A modest proposal to fight world hunger and global warming, enjoy a tasty meal — and gross out most of your friends:
We should eat bugs. Really.
I didn’t invent this idea. Insects are a delicacy in so many parts of the world, and pack such a beneficial wallop nutritionally and environmentally, that the United Nations launched a website three years ago to cyber-sing the praises of bugs as food. Click the link to read updates on such appetizing topics as how Chinese maggots could feed the hungry.
Actually, stray media reports suggest American culinary daredevils often give positive reviews after digging in to a plate of insects. Check out this piece on a bug-specializing chef in The New York Times Dining and Wine section. (Care for some Chianti with your cricket?)
I’ve never had the opportunity to try insects myself. But some years ago, I interviewed several people at Boston University who had. To my surprise, they enjoyed most of the varieties sampled, describing sugary sweet ants and bacon-like termites. The one thumbs-down was for crickets, and they were merely bland, not nauseating.
Our multi-legged friends offer more than taste. They’re protein pellets, often higher in that nutrient than meat. They also contain polyunsaturated fatty acids, iron, calcium, and B vitamins. The thoughtful folks at the U.N. even provide nutritional labeling for various insects.
And then there is the climate change problem. The livestock industry is a major driver of global greenhouse gas emissions. In this area, bugs have meat beat, hands, er, legs-down. Not only does their production consume far fewer resources — a third of a pound of grasshopper requires much less than the 869 gallons of water to get a comparable amount of beef — but bugs, to put it delicately, generally don’t burp or break wind. Livestock does, pumping methane, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
Vegetarians (I’m one) should also be comfortable eating insects, except for those who shun animals for religious reasons. Science suggests that insects feel no pain or suffering, making them the functional equivalent of plants. Don’t take my word for it: Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the vegan founder of the animal welfare movement, doesn’t sweat stepping on a cockroach.
You don’t want to go digging in your garden for dinner tonight, however. Some varieties aren’t edible (the U.N. page explains which are) and if you’re allergic to shellfish, you want to avoid insects altogether, as the two groups are related. Also, the U.S. government doesn’t do safety inspections on insects-as-food — and bugs raised here might have been poisoned with pesticides. Theoretically, these obstacles are manageable. The possibly insurmountable impediment to insect consumption, though, was summed up by a progressive, health-conscious friend who told me, “I’d rather eat dirt.”
Insects may be savored elsewhere, but they are instinctively yucky to Americans. In 2010, The Boston Phoenix reported some advocates’ notion of making them appetizing by transforming them into unrecognizable patties or flour; for more adventuresome eaters, the paper printed some recipes for unprocessed insects.
And really, when snails, animal stomachs (tripe), and livers are readily available on restaurant menus or in your grocer’s freezer, are bugs really that gross?