• Posted by Dave Gracer on August 11th, 2008, 1:28 PM

    This article seeks to posit one or more modest proposals about meat and our future. My business concerns edible insects. I founded Sunrise Land Shrimp [Ed: Now called Small Stock Foods.] in 2001 and started major development in 2005. It appears to be the only company in the U.S. devoted to entomophagy. I’ve fed thousands of people cooked insects and have myself eaten roughly 40 kinds of insect and related critters such as scorpions and centipedes.  Some were spectacularly tasty.  Some were culturally important to one ethnic group or another.  Some were purchased, deep-fried, in Thailand, where such foods are common.  Several kinds were acquired, frozen on wrapped trays, in Asian markets here in Providence: silkworm pupae, ant pupae, and water bugs.  I have hopes of securing a supply of dried Mexican grasshoppers.

    Why insects? To start with, a few easily defendable points: Our food choices have considerable consequences for our species. The increasing human population and corresponding food-demand represent a serious challenge to the global carrying capacity. Different kinds of foods, however, represent a vast range in their degree of environmental impact. Although various methods of food production—specifically of large, vertebrate food animals—will result in a variety of outcomes regarding carbon footprints, water footprints, and other gauges of resource use, the production of some food-animal species is irreducibly more wasteful and environmentally damaging than others.

    Larger animals will inevitably involve greater waste, not merely larger quantities of actual bodily waste but also greater waste of resources such as grain and water.  The energy conversion index, or ECI, of smaller animals (including insects) is generally greater than for larger animals (cows, pigs, and horses). Regarding both resource efficiency and, to an only slightly lesser extent, nutrition, edible insects are the best food source in terms of environmental impact.  This is important, given our species’ current position on the planet, which is rather more precarious than most people know.

    Much has been said about the morality of slaughtering the large, dewy-eyed mammals that are raised for consumption.  Meat is Murder! runs the cry.  Some people refuse to consume meat out of regard for the animals’ dignity–and, I suppose, their own.  The way I see it, humans are part of nature; some of our closest relatives (chimpanzees) eat meat; and our teeth and digestive tract are designed to work with meat.  It’s only natural that we eat it.  Yet livestock production is fraught with problems. Livestock’s Long Shadow, a comprehensive study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, ascribes something like 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions to livestock production, and fits nicely with the sentiment that “Meat is Murder (For the Planet).”  The phrase comes from a blog that included information about, for example, the thousands of gallons of water it takes to make a hamburger.

    But since there’s currently enough water to supply the livestock, the hypothetical implications don’t seem to matter. Our knowledge doesn’t influence our actions.  We’ll most likely continue to behave badly until we no longer can, and by then the damage we’ll have done will likely be so bad that…well, most people just don’t like to think about it.  “Leave me alone, I’m trying to eat,” they say.

    The term good food can mean “food that tastes good” and “food that’s nourishing,” or it can mean “food that’s good for our species’ future”—but that last definition occurs to fewer people than the first two.  It’s time we started looking at what we eat from that perspective, though this won’t be easy: we’re very attached to the most damaging food-species, be they animal or vegetable. When it comes right down to it, we humans do love pleasure, even when our craving for it is not at all in our long-term best interests.

    And how different am I?  Not so much.  I love sushi.  Beef, pork, and chicken are great but sushi tops them by a mile.  I can’t afford to have it as often as I’d like, which makes the pleasure of it that much greater.  But between bites I sometimes feel remorse for eating it at all, given that each time I do I’m contributing to the emptying of the oceans.  Sushi is one of the least sustainable type of food on the planet.  A little fish-farming here and there doesn’t change the fact that fish are like sand-grains in an hourglass: The only direction they’re going in is down and once they’re down, the hourglass cannot be turned over.  Studies predict global collapse of fish stocks by 2048.

    For a while, I decided to “be part of the solution.” By giving up sushi, I reasoned, I’ll reduce the demand for it even if it’s just by one person. That position lasted less than a year; by then I’d determined that my foregoing sushi simply meant that a dozen people somewhere in the world would eat the few meals that would otherwise have been mine, and then it would be gone (or so astronomically expensive, that it might as well be gone) and I would have missed out.  So I have sushi when I can, and mourn the fact that our grandchildren will never know this experience for themselves.  All they’ll have are the images and stories of the meals we had once upon a time.

    Are beef and pork the next sushi?  Lots of people say they’re totally unsustainable, but the livestock industry and a few others claim differently.  Since the data can support a wide range of positions, we’ll just have to wait and see.

    But, like rays of light piercing the gloom, there is good news: INSECTS!  Some of them are astonishingly tasty, indeed are delicacies for millions who also have access to livestock. We in the west don’t have to wait for the threat of starvation to start enjoying them.  For those unwilling to accept the idea of eating insects on their own merits, bugs can be incorporated almost invisibly into familiar foods. I’ve had breads, muffins, and even pasta made with cricket flour, for instance.  Raising insects at home is easy, requiring little more than a couple of large bins, and would allow you to produce your own protein.  In terms of resource requirements, insects are better than both vertebrates and plant crops. Having advocated for entomophagy for several years, I suspect that bugs will not be mass-adopted as food until there’s no longer an abundance of mammalian and avian protein available. But, I am a pioneer, the Johnny Appleseed of entomophagy.

    I’ve had relatively few complaints about the insects themselves – most people say, “Hey, that’s not so bad.”  Not a ringing endorsement, granted, but not a bad start either.  Besides, I’m no ace in the kitchen; I’ve seen trained chefs do very special things with arthropodal ingredients.  I’ve had roasted stinkbugs and ants; silkworm chowder; termite pancakes (95% termite); and caterpillar salad, all in the U.S.  Several medium- to high-end restaurants feature insect dishes on their menus.  Over 1,200 edible species help round out the offerings.  As well as traditional ethnic dishes, insects could replace the seafood, tofu, and other protein sources in standard recipes.  Despite all this, though, the overall availability of food-grade insects is far from what it could and should be, and the sources tend to be guarded secrets.

    How many diners are ready to open their minds and give insects a try? Their inclusion on the menus of at least one restaurant in each major city would be a good start.  Is this a mere novelty?  So long as the bony animals hold out, I guess so.  Once that supply goes, it’s a very different story.  But the logic is unassailable: It would be better for America to live like the rest of the world than for the rest of the world to live like Americans (I’m looking at you, China).

    It may be time for everyone to find out that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

    Dave Gracer is an English teacher, writer, naturalist, and a few other things, including a zealous believer in the logic of entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food. Originally from Westchester County, N.Y., he has lived in Rhode Island for over 10 years and has a wife and a 4-year-old daughter, both of whom generally decline to eat bugs.

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