Should we eat more insects? The U.N. thinks so.

May 13, 2013

Get ready for bug burgers. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has a massive new report out today arguing that we should all have more insects in our diet.


You say menace, I say delicious. (The Washington Post)

That's right, insects: "Insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish," the report argues. (Yes, they're serious.)

What's more, edible insects are environmentally friendly — farmers don't need to clear acres of forest to raise them, and the bugs produce fewer planet-warming greenhouse-gas emissions than, say, cows. It could be a sustainable way to help feed a growing world whose demand for protein is soaring.

Over at Slate, Matthew Yglesias lodges the obvious objection: "Of course the problem with eating insects is that it's kind of gross and they don't taste very good." To address that concern, the U.N. report includes a chapter asking why Westerners are so averse to eating bugs. After all, some 2 billion people around the world include insects as part of their diet.

Unfortunately, there aren't any slam-dunk theories here, but the report does lament the fact that Westerners are pushing their anti-bug bias on the rest of the world:

Western attitudes of disgust towards eating insects have arguably also influenced the preference of people in tropical countries. According to Silow (1983): “It is known that some missionaries have condemned winged termite eating as a heathen custom” and for that reason a Christian person told him that “he would never taste such things, valuing them as highly non-Christian”. In Malawi, research has shown that people living in urban areas and devout Christians react with disdain to eating insects (Morris, 2004). ...

According to DeFoliart (1999), “Westerners should become aware of the fact that their bias against insects as food has an adverse impact, resulting in a gradual reduction in the use of insects without replacement of lost nutrition and other benefits”.

Granted, not everyone in the West is so averse to eating bugs. My colleague Ashley Halsey III has an amazing story today about D.C.-area residents who are actually excited about the coming cicada invasion this summer — for culinary reasons:

Jack Dobbyn, a bigwig in the local Democratic Party ... is looking forward to eating this year’s cicada crop.

“You saute them with lemon and butter,” Dobbyn said. “They are crunchy on the outside, but they’re soft in the middle.” 

So there's one vote for a bug diet. Nothing a little butter and sautéing can't cure.

Then again, if Dobbyn's recipes don't inspire a new generation of cicada gourmands, the U.N. report does have a few other recommendations. For instance, as this paper notes, farmers might consider using insects as chicken feed, instead of increasingly expensive fish meal or soybean meal. There are even some side benefits: "By feeding insects to chickens, the use of antibiotics in the poultry industry  — which may lead to human infection with drug-resistant bacterial strains — may be diminished."

That's a bit more palatable, at least.

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Dylan Matthews · May 13, 2013