I’m open to the idea of people eating bugs for protein in the long run, and not just for the cheap novelty of Let’s eat some freakin’ creepy-crawlies!!!! You can set aside any issues of animal cruelty and still acknowledge that the meat industry overtaxes lots of resources—land, water, feed crop that must itself be sustained by land and water and sun and labor, and so on—enough that it’s worth exploring other options. This rings especially true as the human population explodes to a projected 9 billion by 2030, leaving us with less room on this little earth for all that future-meat to roam and more human mouths to feed.
Even if the savior possibilities of bug-eating have been slightly overstated in the last few years of headlines—always some wide-eyed permutation of “Insect” and “Future”—it seems unlikely that the long-term prospects for affordable protein involve big, fat, labor-intensive, energetically demanding, waste-spewing, methane-farting creatures. (Though if we can get significantly better at growing meat, that’d be pretty nice too.)
The usual case for insects could be crudely summarized this way: Insects demand far less resources like land and water to farm, convert feed more efficiently into edible protein and nutrients, and can be fed all kinds of waste rather than feed that itself could be eaten by us and other animals. A 2015 study on crickets pushed back against those last two claims, though, demonstrating that you sadly can’t feed bugs straight-up garbage—“food waste and diets composed largely of straw”—and watch them thrive to harvestable size, and also that crickets, when fed poultry feed, converted feed to dietary protein at rates comparable to chickens, but not dramatically better. Nothing planet-saving on the horizon quite yet, as far as crickets are concerned, though as the researchers admit, there are many other bugs and possible feed sources to experiment with.
These are all issues for the scientists to sort out, and I’m wedded to my cautious optimism that they’ll succeed over time. Assuming we get to the point where the technology makes bugs viable, though, how will we get people world-over to eat them? Turns out plenty of them already incorporate bugs in their diet—according to the United Nations, a solid 2 billion—and enjoy a rich cultural history of doing so, but for the unenlightened rest of us, how to override the stigma of eating our many-legged unwanted houseguests? Rare is the reluctant entomophage who would stay open-minded about a fully intact roasted grasshopper or mealworm or even the steamed giant water bug I once ate, fat enough to fillet, its flaky flesh smelling unmistakably like a green Jolly Rancher. That issue may have informed the strategy of grinding the bugs whole into a dust that is unrecognizable as insect and can be smuggled into all kinds of things for a protein boost. People make baked goods with cricket flour, and betray their contents only with their faint, unexpected nuttiness. Several companies are busy working crickets into protein bars:
If there’s a workable long-term solution, it may involve something like what’s being done now by some of the most technically capable bug experimenters, who are finding ways to extract protein from bugs and give them new forms. Take this Edible Manhattan interview with Eli and Lee Cadesky of C-Fu FOODS, who turn bug protein into tofu, along with ice cream and other dairy-imitations. Dressing up insects as a tofu block feels like an unusual strategy: since it’s still an animal product, it won’t entice the vegetarians or vegans or habitual meat-avoiders who otherwise endorse the meatless protein sources like, you know, tofu. For those eaters, insect tofu would mark a regression from their peaceful soy-based protein of choice. And aside from the few cultures who can expertly mix tofu and meat, even in the same dish (like Chinese mapo tofu), committed carnivores tend to have brutal opinions of tofu, so it’s unclear what demographic is satisfied by bug tofu, except the experimental eat-anything omnivore. Even that guy—this guy—is probably eating more out of curiosity than because it satisfies any moral stance or hope for a more sustainable future.
Insect ice cream? That sounds like an easier sell. Tell all the five-year-old and/or lactose-intolerant masses that there’s bug-based soft serve on deck, and watch them flock.