Insect eating, or entomophagy, has been receiving significant attention in recent years, culminating in the 2013 FAO report, Edible insects. Touted as a sustainable replacement for meat (due to relatively low resource requirements and high rates of feed to protein conversion), insects could be set to become the next superfood. But such a shift in culinary habits is unlikely to be smooth, and a number of barriers to wider consumption have been identified.
Shelomi, a researcher form Germany, (2015) suggests that the main argument usually put forward for eating insects is that it could reduce or replace meat consumption, as increasing meat consumption is not sustainable long term. However, he points out that this argument moralises meat-eating (meat is bad), an approach that is unlikely to encourage many people to alter their habits. He believes that, if insects were widely available, people would buy them. However, current supply is inadequate even to meet current demand. As such, those interested in regular insect consumption are unable to make them a dietary staple. Clearly this is problematic; if the only way to increase demand is to increase supply, and currently demand is very low, what incentives do entrepreneurs have to take the risk with commercial insect farming? We are left with something of a chicken or egg scenario.
Furthermore, in his article “not just the yuck factor”, Jonas House makes the point that those who say they would be willing to eat insects do not necessarily do so. Often a group of early adopters is required to create demand for a new product so that it can gain a foothold and, eventually, become commercially successful. However, the new food has to be both accessible and acceptable within the context of its target market.
The introduction of insects as food is often compared to the introduction of sushi (see House’s article). This may give us some clues as to how we can successfully integrate insects into our diet. However there are some key differences to keep in mind. Sushi uses mainly ingredients that a western market was already familiar with, namely fish and rice, so the challenge was convincing people to consume them in a different way. Insects are entirely new to western diets, which may compound the challenge in promoting them as food. What’s more, sushi has a clear cultural heritage, which lends it credibility and establishes a clear frame in which to market it. We lack a similar, valued frame of reference for insects, and this inability to view them as exotic and as associated with a developed cuisine, makes them that much more alien and unappealing.
I decided to experiment with this first hand, and ordered some crickets from eatgrub, a distributor of edible insects to the UK. The first thing worth commenting on is the price of these bugs; a 45-gram bag of crickets cost me thirteen pounds! (including P&P). Even if I had wanted to integrate insects into my diet, the cost alone would be prohibitive. At this price for one meal, this does not seem affordable for many households.
I decided to cook for my family, using a recipe from the same web site, for Malaysian style cricket jemput-jemput. As soon as my sister heard the word cricket, she was out. Clearly not one of the early adopter’s House describes in his article. My mum and girlfriend were more open minded and let me cook for them, although both agreed that the crickets looked pretty disgusting. Below is the rather tasty looking photo from eat grub’s website, and my somewhat less appetising recreation.
To make this dish, the recipe instructs you to remove all of the legs from the crickets. We discovered that this is because the legs feel quite twiggy, and are very good at lodging between teeth. Removal is no short process, crickets having 6 legs each, and it took two of us 20 minutes to de-leg the majority of the crickets. What’s more, the legs made up a surprising proportion of the 45-gram bag, and while I didn’t weigh it, I wouldn’t be surprised if we lost 10 grams in the process. Given the hefty price tag, I wasn’t best pleased to have to discard them.
Cooking was fairly straight forward, essentially a simple batter with cabbage, onion, some garlic and the crickets mixed in, shallow fried to make a crispy patty. I did notice that the batter smelt very meaty with the crickets mixed in, almost like beef. My thoughts on the final product were mixed. They were very edible, tasting mostly of the ginger and onion, and despite our initial reservations, we all agreed we would be happy to eat them again. But they were nothing special, (although I will admit that I am no chef) and I could take the crickets or leave them. While I know that this single experience of eating insects is quite limited, I can’t help but wonder what the point is. They just seem too expensive and in this recipe, too time consuming, to become any kind of staple, and they really didn’t add much to the dish.
My problem with entomophagy is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s not meat, and I can’t see it ever taking the place of meats on supermarket shelves, even though this is where it would arguably do most good in terms of relative environmental impact. Neither is this really a vegetarian option. Although arguments can be made for the nutritional benefits associated with entomophagy, a well-balanced plant based diet can sustain a healthy and happy life without the need to eat insects; if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Sadly, for now at least, it seems that it’s more a novelty than a global solution .
It safe to say that, as things stand currently, I’ve not got the bug for bugs.