Source

They are often touted as the ‘future of food’ [1][2][3]. But incorporating insects into our diets is still caught up in countless issues concerning practicality, culture, ethics, and supply [4]. This article argues that prescribing insects as a viable protein source for the developing world is not only morally wrong, but likely to fail as a standalone objective. We will turn to the issue of supply side policy as the only way to get us eating bugs – and argue that this must occur in the global north and south collectively.

Firstly, why do we need insects in our food? The answer arises out of achieving future food security for an increasing world population, and a rising meat consumption in the developing world to match [5][6]. Researchers and entrepreneurs alike are turning to the environmentally friendly protein source consumed (to some degree) by an estimated 2 billion worldwide [7] – insects. So how do we get the world eating insects?

So far entomophagy (the practise of eating insects) has failed to be embraced on a significant scale globally. [4][7]). There are issues regarding the taboo of eating bugs (the ‘yuck’ factor [8]. There may be nothing objectively wrong with the safety, or even taste and price of a food source – but society and culture defines strongly what we can and cannot eat [8]. Cultural and societal stigma can take a long time to overcome. Take the tomato for example, harmless enough, but its consumption in Europe was delayed for many decades under the widespread belief that it was poisonous [9]

It is undeniable that the developing world is where the nutritional and food security benefits of entomophagy would be most strongly felt [3]. But to argue that this justifies –  or foreshadows the success of – focused implementation of insect consumption into the developing world is wrong. Having a two tier system where consuming insects is good enough for developing nations, but not developed, is just simply neo-colonialism. All too often the practice of entomophagy is discussed as an inevitability, rather than an active choice – or even a preference [2]. This is what needs to change.

Even within the insect eating world, to say that 2 billion people ‘eat insects’, is to say that people ‘eat animals’, so what does it matter if its chicken or horsemeat? [10]. This is because certain things do, and do not, fit into our parameters of what ‘food’ is [11]. Just think of the requirements for Halal or Kosher meat.

In order to get people to incorporate insects into their diets it is vital that it is not seen as an imposition of ‘world culture’, or necessity [12]. Prescribing developing nations food to eat will fly in the faces of traditional meals and associated culture, inevitably evoking strong rejection. Entomophagy itself is noted to be on the decline in countries where it is historically found, being perceived as backwards and symptomatic of poverty (neo-costa 2016), so approaching the subject must be done carefully. Changing these perceptions and normalising the use of insects in our diet as an active choice is as much of a challenge in the global north and south, so I’ll address them together.

To regularly eat any food involves some prerequisites  – a willingness to eat it, a cultural acceptance of eating it, and widespread access to it.

Regrading willingness and acceptance. Each nation consumes insects in a unique way . Associating their consumption with culture when marketing products (i.e. eating Ugandan grilled grasshoppers) [7] attaches cultural heritage to its consumption. Domestically, this association can in turn reimagine the practice of eating it with a sense of identity and culture attached to it [11]. So it becomes the elements of culture, rather than cost-factor of a cheap substitute for meat, which are ascribed to its consumption. In the wider world, inserting this ‘sense of place’ to insects can serve to legitimise it as a food [12]. This treats consumers’ food choices as enacting everyday activities rather than simple ‘users’ of a food source [13].

Turning to accessibility of insects in our diet the stated culture and tradition of food makes the decision to buy or eat something always more than a cost-benefit ratio [13]. Insects are currently simultaneously being offered as a high-end snack in western stores, conveying marketable attributes like:  Non-GMO, gluten free, natural, ethically and environmentally produced (see [14][15]). While also as feed for livestock [16]. This is rather confusing, after all luxury products are not generally fed to chickens and pigs. Insects place in our diets is therefore convoluted to potential consumers. We don’t feed pigs caviar.

Once entomophagy defines its place in the markets, the consistency and widespread availability of insect based food is key to its adoption. Novelty value wears off, and inconsistent supply makes it harder for a product to integrate itself onto the dinner-table [17]. How insects are presented to dine on is also key – as we’ve noted earlier – upsetting the fundamentals of existing meals is unlikely to win consumers over. It is now more widely acknowledged that they cannot be a direct substitution for meat at the dinner table [18], and are better marketed in products like flour and protein bars [19].

Finally, entomophagy is not the sole saviour of global hunger that it is sometimes claimed to be[2], and purporting that they are does nothing for those in hunger or act as sufficient incentive for Westerners to start digging into a bag of fried grasshoppers [3]. Insect eating must be presented as a desirable option for all, sold on its healthy nutrition and environmental benefits. To place it as a ‘regrettable eventuality’ or a ‘food for the poor’ will do nothing to promote its consumption or achieve its significant potential in alleviating world hunger.