You’re done living the civilized life. You are a caveman’s caveman. You scoff at bread. You eat only pasture-raised, grass-finished meat. You drink your bone broth while doing your workout in bare feet and you love it. It also goes without saying that eating bugs a few times a week is a regular thing for you – right?
In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization surprised much of the world’s civilized population when they announced that the world would be a better place if we all ate more bugs and less meat. The announcement may have come as a shock to many Americans, but people from cultures all over the world were too distracted with their plate of deep-fried meal worms to catch the “news.”
The U.N. is nothing if not thorough. Their bug-eating recommendation came accompanied by a 200 page report laying out just how big an impact this dietary change can have on the world. Humans are projected to reach a population of more than 9 billion people before the midpoint of the current century. All those people will need food, and based on the typical human diet it is estimated that, to feed all those new mouths, there will need to be new land dedicated to farming that is roughly the size of the United States and China combined. This is impossible, and obviously, something has to change. Could bugs be the answer to this problem and others? The U.N. would answer a firm “yes.”
The United States, Canada, and some of western Europe are just about the only spots in the world where the thought of eating insects is controversial. According to the U.N. report, there are an estimated 2 billion people currently eating insects as a staple food. That’s nearly one-third of the total human population. But the rest of us are disgusted by the idea of eating insects.
Cultures all over the world have enjoyed insects for thousands of years. We have examples ranging from the ancient Aztecs’ coveted ahuahutle (pronounced ah-wah-hoot-lay) eggs to Thailand’s ancient and still-thriving cricket farming trade. Strangely, these habits are almost entirely absent from “western” cultures, both past and present.
It becomes easier to understand when you think about the dietary shift that humans have made. We all know that about 10,000 years ago, early humans moved away from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and into a more sedentary, agricultural life. When they began cultivating plants for food, they also began selecting animals to domesticate. At that time, there were 14 species on the planet that were fit for domestication. Remarkably, Eurasia had nearly all of them, llamas in the Americas being the only exception. Creatures like cows, horses, goats and sheep were extremely versatile to our ancestors. They provided abundant protein, as well as transportation, milk, warm hides, labor to work the fields, and even companionship. By contrast, insects offered only protein without any of the other benefits, and presented many problems for domestication. With a steady and abundant source of food and other perks, any other potential food sources became irrelevant to these early humans.
Worse than that, new farmers began to see insects as an enemy combatant in their fields. Beetles, worms, and other pests would chew plants apart and ruin whole crops. The image of any insect became a hostile one to these agricultural pioneers, and they passed this vilification down to us, from generation to generation. This might help you understand why your blood pressure goes through the roof when a spider/roach/ant crawls across your kitchen floor. In the primitive part of your brain, they present a potential threat to your food supply.
Those cultures that did not enjoy the presence of large, domesticated animals often relied on insects for at least part of their diet. Many of those practices are still common today. In Mexico, for example, the red maguey worm thrives in agave fields. You will likely know it as the worm in the bottom of a Mezcal bottle, a liquor made from the agave plant. These little worms are so popular as a snack that agave farmers will seasonally hire armed guards to patrol their fields to prevent poaching.
Those of us in the west are well-acquainted with the benefits of raising livestock, but what are the benefits of raising insects? Insects are, without question, the most abundant possible food source on the planet. 1 million of all the 1.4 million known unique species on earth are insects. That amounts to 71% of all known life. Scientists estimate that if you factor in the likely thousands more species we haven’t yet discovered, insects account for about 90% of all living species on the planet. They are found in nearly every environment, every climate, and more than 1900 species are edible.
Insects reach maturity with an efficiency and expediency that is staggering. One pound of crickets requires one twelfth of the feed and water it takes to make one pound of beef. A pound of crickets can be hatched and mature in a matter of weeks, whereas the pound of beef will need a year or two of care to reach maturity. With insects, no sprawling factory farms are necessary. An entire cricket farm, with populations in the tens of thousands, could be housed in the space that only a dozen cows might take up.
Waste biodegradation is another important benefit to consider. Pig farms, as an example, have “lagoons” that hold millions of gallons of pig excrement. Experiments have shown that large populations of soldier flies could make short work of waste matter. Their own waste can then be used as a perfect fertilizer and the flies themselves can be harvested to feed farmed salmon or chickens.
