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The Joys And Ethics Of Insect Eating


A week ago today, I ate my first crickets.

It was a first step into entomophagy, the practice of insect eating. I wrote about this topic here at 13.7 in January but had never before tried it myself (excluding accidental ingestion of the insect parts often found in peanut butter, chocolate, vegetables and other foods).

Because the crickets, in the form of cricket flour, were baked into chocolate-chip cookies, it wasn't as if I found myself crunching down on visible insect parts. So my first step was a baby step, to be sure. And, as it turned out, I found the cookies to taste good.

They were baked and sent to me by Robert Nathan Allen of Austin, Texas. He's the founder of a nonprofit organization called Little Herds.

One of the cool things about blogging for NPR is the people I meet through the discussions that develop in the comments section of my posts. "Little Herds" left a number of genial and informative comments on my January post. Before long I was in email conversation with the person behind that tag: Allen.

I told Allen that I'm educating myself about entomophagy, in part for a new book I'm just starting to write. Americans' responses to insects as food, and a potential role for entomophagy in addressing problems associated with meat eating from factory farms, interest me especially.

From that conversation, the cricket cookies ensued, and so did this interview, which Allen and I conducted by email earlier this week.

BJK: Robert, can you please explain Little Herd's mission?

RNA: Little Herds' mission is first and foremost education. If we hope to make broad life-changing improvements globally, we have to start with our own communities locally, teaching people about the nutritional and environmental reasons for entomophagy.

Compared to traditional meat sources like cows, pigs, chickens and fish, edible insects can have comparable or higher amounts of essential proteins, iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and other nutrients needed for healthy growing bodies. With iron, protein, magnesium, calcium and zinc some of the most widespread and debilitating vitamin deficiencies both abroad and here in America, edible insects provide a delicious solution to a very real problem. When compared to the same traditional livestock, insects can be farmed with much less land and water, lower feed costs, higher yields, faster growth cycles, lower greenhouse gas emissions like methane and ammonia, less waste and with a far lower risk for animal to human diseases like swine flu or avian flu.

Once we've educated the public, we need a place where they can get safe, healthy and delicious insects, and that's our secondary role. Connecting farmers to bakers and chefs, or farmers to product makers, or chefs and bakers to the public that wants to try insects on the menu: the more we help bring these different roles together, the stronger the market becomes and the more interest and investment there is into streamlining processes and scaling up to meet a worldwide demand.

Our third role is advocacy, pushing both businesses and regulatory agencies to adhere to the highest standards when creating the rules and laws of this new sector. We believe insects can and should be raised and harvested hygienically, organically, antibiotic and hormone free, humanely and at least in part locally. If we set the bar high now, we don't risk following in the footsteps of the factory farming that we now realize has serious negative side effects.

BJK: In our email correspondence, you've mentioned the great enthusiasm of children for experimenting with insect-based foods. Do some parents freak out when their kids are clamoring to eat insects?

RNA: Kids absolutely love it. Children don't have the psychological taboo that adults have ingrained, so they're much more open to trying edible insects. To them it's either just another new food to try, and they're usually not shy about trying it out, or something weird that grosses your parents out, which is added incentive to put it in your mouth. Because you often have a watchful parent standing behind the kids asking why the heck we're feeding them bugs, we have plenty of opportunities to educate the parents too, putting any fears at ease.

BJK: Thanks again for sending me the cricket cookies. What should I try next? Do you find yourself cooking insect-based foods for yourself now at home, or for friends, just for fun? What's the most adventurous insect cuisine you've experienced so far?

RNA: While I would love to be eating insects more often, we try to save our bugs for sampling so we have more for the people who've never tried them before (though I will admit I still eat a few cookies from each batch for quality assurance!). If I could I would be eating insects at every meal. When you can grind them into a nutrient-dense flour and use them in bread, pasta, sauces, cookies, tortillas, and many other everyday foods, there's no reason to not be eating them and getting all that protein, iron, calcium and other vitamins.

The most adventurous thing I've eaten was a scorpion, sauteed in butter. It was delicious, with a slightly savory bacony flavor. Next on my list is fried grasshopper, because they're supposed to be amazing. I would definitely put them on your short list. They're even kosher!

BJK: One thing I'm tackling in my own work is the question of bug personalities. In the pages of respected scientific journals like Animal Behaviour, scientists are presenting data to show that insects, at least some of them and including crickets, vary along dimensions such as aggressive or less aggressive, bold or shy, and so on. That's an incipient kind of personality, I'd say. What would you tell vegetarians and vegans who protest that entomophagy amounts to eating sentient creatures?

RNA: Look, I'm not going to tell you that insects aren't living creatures, or even sentient, because there is some really interesting research being done on how insects think and feel. If you're a vegan I respect and understand your choice of diet, and wish more people had the means or drive to adopt a similar diet. If we really want to get down to it though, vegans are eating insects already in the foods they eat, and harvesting vegetables kills many insects inadvertently.

If you're a vegetarian, I can't imagine a reason why you wouldn't want to adopt insects into your diet. In addition to being more nutritious and environmentally sound than any other meat or animal-based food (eggs or dairy included), insects are the only animals that might actually prefer to be farmed than live in the wild. Insects raised in farms live in teeming dark conditions (preferable environment), with ample and abundant food supply, no natural predators, no risk of outside diseases or parasites, and when they're culled we lower the temperature so that there's no violent death or change in state (because insects are exothermic their metabolism slows until they go into a coma-like sleep without any pain). I can't think of a more humane way to raise our meat.

BJK: What advice would you give the interested novice, who is persuaded that entomophagy may be a very good thing, but doesn't know where to start?

RNA: We always let people know that insects may trigger a shellfish allergy. We're still researching why this happens, because the reasons aren't as clear as you might think. We want people to be safe and talk to their physician if there might be a risk of allergic reaction. We also tell people not to wild harvest insects unless you are absolutely sure that there is no risk of the insect having any chemicals or heavy metal exposure. There are now numerous companies with insect based products on the market like Chapul, Exo and World Entomophagy that sell direct to consumer, so we advocate purchasing your insects from a source that is making sure the insects are safe and healthy.

On the issue of entomophagy and vegetarianism, I diverge from Allen. "If you're a vegetarian," he noted, "I can't imagine a reason why you wouldn't want to adopt insects into your diet." In my January post, I asked vegetarians if they would consider eating insects. Most — though by no means all — said "no" quite emphatically. I see this viewpoint as stemming from the consistent application of a deeply felt principle, that one should not eat living creatures. (On the other hand, I am willing to eat some insects, even though I don't eat cows, pigs, lambs, chickens or turkeys.)

Moving beyond this one point of difference, though, I think Little Herds is on to something important. With pressing problems of hunger and of animal suffering in factory-farming situations, exploration — locally as well as globally — of an alternative source of protein for those who are willing to consume insects makes excellent sense.

Now that I've sampled cricket cookies, I'm thinking ahead to my next step. Scorpions?

Stay tuned.

Barbara's most recent book on animals will be released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.