Let them eat bugs

The elites’ war on meat has taken a disgusting turn.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Politics Science & Tech

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Last winter, as the prospect of yet another forced isolation loomed, the lines of queues snaked around the block. I couldn’t tell what they were for, at first. But every one of these queues led to the door of a butchers, and there, in the freezing fog, the stoicism and patience of the queuers told its own story. Meat matters.

The revival of butchers in gentrified neighbourhoods resembles the changes in the pub trade: there are fewer than there once were, but speciality or ‘craft’ butchers are springing up to feed the demand for quality.

However, the comparison falls short, for it isn’t only wealthy millennials who have retained their enthusiasm for cooking meat. ‘It’s working-class families, too’, food journalist Joanna Blythman tells me.

In fact, as a nation we spent an extra £600million more on meat in 2021 compared with 2020. The top-down messaging assures us that veganism is on the rise, and urges us to eat less meat. But the other part of the story is omitted. Globally, the trend is similar – as the poor become wealthier, they demand nice things, too. Worldwide meat consumption has risen steadily by around two per cent a year for some time.

Another anecdote from lockdown illustrates how elite opinion is parting ways with popular taste. In March 2020, the empty shelves in supermarkets were dotted by the occasional sad, unsold plant-based synthetic-meat product. Even a panic-buying emergency couldn’t compel the consumer to put one of these in the shopping basket. And when you look at the ingredients of these products – typically around 30 additives and preservatives – it isn’t hard to see why.

‘These knock-offs taste dreadful and are expensive’, says Blythman. ‘Despite guilt-tripping shoppers into forgoing the meats they love, the cold, hard sales figures show that all the fake-meat companies are doing really badly.’

In recent years, media messaging has been emphatically bossy about what we should eat. State micromanagement of taste has increased, too. After government intervention, British staples ranging from sticky-toffee pudding to Sugar Puffs have been reformulated beyond recognition. But the anti-meat crusade demands that something far more radical should happen – it seeks to stigmatise something central to many of our lives, and demands a shift in how we regard nature. As part of this, our media now seek to normalise lab-grown Frankenmeats, and strangest of all, adopt entomophagy – the practice of eating insects.

So what’s behind the war on meat? The apparent justification is the political elite’s great preoccupation of our time – climate change. We’re told that rearing livestock for meat is bad for the environment, and that cows are the worst offenders of all. That’s the assumption behind hit YouTube videos like Mark Rober’s ‘Feeding Bill Gates a fake burger (to save the world)’, a promotional video for Gates’ synthetic-meat investments, which has racked up nearly 46million views.

But the environmental argument doesn’t look so robust on closer examination. Agricultural CO2 emissions are small – so small that if the United States turned entirely vegan this decade, it would lower US emissions by just 2.6 per cent. In reality, a cow is a highly efficient protein-conversion system, turning protein that we can’t eat into protein that we love to eat. Three quarters of livestock, on balance, improve the environment, enhancing the yield of the land through fertiliser, which would otherwise need to be made synthetically. For example, one of the crimes regularly levelled against beef is water consumption. But the cow loses most of this water the same day – it’s returned to nature. So with environmental claims so weak, there must be some other rationale for the war on meat.

Much of today’s war on meat appears to be driven by venture capitalists, and their client journalists in the media. Ever eager for the next dot-com boom, Silicon Valley has made a bet on lab-grown, synthetic meat. This requires an industrial bioreactor – an expensive chemical process. But lab-grown meat doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Business Insider recently reported that scepticism about the sector is growing, as costs remain higher than those for real meat – and this is before one single laboratory-meat formula has received regulatory approval, let alone passed the consumer test.

Another factor driving the war on meat is the academic blob. For example, Professor Peter Smith, an environmental scientist at Aberdeen University and a leading contributor to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), likes to insist that ‘we’re not telling people to stop eating meat’, before adding that ‘it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much’. Have a guess who defines what is ‘too much’. It’s Smith and his colleagues, not you or me making informed consumer choices.

But the oddest spectacle of all is the relentless promotion of entomophagy at the posh end of the media. The posher the paper, the keener they are on normalising bug-eating.

This is a campaign that has a high hurdle to overcome in most markets, where insects are associated with disease. ‘Deeply embedded in the Western psyche is a view of insects as dirty, disgusting and dangerous’, a group of academics found in 2014. Many bugs, such as cockroaches, carry disease. Flies like shit, as the saying goes. ‘Individuals vary in their sensitivity to disgust’, another academic paper acknowledges. ‘This sensitivity extends to three dimensions of disgust: core, animal reminder and contamination.’ Only seven per cent of the US population would countenance the idea of eating insects, even in powdered form, according to one academic study in 2018. Processing insects also raises practical problems, with e-coli and salmonella. ‘Spore-forming bacteria and enterobacteriaceae have been reported in mealworms and crickets, with higher levels found in insects that had been crushed – likely due to the release of bacteria from the gut’, another study found. It’s easier to clean a cow’s stomach than a cockroach’s.