As a westerner myself, I can see how the U.N. has been facing an uphill battle. The United States government faced a similar problem during World War II. The war effort placed great demands on the U.S. supply of nearly everything. Everyday necessities like gasoline and certain metals were scarce, and the availability of daily food staples like sugar, butter and meat began to dry up as well. The government was increasingly sending these things to the battlefront to keep America’s military men and women fed, clothed and armed. America’s homefront also needed a source of protein. Meat became a rare commodity, black markets were forming, and the people were getting restless. The solution the government came up with was organ meats.
Chances are, you already know much about the health benefits of organ meats. If you were born prior to 1970, you might even have been raised eating liver and onions as a weekly staple. It may surprise you to learn that prior to the early 1940s, this would have been seen as grotesque. The average 1940 American housewife would sooner die than serve a cow brain or chicken liver at her table. The thought alone might have made her feel faint. American officials knew this, but came up with a clever workaround.
What the government knew from previous experiments is that people are creatures of habit. We want things to be the same as they always were. The government wanted to raise the health standards of soldiers’ food, for example, so they added in cabbage. Almost to a man, soldiers refused to eat it. The next step was to boil it so it looked just like every other vegetable on their plate. Suddenly, they ate it without complaint. With that in mind, the answer for organ meat at home was simple.
The strange must be made commonplace. Meatloaf allows for a hidden blending in of liver or other organs. At this time, steak and kidney pie became another home-cooked favorite. A massive mailing campaign introduced these recipes and others to housewives all over America. Eventually, through these efforts, organ meat consumption in America increased dramatically, and through the early ‘50s it continued to rise. Whereas ten years earlier, organ meat was repugnant, it had become a celebrated staple.
A similar process needs to occur if the U.N. hopes to make a difference with their report. Crickets can be ground into a flour that could be worked into a small amount of beef and made into a meatloaf. Grasshopper can be stripped of legs and wings and made into a pad thai. In Australia, efforts have been made to rebrand the locust as the “sky prawn.” Changes like these are critical, if this idea is expected to take hold among western peoples.
With that in mind, I visited Portland, Oregon’s Sushi Mazi to interview owner, Mark Suwansathien about his controversial cricket and grasshopper sushi. His last name loosely translates to “Golden Mountain,” and it suits his personality very well. Mark is of slight height and build, but his warm, friendly smile and sunny energy fill the room. Mark ushered me to a table and called an order across the room of four pieces of cricket sushi. I may or may not have gulped audibly at that point. I am a westerner, after all.
Mark explained to me that, in his native Thailand, you can find insect-based foods everywhere. “Where I grew up you can get a bag of deep fried crickets at the mall. There, we eat them like you eat french fries here.” To make his point, he pantomimed greedily shoveling handfuls of snack food into his mouth, laughing heartily.
I asked Mark about his source of crickets, and he said that unfortunately, because American sentiment is against it, it is becoming and harder and harder to come by quality insects these days. He used to get Thai crickets that were the size of American grasshoppers, but lately the supplier he usually goes to has only been offering smaller and smaller crickets.
Somewhere around this point in the interview, my crickets arrived at the table and my eyes bulged. Mark only laughed and grabbed his camera. Every brave soul to down a cricket roll ends up on the wall with the 1500 other photographs. I would describe them to you here, but each face in each picture is definitely worth a thousand words.
I asked Mark how people tend to react when they see the plate arrive. “Most of them – if they drink [alcohol] before – they get very excited.” I didn’t feel the need for liquid courage, but I could see where that might help. He went on to explain that kids especially love it, and every kid who has come in with their parents usually returns again and again. That didn’t sound too surprising to me. Something adventurous in humans seems to turn off after puberty.
Enough stalling, I had to taste this. For a long moment I was – surprisingly – without words. In the end, cricket is a completely unique flavor, and I struggle to describe it. If pressed, I might say that it has a popcorn-like texture with something like a nutty flavor, though the “nutty” would have to come from a completely new, previously undiscovered nut.
Sadly, we brave, few primal Americans currently have no great source aside from the Internet. Your backyard is not a viable option. You have no way of knowing what your neighbors are spraying and what those wild bugs may have been exposed to before they ended up in your yard. New sources will be made available soon enough. Until then, you can search “edible insects” on the Internet or look to your local asian market.
If you are grossed out, be brave, fellow caveman. Soldier on, and know that it’s part of your primal roots, it’s good for you, and it’s good for the planet. When asked for a short sound bite about eating bugs, Mark’s simple message was, “This is something you must try before you die.”