It has lately become quite fashionable among entomologists to promote entomophagy, the practice of human consumption of insects as food. This is nothing new in Asia, and among many populations in the rural tropics, but is a novel concept among Westernized cultures. I personally know several entomologists who are at the forefront of the “bug chef” phenomenon. They are genuinely nice people, but I am not on board with the idea for a variety of reasons:
1. Fear Factor. Do you remember this television show from NBC? Eating insects, or spiders or other arachnids, was a grotesque challenge to contestants on this “reality” program. Throughout the developed world, eating insects is seen as something starving prisoners do, or people lost in the wilderness without other recourse. It is a punishment or last resort, not a decision one makes when they have other choices. There is good reason for that. Many insects taste horrible, or are downright poisonous if ingested. Mushrooms are a good comparison, except I think they actually taste just fine. There is no question that those pushing bug-eating have an uphill climb in overcoming the “yuck factor.”
2. Nutritional Value. Insects are basically fat and a little protein encased in chitin (the exoskeleton). Proponents of entomophagy will claim there is more to it than that, but I am boiling it down (microwaving it, whatever) to the most simplistic terms. I will not argue that as a supplement to a largely vegetarian diet, eating insects has merit. Still, the chitin, while perhaps pleasingly crunchy, is most reminiscent of those translucent yellow flakes from popcorn that you are still trying to get out from between your teeth days or weeks later. I say this as someone who has personally tried fried mealworms and other “delicacies.”
3. The utilitarian view. What I find truly objectionable about the promotion of entomophagy is the idea that insects must have some anthropocentric, utilitarian use to be of any value. They must also be dead to have value. The living insect is by far more fascinating and important than a dead one with a toothpick through it. Insects pollinate wildflowers and crops. Insects quickly consume dead and decaying flora and fauna before the corpses can breed horrible disease-causing bacteria. Insects are consumed by other animals that we find far more tasty, like fish and poultry for example. Ok, I’m kidding a little bit, but insects are an incredibly important part of the natural food chain.
Insects also produce goods and services that are of great use to humanity. Would we suddenly see the honeybee as food itself, instead of as a maker of food? I know a professor who has had contracts with the Department of Defense to study the employment of insects as detectors of explosives and other substances used by terrorists. This kind of work actually enhances our admiration of insects and their superior chemo-tactile senses. Other scientists study insects to find ways of improving the aerodynamics and mechanics of flying aircraft; and as models of locomotion for robotics. Insects are not products, but that is the only context in which some people think they have value.
I will always hold my fellow entomology colleagues in high esteem, but I do wish they would step off the entomophagy bandwagon for a spell and talk to the public more about the intrinsic value of beetles, wasps, bugs, and flies. Meanwhile, I suspect the comments on this post to offer plenty more “food for thought.”