A recent report from the United-Nations-sponsored Forest and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that eating bugs could be an effective way to defeat global hunger and combat climate change.
The report got a mixed reception from the press. For the most part, they, like many North Americans, regard insects as dirty, disease-ridden and gross. Although the report’s key findings made perfect sense, most reporters balked at the thought of making meals out of crickets, ants or grasshoppers.
However, if you read the 180-plus pages of the FAO report (something I suspect many people have yet to do), you will be treated to a host of compelling reasons for why we should forego conventional sources of meat, such as pigs, cattle and poultry, and start dining on insects, spiders and other so-called “mini-livestock.”
But let’s face it: I said all this 15 years ago, in the introductory chapter of my Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways to Cook Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin. I’ve restated the reasons for engaging in entomophagy (the technical term for bug-eating) and offered an additional batch of nine recipes in my updated and expanded Eat-a-Bug Cookbook Revised.
Here then, in a nutshell, are what I consider the main reasons for saying, “Bug appétit” and joining the ranks of the world’s bug-eating people—and estimated 1.9 billion men, women and children, according to the FAO report.
Bugs are reliable sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. A grasshopper’s body is more than 20 percent protein, slightly less than the protein in lean ground beef (about 27 percent). But if you roast grasshoppers to remove water weight, their protein content jumps to around 60 percent, transforming it into super-steak.
Protein-rich bugs are also good sources of vitamins and minerals. Want to ward off osteoporosis? Then eat crickets, whose bodies are loaded with calcium. Looking for a good vitamin supplement? Try termites; they’re rich in iron. Better yet, get some silkworm caterpillars. A 100-gram serving of the small greenish-gray caterpillars provide 100 percent of the daily requirements for copper, zinc, iron, thiamin, and riboflavin.
Raising edible insects could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Curbing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—two chemical compounds known as greenhouse gases—is of vital importance to climate control. Believe it or not, 18 percent of all greenhouse gases come from the manure piles and flatulence of cows and pigs. That’s a greater percentage than what comes from all the cars, trucks and motorcycles in the world.
Lightweight greenhouse gas molecules enter the earth’s upper atmosphere, forming a dense layer. Much like the glass panes in an old-fashioned greenhouse, this layer allows sunlight to penetrate but will not let any residual heat to escape.
Because of this so-called greenhouse effect, the Earth is gradually warming, wreaking havoc on weather patterns, causing glaciers to melt, and, yes, creating drought conditions that could lead to food shortages in many parts of the world. By tending herds of grasshoppers instead of cattle, we could someday curb greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 60 percent.
Bug-farming is more food-efficient. Raising cows, pigs and sheep is a tremendous waste of food and water resources. Alternatively, bug ranching is benign. It all comes down to what’s known as the efficiency of conversion of ingested food (or ECI) rating– a way of measuring the benefits that various animals obtain from their food.
Deriving an ECI rating means measuring the weight an animal gains after eating an established weight of food. Chickens, which produce 38 to 40 pounds of meat from 100 pounds of feed, will have ECI ratings of 38 or 40. Beef cattle and sheep produce shockingly low ECI values of 10 and 5.3 respectively. In other word, 90 percent of a steer’s diet and 95 percent of a sheep’s is wasted.
Accurate ECI values for insects are difficult to obtain. However, the ratings we do have are certainly respectable: 19 to 31 for silkworm caterpillars, 16 to 37 for the pale western cutworm, and up to 44 for German cockroaches. In addition, few, if any, harmful effects are associated with the commercial rearing of these arthropods for food.
What else? It takes about 2,600 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Alternatively, some insects, including the mealworm, can grow to maturity without a single sip of water. These metabolically thrifty organisms get all the moisture they need from the few molecules of water in their otherwise bone-dry food.
We could reduce potentially dangerous pesticide use by commercial farmers and backyard gardeners. Still not ready to order bug burgers instead of Big Macs? Then consider that many of our common garden pests are edible. If everyone served rapacious critters like tomato hornworms and vine weevils for dinner, we’d have little need for most over-the-counter pesticide powders and sprays. On a global scale, this could make an incredible difference in the health of the environment and to ourselves.
Hand-harvesting pest insects can also support rural economies. In parts of Africa, the cash crop is not the fruit of the mopane tree but its pest— the caterpillar of the emperor moth caterpillars. In a good year, harvesters of these caterpillars (commonly known as mopane worms) may collect up to 40 pounds of the fat moths-to-be. The caterpillars’ guts are squeezed out and their bodies briefly boiled in salted water and spread in the sun.
Two or three decades ago, the mopane worm biz was somewhat small and low-key, with the dried product packaged in small plastic bags or sold by the tin cupful at rural bus stops. Now, though, several large South African firms have picked up the slack, marketing around 1.6 million kilos of these morsels annually. Neighboring Botswana nets an estimated $8 million per year and in Zimbabwe, there have even been reports of mopane poaching and stories of armed gangs robbing rural harvesters of their worms.