This Spring I swanned off to Geneva for a romantic weekend away, for the sort of trip where you try out that never-before-worn Derby hat, ‘travel light’ and somehow still be able to cope with the unpredictability of European weather. In reality, you find yourself on an aeroplane with screaming toddlers, pockets full of stuff you couldn’t fit in your ‘handy’ cabin sized case and the glum realisation that you haven’t brought your headphones… I digress.
One of the things that I was most excited about exploring was the French cuisine – I couldn’t wait to try a snail! This year I have become increasingly interested in ‘Slow Food’, a movement that promotes locally sourced produce, and you can’t get much slower than a snail can you? As more of us become aware that our current way of life is unsustainable, organically, ethically and sustainably sourced foods have become trendy, with companies like ‘Whole Foods’ and ‘Planet Organic’ advocating a new way of shopping that encourages us to not only consider, but analyse what we eat. Although these stores sometimes appear to jump on the celebrity bandwagon, their intentions are laudable. Shelves stocked up with neatly arranged packets of creepy crawlies; ‘Planet Organic’ is already promoting their latest vision for the future of food, but is this just another Paltrow-style craze or should we start crunching on critters? The answer, quite simply, is the latter.
The UN estimates that the global population will reach 10 billion by 2050, bringing with it many consequences: effects of increased carbon emissions, global warming and over-crowding, to name a few. Often overlooked, is the pressure this amount of hungry omnivores will put on the global food system. Meat-production is energy intensive and requires vast amounts of land, for animals to grow and roam. Animals also need huge volumes of feed, which demands (you guessed it) more land. This has serious implications on emissions and pollution; meat production is the cause of 17% of all greenhouse gases released, and the numbers are rising – sacré bleu! Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom; there are several options that can help tackle this overwhelming reality. The first of these is, of course, for everyone to become vegetarian, but with meat such a staple part of most diets it seems unlikely as a viable option. A more likely solution is substituting our meat addiction with edible insects (stay with me).
Insect farms use a fraction of the resources needed to raise other forms of livestock. Crickets, for instance, require 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein. In fact, most insects contain more protein than fresh meat and some fish and they are also packed full of nutrients. In addition, insects make land-shortage a distant worry, taking up very little space. They can also be fed on organic waste, meaning that they emit a fraction of the greenhouse gases cows do, to put it into perspective, a cricket produces 80 times less methane than a cow. All these factors makes slowing the process of environmental degradation more achievable. If that’s not enough to make you skip down to Waitrose for a bag of cricket flour (yes, it’s available) then how about the idea that Insect farming, as a low-tech money-maker requiring no land, could help provide better livelihoods for those living in poverty.
I guess I’m sold! Actually, over 2 billion people across Africa, Asia and South America already eat around 1,400 different species of insect as part of their staple diet, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Yet, in more developed countries, insects are still faced with a stigma.
Why do we find the concept of an exoskeleton on our plates so strange? To begin with, ‘creepy crawly’ is hardly a term of endearment and media does not always help the case – I’m sure most of us have seen a ‘Bush tucker Challenge’ and promptly been put off at least, if not absolutely puking! There’s the texture too, and the unshakeable feeling that we might be poisoned somehow. This case calls for a drastic re-brand and we’re in luck! Although very few shops sell edible insects currently, the few that do market them as an expensive, novel addition to a middle-class dinner party. As this concept takes off, we can hope to see the fledgling industry move to a larger scale of production to achieve the lower-price potential whilst simultaneously changing the product’s image. As this shift happens we can expect to see insects feature on our screens in a very different way, perhaps we really are in need of another cooking programme.
Insects are versatile and can be sold whole as snacks or ground to create flour. If you fancy getting started then why not try out making some of your own creature comforts such as ‘Chocolate chirp cookies’ or ‘Worm Banana Bread’ or head into central London, where restaurants like Wahaca and Archipelago are already experimenting with exotic dishes, such as chilli-fried grasshoppers. In Oxford University they have even started serving up insects at their balls, to initiate the younger generations and normalize the concept, perhaps. So, it appears that we are not far from insects becoming a staple part of our diets after all; grub really is up! Then again… frying grasshoppers, it all sounds a bit French doesn’t it?