An argument for eating insects!

This is an excellent story from NPR that I happened upon this morning:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/09/19/223728061/making-food-from-flies-its-not-that-icky

To summarize, it features an attempt to use insects (in this case the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly) as biomass converters, aiming at recycling various organic waster products into useful protein and fat. The aim is not necessarily to feed people directly (though we could certainly eat these larvae, were our culture not prejudiced against consuming insects), but rather to feed people indirectly by using the larvae to feed livestock such as pigs and salmon.

This is an idea that has been around for quite a while now, but one that has never gained much traction because, historically, the cost of feed has always been very cheap. As a result of multiple issues that affect global food supplies, such as overfishing, loss of farmland, increasing fuel costs, increasing population, growing demand for biofuel, etc, the costs associated with raising livestock continue to climb. Livestock are already an expensive way to generate protein for food. It requires a lot of land to graze animals like cows, and requires good land management practices to avoid turning your pastures into barren wastelands. As agriculture became more industrial in recent generations, and science has managed to continue increasing the yield per acre of crops such as corn, ranchers found that it was quite cost effective to feed corn to cows, rather than grazing them. In fact, corn has been used to feed just about everything from chickens to salmon!

Along with cheap corn, humans around the globe have been harvesting the seas for cheap protein as well. The problem is that, much like our advances in farming, we have improved our ability to pull fish from the ocean. Harvesting the ocean repeatedly for both the larger fish, as well as the smaller fish that they eat, is rather like turning a herd of cattle loose on a single pasture and leaving them there. Eventually, the cows eat the grass down to the ground faster than the grass can regrow, killing off the grass. With no grass, the network of intertwined roots that hold the soil in place is gone and topsoil is lost, washed away by rains and blown away by the wind when it dries out. Humans fishing the seas are like the cattle grazing on a prairie…if the natural populations are not allowed time to replenish, they will eventually be gone, and along with it other species that depend on them.

So that is happening, and the cost of wild-caught fish continues to rise, as does the cost of corn and other grains. We are already seeing the effects of this at the grocery store, but also in other ways. Anyone familiar with the controversial pink slime? Here are a couple of appetizing videos for you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCqKl4Q3hW4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wshlnRWnf30

A simple, economical way to decrease the growing cost of protein. Before figuring out how to feed the scraps and waste to people, many economically-minded cattle-producers started recycling waste products and scraps by feeding them directly to livestock. Anyone not familiar with the mad cow scare? Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka ‘mad cow disease’. Similar diseases exist in other species as well. The disease was spread, and amplified, in cows because scraps from infected cows (especially nervous tissue) was ground up and mixed into feed that was then given to lots of other cows, and so forth. There is a human disease as well, known as kuru, that was spread by cannibalism in New Guinea and is closely related to Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which may be more familiar to you, since it is often called the human version of mad cow disease.

Anyhow, when you start putting all of these things together (and I am really only throwing out a few examples of issues with modern food production), it is not unreasonable to think that there might be some room for improvement. That is why this article stands out to me. This is not national headline material, sadly. That is reserved for ridiculous pop stars behaving badly (sorry, not going to link you to Miley Cyrus…pretty sure you can find some video of her all on your own). This is the kind of article that gets circulated mostly because people like the ‘ick factor’. Ewwww….gross! People raising maggots?! Do people eat those? Soooo disgusting! Well, actually, yes. Some cultures do eat them. We could eat them, but we chose instead to find the idea repulsive. This, I think, is an excellent compromise. Use them as an intermediate step in the chain. Rather than using rendering plants or pink slime, why not use a perfectly natural, highly efficient, biological means of recycling our waste into valuable nutrients that could, in turn, be fed to something like pigs that would eventually become tasty, tasty bacon? Apologies to any vegetarians or vegans in the audience…this argument is probably pretty irrelevant to you.

So this stories like this will continue to circulate, but probably not for the reason that they should get passed around. They should be passed around because this is the type of innovation that we need when it comes to our food production. Plus, it features insects, and we all know that insects are pretty awesome. Right?

Category(s): Entomology

2 Responses to An argument for eating insects!

    Jay Chiaramonte says:

    Very interesting. Very complicated!

    My cousin married a farmer in NC. They primarily grow tobacco and cotton, but they’ve also recently gotten involved in foods…wheat, corn, soy. During a conversation I had with them regarding Monsanto, one of the things he mentioned that grabbed my attention was that only about 40 years ago (“way back” in the 70’s) the percentage of farmers to consumers in the US was around 50%. Now, that ratio has plummeted to a mere 1.2%! That’s a lot of demand on such a small ratio of farming community. Of course, his argument was for genetic modification and I couldn’t disagree with him. I’m sure there’s more that goes into that situation than what is stated here, but the point is (and the point about the NPR article) that we have a population issue to deal with and we need to start thinking creatively, and soon. Whether it is genetically modified food or insect farming (which is a great idea) I reckon we’ll be facing the dire straits of this problem before we know it, and I too agree it is unfortunate that this is not what we see in the headlines today.

    Funnily enough, as a child, I imagined that one day we wouldn’t be able to enjoy food; that we would have to get our nutrition from lab-created pills. I hope it never has to come to that. In preparation though, I practice eating bugs just incase. I’ve never made a meal of them and I don’t venture out to different varieties. I primarily stick to chomping on brown June Bugs as child entertainment. They love it! It’s my small token effort toward educating our youth!

    Thanks for the good read.

    -Jay

      sequencingscott says:

      It is important to educate the youth of today! Reminds me of my time in the Entomology Department at Purdue University. I regularly participated in the annual Bug Bowl by helping with the ‘Insects as Food’ booth that served up various insect dishes to people. Fried meal worms, cricket brownies, etc. Fun times!

      Farming today is a very different thing from farming 40 or 50 years ago, but I think a time traveler from that far back would still understand most of what was actually happening in the field. Go back more than 100 years, and I wonder if people from that time would even recognize what happens today as agriculture. Then, if you lived on a farm, you grew your own food and food for others. You grew certain crops or raised certain livestock for commercial sale, but that was not all that you grew. You had some combination of chickens, pigs, goats, cattle, and horses, you raised cash crops, you planted gardens, you preserved food and meats. Today you grow corn and soybeans, maybe wheat if you live in the right place. You shop at the grocery store like everyone else. I grew up on a farm. When I was little, we grew corn, soybeans and wheat, and we raised cattle. Now, my father raises corn and soybeans. I did grow up canning food, but it was more hobby than necessity. Farming is industrial, livestock are raised in feed lots, and the products are all commodities. If not, if you grow your own food and sell produce at the market, or free range meats through a CSA, then you are a catering to a niche market that can afford to pay more to shop local. For most of us, we are still counting on low gas prices to keep food affordable, and buying a lot of processed foods. It worries me to think about what the future brings, because (short of some apocalyptic scenario that wipes out a large portion of the human population) the demand is not going to get any smaller. It is astounding how much we rely on so few to feed so many. Science has certainly improved efficiency and increased yields to unbelievable levels, but I am not sure that this process can possibly keep pace with rate of human population growth.