Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why I do not endorse entomophagy

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.”

14 comments:

  1. Like you, I am very turned off by the idea that insects can only be valued if they directly feed humans and even more by the fact that every insect festival and certainly any news article about an insect related event has to feature some chef that prepares brownies made from grasshoppers.
    But the nutritional value of insects compared to the investment of raising them is indeed very high, and if you are not just concentrating on roaches and mealworms the fat content is not.
    Our culture (yours and mine) evolved in relatively insect poor parts of Europe. Collecting insects for their nutritional value would have been too time consuming. Most cultures closer to the tropics have traditionally relaid on insects as a healthy food source and modern, weird American tv shows should not be among the reasons to turn up our noses at their knowlegde and traditions. A protein rich food that is low on the food chain may be necessary in the future and will be much easier on the environment than raising cattle, chickens, salmon etc. But I know you as a meat and potatoes guy (-:

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    1. Hahaha! I absolutely LOVE your comments, Margarethe. Very well-worded, informative, and poking a little fun, too :-) Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

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  2. interesting perspective...

    I'm not sure the two views are mutually exclusive. I see no conflict at all in teaching the wonder of bugs, the wonder of the world we can learn from bugs and the way we can use bugs to help us live better on earth.

    I mean, seems like you're picking and choosing a little here, Eric. (I'll try not to go on and on about Red Lobster and taking food from a clown and not even asking what's in that McBurger!)

    ...a professor ... to study the employment of insects as detectors of explosives and other substances used by terrorists. ... 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...

    It seems from this testimonial that they are products! Not to mention the firefly abdomens sold to biology labs for bioluminescence studies... or the lac bugs harvested for shellac... or all the billions of crickets already farmed in the United States to feed all the reptiles Americans keep as pets.... and blah and blah and blah...

    If the question is taste... well, that's a matter of taste - we learn that. If it's a question of legs getting stuck in your teeth (something that arguably never happens with cows -- if you eat them right), there are ways... you can even make flour out of roasted bugs and remove any distraction of consistency...

    I have always preached our program message is about respect - and respect is about looking again and better understanding the choices we make. Aside from all the biases (that kind of surprised me a little) that you state above, there are some very compelling arguments to make for entomophagy (i'll come cook for ya sometime Eric!)

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  3. Of the million+ species of insect that we know of, it is impossible to generalize their value into just pollination, degradation, etc. Insects have provided sustenance to our primate ancestors and cousins for millennia, and played a key role in our evolution specifically as food. Honoring and perceiving them as such is a far cry better than exterminating them out of habit and ingrained aversion. Indeed, in certain cultures, crop pests fetch a higher price at market than the crops themselves. Imagine the state of organic agriculture if that were the case in the US?

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  4. I am very much appreciating the additional comments here, thank you! This is exactly the kind of dialogue that I hoped would happen. I would say insects are "models" in the fields of engineering and technology, not "products" in and of themselves, but that point is well taken.

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  5. My entomophagy has only given me greater appreciation for insects in general.

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  6. i suppose... you draw your lines....


    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2012/09/11/meet-the-newest-cyborg-a-remote-controlled-cockroach/

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    1. Very interesting....I think the intentions are actually pretty good here, and if insects don't perceive pain....The insect becomes an extension of the person with the controls, allowing us to explore places in a way never before possible. Thank you for sharing that.

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  7. I think I need to clarify something. I do not object to entomophagy itself. What I object to is the promotion of it at the expense of praising insects in their living state, and the many benefits we derive from them as living creatures. That the media has embraced entomophagy demonstrations is even worse.

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  8. I think what offends is the gimmickry, leading to trivialization for entertainment purposes of life forms. Life forms have lives, fascinating lives, that we hopefully can study, appreciate, learn from. Certainly peoples have used insects as food traditionally (mono lake alkali fly larvae being my fave example) but this was not a trivial faddish thing to do, rather a part of their overall economy of survival.

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    1. That is *exactly* it, Vanessa, thank you. I may have to invite you to do guest blogs periodically ;-)

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  9. Sushi bars were seen as gimmickry at first, too.

    Personally, gathering, processing, cooking, and sharing insects as food has increased my overall appreciation and awareness of life at every level. Killing something as tiny as an insect for food really brings the rest of the food chain into perspective.

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  10. Thank you for opening this discussion.

    I second what Vanessa cardui says

    I don't think our culture has a close enough relationship with insects that we can eat them with the loving respect we (ideally) should bring to the table. Without that respect, eating them puts us at risk of simply changing our current habit of killing them to get rid of them, to instead exploiting them for their food value.

    Unless we deepen our relationship with our food, we are not going to be good stewards of any living resource.

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