Aside from the occasional gnat that's drowned in my bedside water glass and a few mezcal worms during college, I'm not in the habit of ingesting bugs. I'm more of a meat-and-three guy. When I think of eating insects, I imagine some wild-eyed survivalist lost in the woods, forced to choke down grubs and beetles for sustenance while waiting to get choppered out. And yet here I sit at Burns St. Bistro, fork in hand, staring down at a steaming taco piled high with a tangled heap of Mexican grasshoppers.
At least I'm not alone. All over the world today, 2 billion people will sit down to a meal of insects.
Entomophagy—eating insects—is gaining ground in the United States, largely sparked by a 2013 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The 200-page document includes an exhaustive investigation into entomophagy's worldwide history, the nutritional benefits of insect consumption, and the feasibility of large-scale bug farming. As the world's population inches toward the 9 billion mark, which it's expected to hit in 2050, our food production will have to double in order to keep up. And we're struggling now. The FAO defines undernourishment as the inability to acquire enough food to meet daily dietary energy requirements over a period of one year, and nearly 1 billion people already fail to meet that threshold. How can we ramp up the resources to battle the food insecurity that grips so much of Africa, South America, Asia and even here in the U.S.?
A quarter of the world's people already have one answer, having eaten beetles, crickets, ants and hundreds of other insect species for centuries. In 2012, Yde Jongema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands released a study that identified 1,900 species of insects consumed as food worldwide. As a source of nutrition, insects bring a lot to the table. They're loaded with protein, packed with energy-providing fat, and provide a spectrum of minerals, vitamins and other nutrients typically lacking in regions plagued with chronic food insecurity. Bugs, especially when compared to other animal-based sources of protein, are good for you.
But they're also good for the environment. Worldwide meat production has doubled in the last 30 years, thanks in part to advancing technology and the advance of factory farming. But this increased production comes with a price. With nearly one-third of the earth's dry land being used to grow food for humans and feed for livestock, the environmental fallout is staggering and, some say, unsustainable. In an FAO report entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow," Henning Steinfeld attributes 18 percent of greenhouse gases to agriculture, a larger percentage than the entire transportation sector. Seventy percent of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to create grazing lands for cattle. We're consuming the earth for the sake of steak.
Insects, on the other hand, can be raised as food using a tiny fraction of the water, land, energy and other resources required for producing livestock, and it can be done with a much smaller environmental footprint.
Which all sounds good on paper, but in the Western world, insect diets aren't an easy sell. When we can drive down the street and choose between three sizes of Big Mac, why would we eat a bug?
"By far the largest thing is mental stigma," says James Rolin, the marketing manager for Cowboy Cricket Farms in Belgrade, which is owned by his wife, Kathy. The farm, one of a half dozen such operations in the country, has been ramping up its operation and plans to open officially in mid-May and be fully operational by September, Rolin says. It's already received queries from as far away as Australia. The 1,100-square-foot facility has been designed to raise the animals (acheta domestica, aka house crickets), which will be ground into protein-rich flour or frozen whole for sale in bulk to restaurants and food manufacturers. Consumers will be able to buy one-pound bags of flour online. The flour is also used in the farm's "chocolate chirp" cookies, which are baked by Big Sky Bakery in Bozeman. Rolin says the cookies are an outreach tool designed to ease people into the idea of eating bugs.
"We have not traditionally eaten insects, and as such they're thought to be dirty and disgusting and dangerous and harmful and poisonous and all these other things," Rolin says. "Yes, there are insects out there that are those things, but the vast majority are not. So really, just the mental roadblock is the biggest thing."
Kathy dreamed up the idea of Cowboy Cricket Farms while studying nutrition at Montana State University. "The more we got into it, the more it just made sense," James says, "not just from a business standpoint, but from an environmental and social standpoint as well. We're the first ones [in Montana], but if someone else does come up with something, at least there will be a bit of a path blazed for them."
If getting people past the ick factor is the first hurdle to acceptance of bugs as food, government regulation—or lack thereof—is a hurdle to farming them.
"There are no real regulations right now," Rolin says, "but the general consensus is, as long as they're fed like any other food-grade animal would be—say, chickens—and they're treated as food throughout the whole process, they're human food grade. We've spent a lot of time educating the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, both of which have been surprisingly helpful and really have given us a lot of support."
How, exactly, does one fit a fully functioning farm, complete with hatchery and food processing area, on a footprint the size of a Taco Bell? With crickets, you go up, not out. The main barn has a 17-foot ceiling, and Rolin says the plastic bins housing some 20 million crickets will take up every foot of it. "You can grow them in a really small area. We can grow the [protein] equivalent of 20 cows a year in our facility, and you cannot fit 20 cows in our facility. It takes just a small fraction of the land."
