In the neo-noir film Blade Runner 2049, Dave Bautista plays a replicant: a bioengineered human slave nearly indistinguishable from the Real McCoy. He has covertly tried to defy his subhuman status and integrate into society. Keeping a low profile on the outskirts of L.A., he dutifully tends beetle larvae on an otherwise apocalyptic homestead. Why? To supply the mega-metropolis of the future with essential protein. All before being killed by a Blade Runner (a fellow, newer model replicant designed to “retire” the non-compliant) — in gruesome fashion, of course.
In terms of cinematic world-building, I was struck by the imagery and messaging: 1) runaway population growth, 2) a world depleted of its natural resources, 3) a fouled, nearly inhospitable environment under ecological collapse, 4) our tendency to huddle (almost claustrophobically) into urban centers, 5) the dangers of designer babies and eugenics, and 6) social justice and self-determination of a marginalized minority. Dystopian futurism at its finest (worst?).
The whole insect protein angle resonated the most. It’s a plausible approach that exudes sustainability — a vehicle to constructively talk about averting the dreary future confidently predicted in a sci-fi paperback.
But insects? Please try to contain your listless enthusiasm. That violates our gastronomic sensibilities, too much of an ick factor.
It’s contrary to everything I’ve been taught. Usually I’m tasked with hunting down and destroying critters, not mass rearing them — and for food no less!
We have zero societal tolerance for insects in living space or fields, let alone our diets. It’s a mental block that we’ll have to get over if we want to clear the looming demographic and ecological hump.
Just like with GMOs, gene-editing, irradiation, pesticides, and other ag tools/practices, the choke point (pun intended) is always public acceptance. How do we repackage entomophobia (fear) into entomophagy (food)?
Still skeptical? Let’s not delude ourselves, we eat some nauseating things as a species. From blue-collar staples, to delicacies, to ethnic delights. Granted, some are more outwardly disgusting than others:
- Sauerkraut: shredded cabbage (itself pretty rank in my book) fermented with bacteria
- Haggis: sheep heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with meat, oatmeal, and seasoning and packaged in sheep stomach — ‘nuff said, sorry Scots!
- Foie Gras: fattened duck/goose livers
- Durian: a fruit with a smell described as a mix between a loaded diaper and wet socks
- Castoreum: Beaver anal secretions, subs for vanilla and raspberry flavors
- Blue Cheese: Deliberately moldy (Penicillium fungus) cheese
- Alcohol: Glorified yeast urine (the truth hurts)
On the more mundane side, we’re certifiable carnivores. And despite significant improvements in efficiency, traditional meat still lags far behind insects. While lab-grown meat may be an option on the horizon, it still hasn’t had all of the procedural and economic kinks worked out.
I do salivate over a traditional marbly steak. Although the livestock/poultry industry has made impressive gains in sustainability in a short few decades (and continues to enhance their efficiency), it’s a question of feed conversion ratios. How much feed does it take to pack on the pounds (specifically 1 pound)? And of course there are water requirements, and transport for grain finishing if applicable. Those all have energetic costs that can be “carbonized” — nowadays the preferred form of eco-accounting.
When comparing beef, swine, mutton, poultry, and fish, a hierarchy emerges. Beef is the bottom of the barrel, and insects are the top of the heap.
Chances are you’re already unwittingly eaten them. Food coloring and candy coatings are typically insect derived. And foods have allowable levels of adulteration (with insect parts), so you’re getting dietary tidbits anyway!
If you’re willing to take the full plunge into an unheralded (and delectable) culinary realm, what’s available to tease your tastebuds? Crunchy, savory, and spicy, it’s all here. Caterpillars, grasshoppers, grubs, mealworms, and giant water bugs, among others. All with a preparation repertoire as varied as the thickest cookbook: indulge your inner glutton with stir-fry, kabobs, breading, or slathering with chocolate and caramel.
Insects still retain that pesky branding problem though. But if you think about it, it’s not much of an ideological stretch. Westerners feast on their aquatic cousins (crabs, lobsters, etc.) on a regular basis. But when bugs are eaten in some non-Western locale, we chock it up to “cultural differences.” In our insular minds, did we ever consider that the locals might not have a slab of steak or chicken breast readily available? Improvisation led them to insects out of necessity — and it’s served the dietary needs of select cultures for centuries.
Speaking of branding, I’m often reminded of clever marketing campaigns from my youth.
- Beef: It’s what’s for dinner
- Where’s the beef?
- Pork: The other white meat
Like a catchy jingle, these carefully crafted messages continue to endure, and are embedded in our consumer psyche. Maybe we’re in need of an Insect Checkoff Program (a portion of sales that go into a common industry advertising fund) to build public support for the other (other) white meat?
On the PR front, it wouldn’t hurt for some wildly flamboyant culinary personality to grease the wheels a bit. And insects don’t have to be eaten whole. How about high protein insect flour? Or possibly using insects as feed to fatten conventional livestock?
The yuck factor can’t detract from the benefits of an entomo-diet. To the horror of students, I’ve been known to pluck a grub, termite, or mealworm and down them in the field or lab. Just trying to model behaviors and get over the mental hurdles. As we consider the problems of population and resource exhaustion, insects deserve a spot on the menu. As the 21st century productivity hack, they are what’s for dinner.
Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As a columnist and agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Assistant Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.