it’s getting wealthier and when people get wealthier they not only start to eat more, they start to eat more meat.

“Conventional forms of animal farming can’t keep up with this”

Accordingly, the European Commission has invested £2.65m into the research of entomophagy. In January 2012 the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation demanded that edible insects be supported through public and private initiatives. A global conference on the issue will be held in 2014.

Wageningen’s research highlighted that conventional animal agriculture also harms on the earth’s ecosystem.

It produces more greenhouse gas emissions, the driving factor behind global warming, than transport.

Compared to cattle, pigs and chickens, insects have a smaller carbon footprint, consume less water and can be farmed in cramped conditions making them cheaper to produce.

While 10kg of feed generates 1kg of beef, 3kg of port and 5kg of chicken, the same amount could produce 9kg of locusts.

Martin proudly displays her 2x1ft terrarium of locusts, crickets and mealworms.

“The bugs eat your leftover vegetable and fruit scraps and convert it into protein for you. It’s this wonderful, live recycling system.”

Martin argues that bugs are protein-rich, low-fat food with essential amino acids, iron and vitamins. Crickets are high in calcium, termites rich in iron and bees boost the libido.

Blackburn-based nutritionist Helen Crowley is sceptical, however. Insect eating countries eat them of necessity but the UK diet is already protein rich.

“The nutritional benefits of insects are undeniable, but it’s a battle to get people to eat their five-a-day, why would they eat insects?”

Yet for 80 per cent of the world’s population, across Central and South America, Africa and Asia, eating insects is neither disgusting nor exotic.

Dragonflies boiled in coconut milk, ginger and garlic are a delicacy in Bali. In South Africa insects are eaten with cornmeal porridge. Japanese elders enjoy wasp crackers.

In Mexico, Martin witnessed the everyday consumption of insects.

“As I was sitting in the café I poured the grasshoppers onto the table to take a photograph. The next thing I knew Mayan children surrounded me, all vying to eat one.”

Western delicacies such as shrimps, crabs and crayfish are, in fact, closely related to grasshoppers.

“Locusts are shrimp of the land,” said Dicke.

Despite this there are barriers to entomophagy in Britain: climate and culture.

Steve Whitehead, of Livefoods UK, an online supplier of live insects, said: “It’s very cold this time of year. To heat cages to 38 degrees takes a lot of energy and money.”

Insects are cold blooded and suited to tropical climates.

“Fungus would be a lot better alternative protein here: it grows at a much lower temperature and a lot quicker.”

Stuart Hine, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, highlighted other flaws in the ecological argument: “Eating insects would only help the environment if they were indigenous to the countries they’re eaten in.

“In the UK we should be eating earthworms, grasshoppers and ants.”

He also warned against unknown effect of pesticides in the food chain and the likelihood of allergies to animals with shells.

Joanne Jenkinson, a carrot-topped Lancashire livestock farmer, is unconvinced that a sufficient market for insect production exists.

“Our stock is dictated by demand. We’re always looking to produce different breeds, different animals even, when the want or need is greater. It would be a huge risk to produce something without it.”

Indeed, in western culture eating insects is taboo: it is perceived as dirty and unsafe.

“It’s an elitist social aversion,” Martin mocks passionately, arms dancing. “Insects are food for diseased, unsanitary developing countries; for people who can’t afford better.”

Even the UK’s suppliers of insects for human consumption are sceptical about whether these cultural barriers can be broken.

Archipelago, a Soho restaurant, serves chocolate scorpions, a honeybee crème brulee and the love-bug salad: spinach, rocket and pan-fried locusts and crickets.

Head chef Daniel Creedon said: “It’s a matter of overcoming the psychological barrier. People are happy to try, but I can’t see it ever becoming hugely popular.”

Paul Cook, of Osgrow, a Bristol-based company specialising in exotic meats and insects, said his bug-cooking demonstrations only increase sales when in pubs: “the drunken lot will try anything”.

“If meat isn’t an over-cooked pork sausage, some people are out of their depth.”

Daniella now eats bugs twice a week. Her most recent order: cockroaches, stick insects and snails.

“Waxworms are my favourite,” she said. “They’re raised on bran and honey – delicious.”

To cook she recommends refrigerating live insects for an hour – sending them into a hypothermic sleep – before putting in the freezer for 24 hours. From frozen they can be stewed, sautéed, steamed, blended to a powder or baked.

“They’ll turn out as something very snacky and savoury – like Dorritos – perfect with a beer.”

“Thirty years ago sushi was taboo; now it’s on the shelves of Boots and M&S. Give it twenty years and the same change will happen with bugs.

“They won’t be a staple food, sure, but I can imagine them in snack bags in grocery stores and body builders experimenting with them.

“Once people get over the ick factor, it’s obvious that bugs are a legitimate source of nutrition.”

My locusts and mealworms weren’t distasteful. Having mustered the willpower to get the first one past my lips they were nutty, light and incredibly crunchy. It was subtle and savoury, more a texture than a flavour.

I spent the evening picking exoskeleton from my teeth.

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Rae Boocock, 24. An aspiring journalist. Loves: interviewing, writing, reporting, reading, current affairs, culture, travel, food and feminism.

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