When I was younger, my father, returning from a foreign trip, brought me home an exotic candy scorpion encased in sugar. I politely declined but marvelled as he ate it, stinger and all, with evident enjoyment. Ever since, I've wondered – why don't we in the West eat these things? Across the globe, bugs are, after all, eaten and enjoyed by billions of people. Entomophagy is fast becoming the catch-all term for bug eating, and it's an interesting word to check out on the Google language-usage graph: more people than ever before have been employing the term over the past 20 years. It seems that now is the moment for insect-eaters to go mainstream.
As the cheapest, most compact and most sustainable source of delicious, nutritious food in the world, the question of why we refrain from 'insect surprise' is a vexed one. The answer is not as simple as many suppose. The traditional argument seems to be: we find bugs yucky, hence we don't eat them. Surely, everyone knows that...
But while that may be what everyone knows, the reality isn't so straightforward. Although most of us currently find the idea 'icky', there is, nevertheless, a major flaw in the reasoning. Do we eat honey? Enjoy scented wax candles? Raspberry ripple ice cream – coloured by the blood of beetles? Then we have been using products from bugs routinely for years. And we manage to stomach cockles, jellied eels and a variety of other acquired tastes. Stigma, therefore, can't be the only problem. Indeed, it may not even be a deciding factor in our antipathy for bug-based meals. The case can be made that in a few simple steps, we can get bugs out of our nightmares and onto our plates. Unfortunately, however, we are not currently able to enjoy bugs, as two boulders block our path: price and supply.
No matter how keen a potential consumer may be to eat – or sample – bugs, if there is a cheaper alternative meat, this is what will be readily available to purchase, as a matter of course. The price of bugs – as a niche product in our market – is very high, so fried fleas may never appear on anyone's menu, except as a novelty delicacy.
Supply, therefore, is the serious barrier to establishing a habit of insect-eating in the UK. Visit your local Lidl and pace the shelves. You hunt high and low in vain: no plagues; no swarms. Where are the bugs? Answer: there aren't any. I know – I've looked! But consider what it would mean for a hungry customer, if they had to visit an obscure website to purchase overpriced beef or lamb. Would they? No! Convenience is king. They would simply choose chicken instead. And if chicken were unavailable, pork would take priority. The point is that although we have a habit of eating these 'main' meats, the same might one day easily apply to buying bugs. If more people produced bugs in the UK, and if we could walk down the main aisle of a shop and drop a bag of bug burgers into our trolley, wouldn't we? Why not? They taste delicious!
Well, perhaps we wouldn't at first, but what if, rather than using bug burgers, we first ate other items containing, and crucially, not as a significant, or initially highlighted part, ingredients made from bugs? This is the other secret weapon – the 'hidden' bug product. Carmine, sometimes called cochineal, has been colouring our ice cream for years on this principle. Shellac, a secretion from the lac bug, has been putting a shiny sheen on our lollies for ages. Next step: bug protein flour. Insect thickener. We build from there towards bug burgers, locust kebabs and scorpion skewers.
This issue is the process of shifting our sensibilities from bug-fearing to bug-loving. There is a mountain to climb and the best route is circuitous. The solution is to focus not on those who bug-out at bugs but instead on those already willing to give them a go. These are a potential Trojan horse in the market. Once an entomophagous tipping-point is reached, the constituency will grow, until bugs become as normal a part of our diet as anything else in the culinary mainstream. An example of this modern transition in tastes can be seen in the now-mainstream culinary delights of sushi. To avoid raw fish was once 'common sense'; past wisdom has become present absurdity. Sushi is ubiquitous, an analogous phenomenon which traces its origin to the California Roll: the crab smuggled onto our plates inside the rice, so that consumers didn't have to think about the fact that they were eating what they supposed to be raw fish. Hide, or process insects in the same fashion and inevitably a few brave souls will venture to try this daring dish, and love it.
This love is indeed warranted. The two billion people who eat bugs as part of their daily diet can't all be wrong. The variety of flavours which bugs provide ranges from mussels and pâté to that greatest of all foods: bacon. As a termite-taster myself – I can confirm – bug burgers taste better than bacon. Get your revenge: munch a midge. They're actually quite nice!
Taste apart, numerous benefits accrue through industrial bug farming: our agricultural land, our economy and our health will all improve, and this necessitates the speedy adoption of insect eating. Bugs are simply a more efficient protein to farm than cattle. Not warm-blooded, insects will produce a kilogram of edible mass for only two kilos of feed, whereas cattle require many times as much: 25 kilograms of feed per kilo of meat. Moreover, as cattle produce much fat which is generally wasted, lean insect protein represents even better value. Land and livestock costs mount up to make meat farming an inefficient waste of resources.
To put the scale of the efficiencies into perspective, 36% of all crops produced in the entire world feed the animals which, in turn, feed us. Not reducing this percentage would be criminal. Fewer methane emissions, fewer trees chopped down to make way for pasturage and a streamlined agricultural industry? There really is no downside! Bugs are just better than beef.
Potentially, bug business is big business. Any new industry creates new jobs and entomophagy is no exception. There are more reasons now than ever to start a bug business. Eco-conscious consumers are health-conscious too – for people interested in staying in shape, the health benefits are manifold. Nothing is more likely to help solve the obesity crisis, even as it meets our dietary needs. Insects contain iron, protein, healthy fats and calcium, and are extremely low in carbohydrates. They are as cost-effective as small bug farms are easy to start-up.
Reflecting now on my reasons for leaving the scorpion sucker alone, I realise that I was neither a shielded child, nor naturally inclined to view insects as 'yucky': I didn't eat it, simply because I had never seen it done before. If we could only produce and sell bugs in more places, then more boys like me would get the bug! Healthier, cheaper, better. So, next time you visit a luxury restaurant, pick the locust option – with honey on the side.
for the winning paper by May Bruce
for the joint runner-up paper by Alexander Milnes