Cowboy Cricket Farms has already received several letters of intent for large orders of whole and powdered crickets from companies in Mexico, the United States and Canada. One outfit in Canada that produces beef substitutes has expressed interest in ordering as much as 3,000 pounds of frozen crickets monthly. Cowboy Cricket Farm will be Montana's first bug-food entity, but the availability of finished foods containing edible insects is creeping ever closer. Insect treats and meals have enjoyed a certain vogue in cities like New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. You can order a grasshopper stir fry at La Calaca Comelona in Portland, or slurp a cricket powder milkshake at Wayback Burger in several of the chain's Washington restaurants. Online, you can find a variety of ready-to-eat insects, from Exo's cricket protein bars to bags of freeze-dried buffalo worms from EntoPure.
James says he and Kathy were inspired to start farming crickets by MSU's Florence Dunkel, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology and an international expert on edible insects. Working with MSU Catering, Dunkel hosted the 29th annual Bug Buffet in February, where nearly a thousand people gathered to chow down on orzo cricket salad, quesadillas with honeycomb moths, larval latkes and several other dishes featuring insects. The Bug Buffet aims to help people overcome their psychological aversion to eating insects by providing tasty treats like chocolate chip wax worm cookies, but the event also emphasizes insect farming and its minimal environmental impacts.
A similar event is planned in Missoula for April 21. The Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium's "Bug Appétit!" fundraiser features a menu of three dishes containing mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers. The recipes were researched and prepared by Burns St. Bistro chef Walker Hunter, one of the popular Westside eatery's co-founders. "We're trying to weigh the sensationalism with actually being good," he says of the menu. Chef Hunter has agreed to whip up a preview meal for me, which is why I am sitting here eyeballing this mess of roasted grasshoppers, thinking about that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where a turban-topped dinner guest gleefully slurps the goop out of a Thin Mint-sized beetle like he's sucking the head of a crawfish.
The comparison isn't that far off, actually. It's no coincidence that crawfish are also known as mud bugs. Shellfish and insects aren't that different from each other, says Glenn Marangelo, development director of the MBHI. By way of example, he points out the physical similarity between lobsters and scorpions. "We consider lobster to be a delicacy," he says, "but people are grossed out by bugs."
Evidently, these arthropods are alike in more than just appearance. People who have allergies to shellfish can also have a reaction to insects, says Marangelo, so they should also avoid eating bugs altogether. The allergen is thought to be found in chitin, the material that makes up the exoskeletons of segmented shellfish and insects alike.
Jen Marangelo, Glenn's wife, is the executive director of the MBHI and runs the daily operations of the Insectarium. Their collection of live arthropods from around the world, from giant hissing cockroaches to a Chilean tarantula named Rosie, draws a steady stream of school tours during which "bug ambassadors" answer questions and show off the stock. But given that their mission is to "inspire the appreciation and understanding of insects," isn't the idea of serving bug-based dishes at a fundraiser akin to raising money for a zoo by grilling up zebra steaks and hippo chops? According to Glenn, appreciation includes accepting bugs as food.
"Insects are already a crucial part of our world. Maybe bringing that into our food culture dovetails with that. Now maybe when people see them, instead of getting creeped out, they'll salivate."
I'm not exactly drooling as I grab the taco off the plate. The grasshoppers were chosen by Hunter after he learned that chapulines, as they're known in Mexico, have been a popular food in many parts of that country since pre-Hispanic times. Using them for taco filling, he says, was a no-brainer. "If people hate it," he says with a smile, "blame Oaxaca."
I keep that in mind as I open wide and shove the taco into my mouth. Prickly appendages tickle my tongue as I chomp. The taco, layered with cotija cheese, salsa fresca, cilantro and a dollop of tangy guacamole, is crunchy yet chewy, a mouthful of goodness that's unlike anything I've ever tasted. There's a vaguely nutty flavor to the grasshoppers, with a hint of citrus. Not bad. I'm chewing a mouthful of the critters and I notice that their legs don't crumble between my teeth like I was expecting. They're not brittle, but fibrous and wiry like the stem of a dry maple leaf. The hoppers are dried and roasted, so at least there's nothing gooey to contend with. The homemade flour tortilla is the perfect vehicle for the savory grasshoppers, providing a fluffy complement to the chewy brown bugs.
But as much as I'm enjoying the flavors, I can't swallow this bite. As it happens, I'd scheduled a colonoscopy a couple of days after the sample meal, and I was already within the window where any foods with a husk, like corn or seeds or nuts, were forbidden. Nowhere in the hospital handout was the consumption of bugs addressed. I could have wolfed down the whole taco in three bites, it was that good, but I could imagine the doctor scoping the folds of my lower intestine, saying, "Ahoy, what's that there? An antenna? A mandible? Abort!"
