A bug-eyed view of culinary pleasure
Being corralled into eating beetles and wasps to save the planet is enough to put you right off your food.
Entomophagy. We should, apparently, be doing more of it – at least according to a report published last week by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The trouble is that the case the report makes for entomophagy – eating insects – is hardly inspiring.
Apparently, lots of people around the world eat bugs. In Mexico, there are 250 different kinds of insects consumed. In Thailand, the FAO report assures us, crispy-fried locusts and beetles are popular, adding: ‘More than 1,900 insect species have been documented in literature as edible, most of them in tropical countries. The most commonly eaten insect groups are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies.’
The thought of eating bugs will make many people want to barf. Even if they taste okay – my limited experience suggests that they are a bit nutty but don’t really taste of very much – they sure don’t look appetising. That said, squeamishness should be no barrier to trying something new. My first experience of eating octopus was in a Hong Kong sushi bar. Looking down at the three mini octopi in the dish I had mistakenly selected, their little rubbery tentacles wobbling, was utterly unappealing. But, being a Brit alone in a strange town, I forced them down, almost gagging at the thought of chewing through their bodies.
How times change. The day the FAO report came out, I found myself in a trendy new eaterie in London’s grimy-but-fashionable Hoxton district ordering… octopus. And it was delicious. The problem wasn’t the wriggly sea creature, it was me.
Eating insects isn’t that far removed from eating crustaceans, either. Prawns, crayfish and other crustaceans are arthropods. Just like insects, they are all jointed legs, exoskeletons and segmented bodies. If you’ve scoffed a prawn cocktail, maybe you should consider trying some chunky caterpillar in a marie rose sauce instead.
It’s not as if eating the ‘nasty bits’ is something entirely alien to us, either. In fact, it’s downright fashionable, if the success of London restaurants like St John is anything to go by. And we seem quite content to eat sausages and pies, which feature all the less-than-attractive parts of our favourite animals turned into something a bit more appealing. So why not insects?
The trouble is that the case for eating insects is rarely made on aesthetic grounds. Few people are willing to declare that eating wasps or grasshoppers tastes particularly good. ‘Interesting’, maybe, but nobody seems to be rushing to open a chain of fast-food joints serving beetleburgers. Instead, the case for dining on bugs is made in more pragmatic terms: saving ourselves and saving the planet.
So it is fear of an overpopulated planet, leading to the need for more food production, that is encouraging interest in insect production for food. It is the fact that bugs are more efficient at converting feed into something edible, reducing the use of resources and cutting down on greenhouse-gas emissions, too, that is getting scientists and policy wonks excited.
But chomping on larvae is not my idea of a good time, nor an inspiring vision for the future. I honestly don’t care if bugs are ‘a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content’, as the report declares. I’m not suffering from any deficiency diseases, thanks all the same, and I don’t really want to eat pests and pest eggs for my dinner. If people in poorer parts of the world are consuming insects, I rather suspect it is not – deep-fried snacks aside – out of choice but necessity.
If someone can turn insects into a tasty treat, I’ll certainly give them a go. There could be a whole new world of cordon bleu buglife to enjoy. But there is something rather offensive about the idea that, rather than having the ambition to find ways of allowing everyone to enjoy the foods we really want to eat, humans should just make do with eating what we would otherwise swat.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.
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