Pass the pickled crickets please


The World’s population may be divided into two: the couple of billion people for whom insects are every day food, and the rest, including us in the UK, who rarely knowingly eat them. According to research done by Douglas Moore, of Nottingham University, more than 2,000 different species of insects are eaten world-wide. Here we eat honey, an insect product, but little else except for the odd novelty such as chocolate covered ants, cochineal (contains beetles) and tiny ones we know nothing about which lurk in our fruit and vegetables.

There is though a growing interest in providing insect-based foods for people everywhere. This is because our main source of protein, meat, is a very inefficient provider of this. Livestock takes up nearly 80% of all agricultural land, both for grazing and winter feed, needs lots of water, and emits more greenhouse gases than all the world’s transport. As demand rises much new agricultural land is gained at the expense of critically important natural habitats such as rain forest. Because insect-based protein has much less of an impact (according to Moore, ‘… kilo-for-kilo edible insect protein requires 500 x less water, 12 x less feed and 10 x less land, while producing 613 x less greenhouse gases ’) the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation is championing insect gathering and farming.

This is not about harvesting the bugs in your garden, although wild harvesting is common in parts of Africa and the Far East. It is perfectly feasible to farm insects, such as moth and beetle larvae and crickets, on a large scale. It is already being done in this country with insects for feeding pets and other animals.

What’s not to like? Well, there’s the rub. Food likes and dislikes are deeply ingrained in our culture. Daily delicacies in one part of the world are a big no-no in others. In Europe and North America the idea of eating insects is repulsive to most people. Changes can happen though. A few decades ago we almost never ate raw fish, but today sushi bars abound. Within a generation we may need an even bigger dietary revolution to meet the three challenges of feeding an expanding population, managing climate change, and conserving nature.

Perhaps it is time for that Midlands based perennial favourite, ‘The Archers’ to introduce an enterprising insect farmer to its story lines.

(Since writing this piece it has been announced that Sainsburys are going to offer insect-based foodstuffs, and I have found salt-and-vinegar crickets and chocolate covered mealworms on sale in Grand Central in Birmingham.)

Twitter: @PeteWestbrom


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