It should be no surprise, then, that the edible-insect movement has hit a few snags. Blythman recalls the startup, Eat Grub (geddit?), providing the snacks for an insect pop-up in London’s hipster East End. On the menu were ‘Thai-inspired’ creations such as spicy cricket rice cakes and buffalo worms wrapped in betel leaf. ‘It tasted disgusting, and so I swallowed it whole. Then the legs stuck in my throat’, she recalls. The pop-up hasn’t returned. The following year, Sainsbury’s tapped Eat Grub for its first range of insect products – barbeque-flavoured crickets. Today, the only crickets you can buy at Sainsbury’s are cigarette lighters.

Thailand is often glowingly referenced by the edible-insect lobby as proof that insects could be a normal part of our diets. But in reality, eating bugs is mainly an occasional exercise in nostalgia by older Thais. After all, this is a country with one of the most sophisticated culinary heritages in the world and it really savours meat. And in rural northern Laos, where bug-eating is more common, entomophagy is nevertheless on the decline, a 2015 study found.

Yet the media elite thinks our revulsion to bugs is a hurdle that can be overcome, if we can only feel guilty enough. The Guardian promotes the practice as an existential necessity, insisting that, ‘If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects’. (Shortly afterwards, the Guardian warned: ‘UK’s fledgling edible-insect sector in jeopardy after Brexit’ – something we may regard as a Brexit bonus.)

Two years ago, Bloomberg’s billionaire founder, Michael Bloomberg, established a $500million fund for ‘advocacy, legal and electoral strategies’ promoting his favoured climate-change policies, before throwing another $1 billion on a doomed attempt to run for president. Mike wasn’t going to miss the insect opportunity.

‘Bugs must be a bigger part of the human food chain’, Bloomberg Green insisted this month. ‘Burgers made from bugs. The fake-meat industry is starting to explore fruit-fly patties and mealworm nuggets’, the Bloomberg Twitter account explained.

But when it comes to enthusing about eating insects, Bloomberg must take second place to the UK’s Economist.

‘We explain why bugs are coming to a table near you’, the posh weekly tweeted in January. This was followed by, ‘Insects may become sought-after delicacies’. Got the message yet? Apparently not. ‘How about giving insects a try?’, The Economist then pleaded. ‘It would undoubtedly be better for the world if people ate more bugs’, it maintained in another tweet. And in a rare act of self-awareness, its Twitter account sighed: ‘Yes, we still think the world should eat bugs.’ A video followed in November. ‘Insects are a really meaningful alternative to the current sources of protein that we eat’, it declared. ‘Really meaningful’ has a lot of work to do here. Such messages were heavily promoted – a Twitter user may see the same one several times a day, adding up to an almost continuous campaign.

What’s particularly weird about this firehose of advocacy is that it goes far beyond what the insect-protein lobby groups themselves seek. Nowhere on its site does the IPIFF, the EU’s lobby group for insect protein, advocate the human consumption of bugs – it’s primarily concerned with augmenting livestock feeds with insect protein. Similarly, the US lobby group, the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA), is very interested in farmed insects to help anaerobic processing of animal waste – but not in rearing bugs for your plate. Neither group advocates human consumption anywhere on their respective websites. So it’s just the journalists, then? And if so, why?

The Economist’s success lies in monetising the intellectual insecurities of business executives – its best known ad campaign featured a business executive finding himself on a long-haul flight next to Henry Kissinger, and not knowing what to say. Today, such executives are keener than ever to be seen to be doing the right thing, and more anxious than ever about saying the wrong thing.

But depressingly for the journalists, Economist subscribers don’t sign up to read it, but to be seen with it, rather like a crucifix wards off vampires. The magazine is really a high-status accessory. This leaves a void, and in the absence of reader feedback, the writers are left to write for each other’s surprise and amusement. This is not unusual in small-circulation titles, but it means staff members have little idea of the wider impact of their work. It’s 30 years since the last substantial profile of The Economist, in which James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic, noted editorials ‘on usefully quirky subjects’ marked by ‘impromptu glibness’ – indeed, ‘Oxbridge glibness’. That endures, but while it might account for one editorial, it can’t account for the campaign.

Alas, on the fringes of the internet, ‘eat bugs and die in a pod’ has been a notorious meme for some time, taken up by dystopian conspiracy theorists in response to the low horizons for humanity espoused by technocratic elites and billionaires like Bloomberg. The meme is a knowing conflation of entomophagy with the enthusiasm for modular plastic eco ‘homes’, touted as a technocratic solution to the property crisis, and the creepy euthanasia ‘pod’, Sarco, which turns into a coffin. Perhaps The Economist is simply repaying the compliment to those alt-right edgelords who use offensive, often racist themes knowing the messages will offend. After all, insects produce disgust, and a continual campaign to normalise eating them produces continual disgust.

At the end of the day, the explanation for the obsessive bug-eating campaign may be no more complex than the English class system manifesting itself again, this time with expensively educated people shitposting. Only it’s paid for with the publisher’s gold card. You could call it the Bullingdon Bug.

Andrew Orlowski is founder of the research network Think of X and a columnist at the Telegraph.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech


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