Nature's Secrets

Insects may provide healthy food source

November 18, 2012 

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

Insects can feed the world. Cows and pigs are the SUVs; bugs are the bicycles.

David Gracer, TV cooking show host

After school in Beijing, children flock to a downtown market with their families. Their after-school snack is not an ice cream cone, but instead a larvae shish-kabob, scorpion skewer or concoction of spicy crickets.

Entomophagy (“consumption of insects”) may be the most sustainable, healthy food staple of the future. Low in cholesterol and high in protein, insects have a very low carbon footprint, and can multiply quickly in a very small space with relatively little fossil fuel consumption. Nearly one billion people are undernourished throughout the planet, and the consumption of insects represents a sustainable solution. Thousands of crickets can be raised in a small box; handfuls of giant water bugs are relatively easy to rear in close quarters.

More than 35,000 people flocked to BugFest at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences this fall in Raleigh. Many of them sampled unique insect cuisine – cricket fritters, sautéed dragonflies, and chocolate-covered ants. Admittedly, most of us consume insects every day without knowing it. Most processed and fast foods contain an allowable tidbit of insect parts – unwanted legs, antennae or other arthropod body parts that are accidentally cooked.

Production of a quarter pound of crickets requires only one moist paper towel and a handful of grass, whereas 1/3 pound of beef uses an estimated 869 gallons of water and usually extensive feed and fertilizer. For thousands of years, at least 1,400 species of insects have been eaten by humans worldwide. Greeks, Romans, John the Baptist, and members of entire cultures ate locusts, caterpillars, scorpions, crickets and ants. Today, the local markets of Africa and Asia commonly feature swarming masses of caterpillars, maggots, scorpions, or other local delicacies.

Classified as arthropods, insects are close relatives of shrimp and lobsters, both of which are considered culinary delicacies. In the markets of Iquitos, Peru along the upper Amazon River, my research expeditions are not complete without an insect culinary experience. Favorite bug bites might include sautéed suri (a fat, greasy caterpillar harvested from rotting palm trunks), or crickets fried in herbs.

Cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes and other noxious pests may have biased our Western culinary perspectives, leading to a disregard for these healthy snacks. But with the looming collapse of global fisheries, and the enormous amounts of fossil fuels required to produce beef, chicken or pork, a healthy diet of arthropods may become the menu of the future. Small cages, bug nets, ant farms, and a diversity of herbs to accompany your favorite six-legged critters may dominate the gourmet kitchen of 2050!

Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’s Nature Research Center. Online: www.canopymeg.com.

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