Entomophagy refers to the human consumption of insects and arthropods as food. Entomophagy is an old practice as humans have been eating insects ever since we evolutionary emerged. In fact, on a geological timescale, the human move to non-insect animal sources of food is somewhat a new development. It is estimated that over 3,000 ethnic groups worldwide currently practice entomophagy drawing on a diet of over 1,000 species of insect: over 250 species of butterfly, 300 species of ants bees and wasps, 230 species of cricket and grasshopper, and 40 species of termite. In some areas, insects are actually considered a delicacy; a gourmet treat that is highly desired. Though insect eating is still widely practiced in most parts of the world, it is uncommon or considered taboo in western cultures of Europe and North America.

A plate of deep fried crickets. Credit: Wikipedia

Although the thought of eating insects may rankle one’s taste buds, insects are actually a rather healthy and versatile source of protein, fats, vitamins, and essential minerals. Gram for gram, insect biomass contain about as much protein as meat or fish. Certain species can also be a valuable source of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Moreover, most species of edible insect are a good source of iron, a common deficiency in human beings. Insects can serve as a source of vitamins for populations whose diets may be deficient. For example, many insects contain an amino acid called lysine which is required for the body to manufacture proteins. Humans cannot naturally synthesize lysine so we must rely on our diet to get it. Populations that depend heavily on grains tend to be deficient in lysine, so insects could offer a viable vitamin supplement.

Insects constitute the single most numerous group of animals and so make an ideal solution to potential food shortages. Insects could be introduced to offset food shortages resulting form bad harvests or cattle disease. Because they are active in large populations all year, insects are a continuous source of food, so they serve as a much more secure source of nutrition in some regions. Edible insects are found on every continent in every kind of biome, so there are no human groups that do not have access to some source of insect benefits. 

Aside from nutritional value and natural abundance, insects are easy to raise and much better for the environment than traditional mammalian husbandry. It takes almost 10 times more plant matter to produce one kilogram of meat than it does to produce 1 kilogram of insect biomass and it costs much less water. Insects require much less land to cultivate and do not require as much disturbing of natural ecosystems as mammal cultivation. Clearing land to grow crops for farm animals to eat is an ecologically unsustainable practice and can ruin natural ecosystems. Raising insects, in contrast, does not require one to clear large sections of land to grow crops. Insects husbandry also produces much less greenhouse gas emissions than cattle and insect waste products can easily be removed/reintegrated in the local ecology. A single dairy cow can produce between 70-120kg of methane and over 42 thousand pounds of waste each year while raising insects produces just a fraction of that amount.

A bowl of mealworms. Credit: WikiCommons

As well as being a healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to meat, raising insects for mass consumption is very economically efficient. Insects more efficiently convert ingested food into energy as compared to mammals. The energy to protein output of some groups of insects is around 4:1. Essentially, this figure means that for every 4 units of food ingested, insects produce about 1 unit of protein. In contrast, the energy to protein output ratio of traditional cattle herds is closer to 56:1. In other words, insects require much less resources to cultivate and give a better return on invested resources. Compounded with how quickly insects reproduce, insect husbandry is a much more economically efficient way of producing protein than cattle practices. 

Thailand in particular is known for its local practices of consuming bugs. On the streets of Thai cities, it is common to see carts and stalls selling a variety of insects; deep fired, grilled, and raw. Common fare include grasshoppers, silk worms, earthworms, meal worms, termites, weevils, crickets, and water bugs. Insects are served like popcorn in a bag and they make a cheap and nutritious snack. Other southeastern Asian countries like Indonesian and Malaysia indulge in insect fare as well. In the Western hemisphere, certain regions of Mexico are known for native populations who use crickets as traditional foodstuffs.

A common bug stall in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit: WikiCommons

Despite the known health, environmental, and economic benefits of insect consumption, western nations in general consider the practice of eating insects strange or socially taboo. It is highly likely that the failure of insect diets in the west is not only due to a disgust reaction but also due to negative attitudes and perceptions associated with the practice. Eating bugs is considered ‘low class’ or something only desperate people do. Western consciousness sees bugs as disease riddled creatures unfit for ingestion. Western culture and film often juxtapose eating for shock value or to elicit a reaction of disgust. One need only recall the infamous bug dinner scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or various schoolyard dares to eat a bug for examples of western cultures stigma against bug consumption.

There are currently several efforts to introduce insects into western diets. In 2013 the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN published a report on the viability of insect as a future food source in the west. The report, entitled “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security,”  was downloaded 2.3 million times within 24 hours. Currently, the report has been downloaded over 7 million times from users in a variety of nations and has been translated into Chinese, French, Italian, and Korean. Recent years have also seen a growing trend public workshops on eating insect in European countries, such as one named “Insects to feed the world” hosted in the Netherlands in 2014. In 2013, Aspire Food Group became the first company in North America to engage in large-scale cricket farming for human consumption.