HSBC seem to have started an international obsession with their TV advertising. You know the one – an Asian farmer lures crickets to their doom with night lights, grills them on skewers and sells them to a little girl who wrinkles up her nose but only because he’s forgotten the seasoning.
BBC’s Saturday Kitchen Live has rustled up caterpillar burgers (well, caterpillar flour, actually, well-camouflaged with other ingredients) and all the newspapers have turned cartwheels with glee at the potential of this glorious news story – the answer to global hunger being one of their favourite claims. There’s even been a documentary laced with enough rhetoric to make your eyes water – Can Eating Insects Save the World?
What’s given this outpouring of myopic enthusiasm its credibility is a recently published book by the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO) – Edible Insects, Future prospects for food and food security, 2013. It waxes lyrical about the widespread use of insects in the developing world and lists all kinds of ‘delicacies,’ from black soldier flies and wasps to witchetty grubs and grasshoppers. It goes on to advocate their use in all societies, either gathered in the wild or cultivated.
Eating insects isn’t just about deprivation for in Malaysia they’re eaten from choice but as a little snack and nothing more. I could easily argue that in the West, it is just an extension of the existing use of insects by some people – honey and silk for example. Or, less obviously, carmine food colouring obtained from female cochineal beetles or shellac from the lac beetle, used as a wood polish and to make some apples, chocolate, peanuts and jelly beans nice and shiny. But, come on! The solution to world hunger? In your dreams!
There are specific assumptions underlying this outbreak of global hysteria, the main one being that the status quo is sacrosanct – those of us who currently eat meat must continue to do so in the same quantities as now and god forbid that anyone should consider reducing their consumption or abandoning it altogether. So, it’s taken as read that US citizens will continue to gorge 120kg each per year, Australians 111kg, Spanish 97kg, Brits 84kg, Russians 63kg, Costa Ricans 51kg and Indians 4kg – a huge disparity.
The word ‘protein’ litters everything that’s said or written about insects with the frequency of an Irish nun genuflecting to the Pope. No one bothers to mention that unlike vegetable protein, the animal variety plays a big part in degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, kidney and cardio-vascular disease.
All this insect nonsense is supposedly so the additional two or three billion people who will soon share the planet with us should also have a right to stuff animal protein down their throats. We therefore have to find new sources to satisfy them and because we’ve exploited everything else to the point of destruction, the only choice remaining is insects.
We need to pause and take stock at this point. The UN FAO is the same organisation that just a few years ago issued a 666-reference report providing scientific understanding as to how and why livestock production is devastating the globe (Livestocks’ Long Shadow: environmental issues & options, 2006). It wasn’t authored by a bunch of us vegan whingers but by the UN committee that supports livestock farming, which makes its findings so much more devastating: that animal farming is at the heart of almost every environmental catastrophe that besets the planet. You can take your pick – loss of forests, soil degradation, species annihilation, global warming, and everything else inbetween.
But, like Nelson, our leaders keep sticking their political telescope to their blind eye, saying: “I can’t see anything, mate, can you?”
Florence Dunkel is a champion of insect eating and was recently interviewed by New Yorker magazine. An entomologist at Montana State University, she brings jargon to the subject that only an academic could dream up – it makes nails down a blackboard seem attractive. Here’s a taste: “Response to edible insects is often a good indicator of one’s level of intercultural competency.” Beam me up please, Scotty!
We start to get a clue as to what this is all about from one of the authors of the UN FAO report, Eva Muller: “We are not saying that people should be eating bugs” (well, you could have fooled me). “We are saying that insects are just one resource provided by forests, and insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed.” In other words, people should eat bugs.
But the real import lies in the words “…and especially for feed!” There’s theclue. Having ravaged the planet for every other food source to feed livestock, there is now encouragement to breach the final frontier – insects. It has nothing to do with feeding a growing population for as the report says:
“Recent high demand and consequent high prices for fishmeal/soy, together with increasing aquacultural (fish farming) production, is pushing new research into the development of insect protein. Insect-based feed products could have a similar market.”
In many ways it’s an exact repeat of what’s happening with our oceans, where the tiny creatures at the bottom of the food chain such as krill, sand eels and capelin are being hauled out to feed farmed animals. These are the very food sources upon which all ocean creatures directly or indirectly depend but which are described as ‘trash’ or ‘industrial fish.’ The results are devastating, just as they will be once we begin to attack the basis of the land food chain.
Ms Muller seems to be blithely unaware of another part of her own report. “Until recently, insects were a seemingly inexhaustible resource obtainable by harvesting from nature. However, some edible insect species are now in peril … from overharvesting, pollution, wildfire and habitat degradation.”
Great! So let’s encourage everyone to eat even more of them and farmers to feed them to their animals! And while we’re at it, we’ll continue to chop down the forests where most insects live so livestock can graze… and, well, I’m sure you get the picture by now. Is it just me who thinks the world has gone mad? What this inevitably means, of course, if this insane idea is to go ahead, is the intensive production of ‘minilivestock’ (that’s what they want us to call bugs) in massive, indoor industrial units with all the costs entailed in construction, climate control and other support mechanisms as well as their processing into flour, meal or pellets. It places the process firmly in the hands of big multinationals.
Proponents boast that insects convert food better than mammals and poultry and produce less in the way of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The livestock to whom they’re fed, however, won’t convert them into meat any more efficiently than they do soya bean meal – and it takes 10kg of soya to produce 1kg of beef. They claim the conversion ratio for insects is 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of insects. It therefore follows that when insects are fed to farmed animals it increases the inefficiency.
So what on earth could be the answer to global food shortages. Oh dear, that is a difficult one. I wonder if pulses could possibly be part of the answer? All over the world, pulses have historically been a vital component in the human diet and are eaten straight from the plant so have no conversion ratio at all – ultimate efficiency!
There are dozens of different types of beans and peas, most of which can be eaten green and fresh or dried and stored. Greeks love their hummus and gigantes – huge butter beans; French their haricot vert and flageolet. Chickpeas appear in many forms throughout the Middle East.We have our pease pudding and split peas, broad and runner beans; there’s lupins and lentils from Spain and of course the global phenomenon that is soya beans that can produce an extraordinary array of products. At the moment, 30 million tonnes of these little beauties are imported into Europe each year – to be fed to animals!
Even throughout the semi-arid lands of Africa and beyond to India, pulses do things no insect could even dream of. Semi-perennial pigeonpeas (toor dhal) can be used for hedges and roofing, as shelter or climbing frames for other plants, to improve soil fertility and even as fuel and grow in near drought conditions. Like all pulses, they are rich in protein and contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals – in fact, pulses are just about the perfect food and when eaten with other fresh fruit and vegetable are a damned sight healthier than any livestock, mini or maxi. But I will let the professionals on diet have the last word:
“Pulses have significant nutritional and health advantages for consumers and their cultivation has a positive impact on agriculture and the environment. Therefore the trend in the consumption of pulses could change, especially if publicity about the benefits of pulses is improved and if the food industry and professional organizations take up the challenge to incorporate grain legumes (pulses) in novel, convenient and healthy food products.” (British Journal of Nutrition 2002 Dec;88 Suppl 3:S243-50. Schneider AV).
Yeah – but it doesn’t make such a good story, does it? As for me, you can keep the cricket croquettes because I’m going to stick with tarka dhal and channa masala, edamame and tofu in black bean sauce, tempeh in coconut milk and proper (from dried) mushy peas. That’s more like it!