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Back to the Future: Incorporating Insects Back Into Our Diets

Dearbhlá unveils the ecological potential of insect-based protein to counter food insecurity and environmental strain, delving into entomophagy's history and the perceptual shifts necessary for its integration into Western diets.

Fried silkworm, sold by a street vendor in Jinan, China. Image credit: Steven G. Johnson

As the population of Earth has recently exceeded 8 billion, the threat of food shortages and food insecurity for many countries has become an unfortunate and stark reality. There are projections that by 2050, the demand for animal-derived protein will double as the human population is likely to exceed 9 billion. In order to address this demand, the food chain and resources we exploit in order to provide protein for our population must be re-examined.

Since prehistoric times, insects have been caught and enjoyed by many cultures and countries and these creatures are a means to provide another source of protein to the world. This article aims to explore the history of entomophagy and how we could incorporate them into our diets in the Western world in order to reduce our heavy consumption of carbon-intensive protein sources such as beef.

The current typical diet in the Western world consists of meat, fish and poultry as the main protein sources, which are carbon intensive in terms of the amount of agricultural land they require to grow and produce. Beef production in particular is known for being severely demanding on land and water resources as many forested areas are deforested for cattle grazing, leaving lasting impacts on the structure and fertility of the soil system. Between 2001 and 2015 a total of 45.1 million hectares of forest were destroyed in order to provide pastures for cattle, which is the equivalent land area to that of Sweden. This is clearly not a sustainable solution for the global future of food. Insects require much less land, water and energy to grow and therefore are a more ecologically viable and sustainable option to put on our plates. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization produced a report 10 years ago supporting the idea of reducing carbon-heavy animal-based consumption and switching to a diet containing more insects, and this message has been received as many insect-based products make their way into the European market today.

The perception of insect consumption has changed from a staple food source as far back as 10,000 years ago to a cultural taboo in the Western world in particular. However, insects have been considered a nutritious and delicious food source for many years and by dignified members of ancient Greek and Roman societies including Roman aristocrats who would enjoy beetle larvae that were fed flour and wine. Aristotle even recorded in his writings of the 4th Century the best ways to enjoy eating cicadas! Entomophagy was a term invented by the ancient Greeks for the eating of insects.There is also evidence to believe that insectivorous feeding preceded eating fruit, vegetable and meat, as early humans observed what other animals would eat: insects. And so historically, entomophagy has been practised across the world and continues to be practised today by over 2 billion people, predominantly in parts of Africa.

A cicada, often roasted or fried in Japan. Image credit: Pmjacoby

Entomophagy is an important cultural practice in many non-Western regions of the world. In Japan, insects have been a part of the Japanese diet for centuries. For example, wasps are distilled in a spirit called shochu, and eaten in many other dishes. In fact they are enjoyed so much that there is an annual festival called Kushihara Hebe celebrating these dishes. Insects are also available dried and roasted, at street markets and even in vending machines. Phuket in Thailand is also known for vibrant markets showcasing snacks such as the popular jing leed, deep-fried crickets with seasoning.

Slowly but surely, many flours and pastes made from insects as the main ingredient are making their way into the Western palate. In Italy, world famous for their pasta dishes, traditional pasta recipes are evolving by substituting regular wheat flour for cricket flour, which has been said to give the pasta a unique but delicious flavour. Even in New Zealand, companies such as Eat Crawlers, are aiming to incorporate insects into the modern snack industry offering products such as chocolate-coated tarantula and peri-peri crickets.

The main barrier to introducing entomophagy into more dishes in the Western world is consumer perception. Despite the hesitancy towards entomophagy in the Western world still, there are products that contain insect traces that we knowingly eat, such as honey. So we must ask why other insect foods are met with concern by public attitudes. In order to integrate entomophagy into Western diets, several cultural and social factors must be considered. It is understandable why dishes involving insects can be met with negativity, because we aren’t used to them. Many foods in the Western world are heavily processed, including artificial colours, flavourings and preservatives. Education around entomophagy is required in order to show Western consumers the nutritional, and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption and switching to insects as a means for protein. Consumer attitudes must change and minds must be opened in order for us to welcome this food source into our diets, as they provide not only protein but many important amino acids, unsaturated fats and minerals.

In order to move forward, one way to reduce food insecurity, prioritise our environment and feed the 783 million chronically hungry people in our world is to actually look back to the diets our ancestors maintained, including viewing insects as a healthy food source.

About the Author: Dearbhlá is a 3rd-year Environmental Science student at The University of York currently on an industrial placement in Northern Ireland. She enjoys getting stuck into crafts, baking and playing music also in her free time.

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