With populations growing, resources dwindling and food insecurity on the rise, could insects feed a hungry world? 

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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.

click to enlarge “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,” say James Rolin, marketing manager for Cowboy Crickets Farms in Belgrade. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • “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,” say James Rolin, marketing manager for Cowboy Crickets Farms in Belgrade.

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?

click to enlarge Bug Appétit, a fundraiser for the Missoula Butterfuly House and Insectarium, features a menu of three dishes containing mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Bug Appétit, a fundraiser for the Missoula Butterfuly House and Insectarium, features a menu of three dishes containing mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers.

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.

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