Debate of the Week: Is it right to turn bugs into food?
Companies aiming to sell them as snacks are rapidly expanding, and claim they could end global food shortages while protecting the environment.
Imagine it’s the year 2031. Ella could not believe her luck. She was celebrating her birthday at 2031’s Restaurant of the Year. There was carpaccio of caterpillar, bluebottle paté, woodlouse tempura. What should she choose? “I recommend today’s special,” said the waiter. “Ragout of locust with a garnish of fresh larvae.” “I’ll have that,” said Ella. “Yum!”
This scene is not as far from reality as it might seem. Insect protein is already being used in dog food, with production forecast to reach 5,00,000 tonnes a year by 2030. An Israeli firm has started making jellied sweets with protein from locusts.
“Grasshoppers taste like pecans, mushrooms, coffee and chocolate,” says the company’s head, Dror Tamir. “But with our range of food we can add in different flavours. The gummies come in orange and strawberry.”
There is a long tradition of eating insects in the Middle East. Dror Tamir became fascinated by his grandmother’s tales of people feasting on locusts which attacked their crops: “While most kibbutz members ran to the fields to scare the grasshoppers away, the Yemenite and Moroccan Jewish members collected tons of them to eat.” As well as sweets, he plans to produce burgers, falafel and energy bars.
Humans need protein, and at present get it from food such as meat which is damaging to the planet. According to Professor Robin May of Britain’s Food Standards Agency, insects offer a solution: “Some insect proteins, such as ground crickets or freeze-dried mealworms, are cheap, easy to farm, low fat and have a lower environmental impact than meat. And sometimes they may even provide a valuable ‘recycling’ service, by consuming waste products as their primary feedstuff, so the potential advantages to society are significant.”
It was this idea that inspired Dean Smorenberg to start a fly farm in South Africa: “You’ve got a food shortage, and people who are starving, and then you’ve got a waste problem at the same time. So I started looking at how we can rebalance that.”
He began by cultivating black soldier flies. Today he produces over 10 tonnes of protein-rich feed a month, made from fly larvae.
In Europe, insect production is still in its infancy, but Continental food companies have been encouraged by a ruling from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that locusts can be eaten by humans. “We’re just not quite there yet,” says food scientist Dr Leah Bessa. “Dogs are a lot easier to feed insects to than humans at this point.”
Is it right to turn bugs into food?
Yes. We could reduce the damage to the environment by embracing an insect diet. Farming locusts rather than beef would reduce emissions by 99%. Given that the world’s population is forecast to increase by 2.1 billion by 2050, insects are a source of food we cannot afford to ignore.
No. We should respect fellow creatures, regardless of size. Eating insects is no more acceptable than eating sheep. We have no idea what the long-term effect on humans might be, since insects have never been analysed as carefully as more common types of food.
Carpaccio-Thinly sliced raw food. Pâté- A French word for paste. It is usually made of meat or fish. Tempura- A Japanese dish which involves deep frying in batter. Ragout-A French word for stew. Larvae- Insects in the next stage of development after they have emerged from eggs. A caterpillar is a larva. Kibbutz- A communal farm in Israel, traditionally drawing workers from all over the world. Falafel- A Middle Eastern dish usually made from deep-fried chickpeas or broad beans.