If you've submitted to this wonderful procedure, you know how much I'd hate to have to go back for an encore. So I reluctantly spit the thoroughly chewed mouthful into a napkin and apologize to Chef Hunter.
Had this been a regular beef taco, the protein I was chewing would have consumed a lot more resources on its way to the table. As the earth approaches potential tipping points with climate change and overpopulation, our increasing agricultural water usage coupled with the attendant degradation of ecosystems creates a one-two punch that might do us all in long before rising seas turn Miami into a snorkeler's paradise. Within 10 years, by some estimates, two-thirds of the planet will be feeling the impact of shrinking global water supplies. We need to find ways to raise more food with less water, and if beef and other livestock are a big part of the problem, insects may be the solution. According to the FAO report, one kilogram of crickets—which, pound-for-pound, provides at least as much protein as beef—can be raised using discarded produce and no additional water. That same kilogram of feedlot beef would require 686 gallons of water. Crickets are twice as efficient as chickens at converting feed to protein, and four times as efficient as pigs. They're 12 times more efficient than cattle.
As inefficient as livestock is as a food source, the way we consume livestock contributes even more waste. We typically eat just 40 percent of a cow, whereas you can eat 100 percent of most insects. And it's not just the massive amount of resources hogged up by factory farms that can be alleviated by farming bugs for food. Agricultural emission of greenhouse gases is a runaway train that can be slowed by involving insects in the mix. Crickets, locusts, mealworm larvae and other widely used insects produce 100 times less greenhouse gas than pigs and cattle. Livestock waste also leads to nitrification and acidification of the soil, rendering it useless for agricultural applications. Here, insects can help by being raised in organic sidestreams and livestock biowaste like manure, slurry and compost. Such insects require no fresh resources, but are processed and then fed to certain animals or sold for aquaculture and pet food. Hey, an iguana's got to eat.
Widespread insect consumption would appear to be a boon to the environment, but the nutritional angle may be entomophagy's biggest selling point in a world where a billion people suffer chronic hunger. Compared to their livestock counterparts, insects contain equal or higher concentrations of protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. They also happen to be loaded with iron, the deficiency of which the World Health Organization has identified as the world's most common nutritional disorder.
Insects also contain a lot of fat, the most energy-dense macronutrient found in food. Australia's Witchetty grub, for example, contains about 38 percent fat. The large, wood-eating moth larvae has long been a staple of Aboriginal women and children, and the grubs, which feed on the roots of red gum trees, provide the desert dwellers with a high-fat source of protein. Cooked over hot ashes, they're said to taste like chicken. Their fat is mostly the unsaturated, or healthy variety.
And if that's not enough, there's the public health angle. Not only do insects pack a nutritional wallop, they deliver the goods with a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases and parasites that can be carried by livestock. Salmonella, listeria, e. Coli, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy—these threats to public safety are virtually nonexistent with an insect-based diet.
Still, some hurdles remain. One question about eating insects that's not easily answered is: How does bug-based fare fit into the vegetarian and vegan diet? That seems like more of a philosophical debate than a scientific one, and the answer probably depends on your reasons for choosing your vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. On the one hand, there's the oft-repeated vegetarian declaration, "I won't eat anything with a face." As anyone who's seen A Bug's Life can tell you, that lets insects off the train. They're adorable. A different subset of vegetarians avoids eating meat because they don't wish to contribute to the suffering endured by animals on their journey to the supermarket. Are insects sentient organisms that suffer? Not if they're euthanized properly. Cricket farms typically freeze their crickets before processing them into food. And what about the pesticides used in growing the food that comprises a plant-based diet? How many insects have to die to support a vegetarian meal?
As the rainforests continue to be shaved into grazing lands and our dwindling water supply is siphoned off to raise greenhouse gas-belching livestock, trillions of insects—far and away the largest classification of organisms on the planet—are poised to swarm to the rescue. People cooking with termite flour in Ivory Coast know it. Chefs adding giant water bugs to the menu in Thailand restaurants get it. From green weaver ants in Australia to migrating locusts in the Netherlands to red-legged grasshoppers in Quebec, insects all over the world are being served up and enjoyed by billions of people.
"It's a thing," Glenn Marangelo says of entomophagy's spreading acceptance. "And it's a growing thing."
Bug Appétit! is scheduled for Friday, April 21, from 6 to 8:30 PM at Burns St. Bistro, 1500 Burns Street. Ticket price of $50 per person includes a three-course dinner featuring mealworm arancini, chapuline tacos, and saltine toffee cricket bark prepared by Chef Walker Hunter. Vegetarian options will also be available. Beer and wine is available for purchase. See missoulabutterflyhouse.org for info.