Agriculture has come a long way in the past century. We produce more food than ever before -- but our current model is unsustainable, and as the world's population rapidly approaches the 8 billion mark, modern food production methods will need a radical transformation if they're going to keep up. But luckily, there's a range of new technologies that might make it possible. In this series, we'll explore some of the innovative new solutions that farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are working on to make sure that nobody goes hungry in our increasingly crowded world.
Across the world, it's not uncommon for human beings to practice entomophagy -- the consumption of insects -- without a second thought. In fact, insects are often considered a delicacy in certain cultures. From the chapulines (toasted grasshoppers) of Mexico to the fried tarantulas of Cambodia, bugs regularly find their way into our bellies -- without the accompaniment of braggadocious Instagram posts -- "#OMG# I can't believe I'm eating this!"
In much of Europe and North America, though, we don't like to eat things with more than four legs. Insects are considered to be gross -- not just because they live between bedsprings and below floorboards, but because of their crunchy texture and their villainous perception. Ask the next person you speak to their opinion on eating bugs, and you're likely to receive an expression that's a combination of disgust and incredulity.
The thing is, sooner than later, we may not have much of a choice. As the population grows, so does our need for food sources with manageable environmental footprints. Traditional livestock operations simply can't scale to meet the demands of an eventual 9 billion meat-eating humans without wreaking havoc on the environment. Adding insects to our diets could help us avoid stressing our already overburdened food system.
The Six-Legged Solution
So, are we destined for a diet of damselflies and daddy longlegs? Right now, it's hard to imagine ordering a Crunchwrap Supreme stuffed with fried ants instead of ground beef, but we've got to start somewhere, right?
Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz, co-founders of Exo Protein, think they might have found a workable solution: crickets.
Rather than whole crickets, though, the team at Exo is pulverizing the little guys into "cricket flour," which is really less like traditional flour and more like a protein powder made of insects. The powder is then used to create a line of protein bars, which are actually pretty good (according to those of us in the office brave enough to try them).
They don't taste like bugs, and you won't end up with little tiny legs in your teeth; in fact, if someone were to hand you an Exo bar sans wrapper, you probably wouldn't notice many differences from protein bars you've eaten in the past.
Exo Protein is just one example. In the past decade, dozens of similar companies have popped up with cricket-based products of their own -- and they're not all protein bars. From cookies to banana bread to crackers and chips, you could practically fill an entire pantry with all the bug-based food choices available today.
But why would you choose to? What benefits are there to eating crickets? Well, actually, there are no shortage of reasons to make the switch -- or to at least entertain the possibility.
First of all, they're good for you. Crickets are efficient sources of iron and vitamin B12, and they're a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids. By percentage, cricket flour contains nearly twice as much protein as beef jerky, with little to no fat content. Other insects, like mealworms and black soldier fly larvae, also rate highly in terms of nutritional value.
Part of the reason Lewis began to explore entomophagy was his search for a better protein. Animal proteins are full of beneficial nutrients and vitamins, but they're horribly inefficient to produce. On the other hand, plant-based proteins are environmentally sustainable, but lack many essential amino acids that the human body requires. "With insect proteins, you're not sacrificing anything," says Lewis. "[It's] the best of both worlds."
The most pressing reason to start grubbing on grubs is the astonishing difference between the environmental footprint of cattle ranching and the environmental footprint of insect farming. Cows (and, relatively speaking, pigs and poultry as well) require vast amounts of water to farm. Estimates vary wildly, but a study funded by the Beef Checkoff program (which itself is funded by cattle ranchers, so this number is probably on the low end) claims that one pound of boneless beef requires 441 gallons of water to produce. In comparison, cricket flour requires just one gallon of water per pound.
Farming crickets doesn't just save water. As opposed to cows, crickets don't produce methane, which is the greenhouse gas most often associated with the depletion of our ozone layer. Crickets are far more efficient to feed as well, yielding up to 12 times as much edible protein, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
No one worries about the welfare of bugs, either. Insect farmers aren't required to provide their "livestock" with space to roam, so replacing cows with crickets would have an enormous impact upon the world's ecosystems.
On top of all that, bugs also don't carry zoonotic diseases -- infectious diseases that can be spread to humans from animals. They include Ebola, SARS, and influenza, among others. This isn't to say that insects don't pose infectious risks -- they're great at that -- but most of the scary stuff comes from warm-blooded animals.
Making it Mainstream
Unfortunately, the Western world might not be ready to welcome insects onto their plates quite yet. Right now, due to the relative size and emergent status of the industry, cricket flour (and food made with it) isn't cheap. As a result, only a small percentage of the population can afford these foods -- least of all those who live under the poverty line, where hunger is at its worst.
