Bugs are on the menu in Canadian filmmaker Ian Toews’ documentary screening at the Environmental Film Festival Australia this month. The film promotes that the view that bugs can provide a more sustainable way of food (particularly protein) production for an expanding human population.
“Entomophagy”, or the human consumption of insects and insect-derived products, has been practised by cultures around the world for centuries, but the film highlights how mainly western eating habits now eat many fewer insects.
The figures presented in the film to support eating more insects are hard to argue with. Bugs are a nutritious food source that can consist of more than 40% protein by dry weight as well as being high in vitamins, iron and calcium.
Crickets and other edible insects are much more efficient at converting grains into protein and fat than some other meat sources; the film claims they are more than twice as efficient as chickens and seven times as efficient as cattle. Although research comparing chickens and insects shows it depends on how the insects are farmed.
They also require minimal water, unlike livestock. The film claims that five- to seven-times more people could be fed on an insect diet when compared to a current western diet, although this comparison presumably depends on a western diet including inefficient energy converters like cattle and sheep, rather than chickens.
The documentary also makes a strong case for insect production being compatible with urbanisation, given that cricket farms can be established in many large buildings.
However, comparisons in the film are limited to other forms of meat production, and not to plant-based human diets that are also far more sustainable than current western consumption patterns.
Presenters in the film are individuals who avidly support eating more bugs in North America. These include a celebratory chef, entrepreneurs, an administrator and insect farmers. The author of “The Eat-A-Bug” cook book, David George Gordon, declares on screen that “we are weirdos for not eating them (bugs)”.
The film does reference international efforts to evaluate the potential for entomophagy including a detailed UN Food and Agriculture Organisation report but the film is mainly a promotion piece for eating insects in North America.
Western attitudes to insect consumption are seen as a key stumbling block, although entrepreneurs in the film are upbeat and argue that there has been a remarkable shift in (US) attitudes in the last four years around entomophagy. Although a survey carried out in the Netherlands paints a bleaker picture.
The film highlights approaches that might be used to increase acceptance in western societies. Small start-ups are creating insect-derived food bars, chips (“Chirps”) and other packaged food for consumption in the US.
Some of these are being funded through kick starter projects and have catchy insect related names like Six (legged) Foods. Cricket flour seems to be key ingredient, perhaps because it looks least like an insect-derived product.
For a more traditional approach to entomophagy, the film covers grasshopper collecting in South Africa and ant harvesting in Mexico. But some traditional practices appear to be dying particularly among young people pursuing western lifestyles.
Presenters argue that large scale and innovative production facilities are needed to increase entomophagy, but there are challenges in cultivating insects mentioned briefly in the film.
It appears only a few insect species can currently be grown on a large scale. Established insect growers tell of issues with viruses destroying colonies but the start-ups appear undaunted. Other challenges mentioned in the film include a lack of regulation around safety.
Still, it appears that insects have been part of human diets for much of our evolutionary history. A presenter points out that we have a key enzyme, chitanase, required to break down the exoskeleton of insects, although this enzyme also has other functions.
Overall, while the film is a promotion piece, filled with (too) many shots of pristine streams and forests (presumably to highlight sustainability), it does make a strong case for considering entomophagy as a serious alternative to meat consumption in all cultures.
How to eat insects
In Australia, you can buy edible bugs online and they are occasionally served up as a novelty item in some restaurants. Our Indigenous population has been eating a diversity of bugs for thousands of years including witchetty grubs, honey ants and Bogong moths.
Most Australians are only likely to have encountered crickets, mealworms, larvae and other delicacies in Asian markets and not locally.
As in the US there are major challenges if insect consumption is to increase in Australia, including regulation and production methods that are less labour intensive than currently available.
Insects that eat plants can be highly toxic, accumulating toxins, perhaps to protect against predators. It is therefore critical that appropriate species are produced and consumed. This requires ongoing research into insect biodiversity and production systems.
Still, we live in a country with an increasingly variable climate where agricultural production is becoming more difficult. Perhaps factory-farmed bugs can increase our food security into the future.
The next time a locust plague threatens our environment they should perhaps be seen as an opportunity for developing a new local food source rather than a threat to farming.
Authors: Ary Hoffmann, Professor, School of BioSciences and Bio21 Institute, University of Melbourne