Lewis compares it to "making jerky when there are only two cattle ranches," and says that costs will come down as the supply chain grows. Exo has modeled its business to reflect that, focusing first on eliminating stigma and warming people up to the idea of eating crickets, rather than pushing their products to shelves as soon as possible.
Still, it's doubtful that Westerners will fully embrace entomophagy anytime soon. Normalizing something considered so weird is always a gradual process, and must be handled with care. If you visited a restaurant tomorrow and the waiter told you that the daily special was locust mole, you probably wouldn't order it. And who could blame you? It's a foreign cuisine.
There are, however, precedents for the adoption of foreign cuisines by the Western world. Lewis points to sushi as a prime example. Today, everybody has that one friend who absolutely loves sushi. It's a popular food, no doubt about it. Until the invention of the California roll in the 1970s, though, sushi wasn't even on the map for most Americans.
The inclusion of avocado (which itself languished, unappreciated, for years before a surge in the late 20th century, and for which global demand now outstrips supply) and the replacement of raw fish with crab meat helped to popularize the roll, which was first served in the former Tokyo Kaikan restaurant in Los Angeles.
The key, though, according to Lewis, was the roll's design, which hides the shellfish behind layers of rice and seaweed. With Exo, Lewis and Sewitz are trying to do the same thing, except with crickets.
Eating insects is a widely accepted practice across many eastern cultures.
The bug-filled Trojan horse isn't limited to Exo bars. Insects au gratin, a project authored in London by Susana Soares and Andrew Forkes, sought to combat stigmas by aesthetically reshaping entomophagous food products. The project involves mixing insect flour with gelling agents and flavoring -- such as icing butter or cream cheese -- to produce a consistency that can then be 3D printed into novel shapes and cooked (or eaten raw).
Since the project's conclusion in 2015, though, there's been little research done on the topic, and it's difficult to say whether such an undertaking would ever be efficient enough to implement on a large scale.
The good news is that there's not one "right" method of normalizing entomophagy. Companies like Exo are currently blazing the trail, helping shape an industry that's still in its infancy. Creative individuals will keep coming up with ideas, and eventually, one is bound to strike gold. If we can imbibe massive quantities of kombucha and kale, surely we can scarf down a few creepy-crawlies -- we just need the right motivation.
Associating entomophagy with familiar traditions could prove effective: In April, fans at Seattle Mariners games scarfed down more than 18,000 chapulines over three days. The snacks -- courtesy of Poquitos Mexican Cuisine -- were so popular that the stadium sold out all three days (to the surprise of both the Mariners organization and Poquitos), with more grasshoppers eaten at Safeco Field than the restaurant sells during the course of an entire year. Still, despite receiving offers from various edible insect suppliers, the team "[doesn't] have plans to expand that portion of the menu."
A 2013 study in Belgium offered some hope, showing that consumers would be willing to cook and eat insects if they could be imbued with familiar flavors. That's presumably why companies like Chirps Chips are selling cricket-flour snacks covered in Cheddar and BBQ flavoring -- because that's what we're used to.
For many, though, it's going to take more than some ranch-flavored dust to be convinced. A Dutch study in 2016 found that humans' perception of food is largely dependent upon the food's "appropriateness" -- subjects in the study were predisposed to prefer patties labeled as "beef," even after experiencing no sensory difference during taste-testing.
Simply put, we're not prepared (yet) to simply replace cows with crickets and move forward. A possible stopgap solution -- one supported by the FAO -- is the use of insects as feed for livestock, which adds a much-needed degree of separation between mealworms and mouths.
Silkworm larvae and termite flour, which are cheap to farm and full of nutrients, have proven to be adequate replacements for the high-priced fishmeal and meat meal usually fed to poultry.
Black soldier fly prepupae, meanwhile, are extremely efficient sources of fat and protein, and -- as feed -- support healthy growth for chickens, pigs, and several species of fish. In Yellow Springs, Ohio, a company named EnviroFlight uses black soldier fly grass and wheat middlings to craft feed for freshwater prawns, which typically eat an expensive diet of sinking catfish feed. Taste-testers were unable to detect any difference in flavor between the catfish-fed prawns and the soldier fly-fed prawns, a good sign for the future of insects as feed.
Ultimately, though, the pressure is on us to adapt. Though feeding bugs to our cattle might seem more palatable than eating them ourselves, it won't be enough to help slow the troubling environmental issues that currently plague our world. Eventually (unless a better option comes along), we should probably get used to the idea of eating bugs if we want to thrive in the future. So, who knows? Maybe eating Caterpies and Weedles isn't so "Farfetch'd"after all.