Can We End Hunger by Eating Bugs?

700_0528e150dccc82430ca54dc9bc0abe02What world traveler hasn’t declined at least one local “delicacy”? A decade ago in Oaxaca, Mexico, I turned up my nose at chapulines, a steaming plate of toasted grasshoppers. “Tastes like chicken,” my waiter said as he smiled unconvincingly. But overcoming disgust for “edible insects” may be the easiest way to meet global food needs, according to a fascinating, if occasionally stomach-churning, report from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Agency (FAO), which is based, of all places, in Rome.

In the future, one could imagine trend-setters like Anthony Bordain competing with counterparts to see who can make the tastiest dragonfly confit. The notion of meeting caloric, especially protein, needs from insects (as well as grubs, worms and other creepy-crawlies) is hardly new. It’s something humans and their hominid ancestors have been doing for millions of years. Paleoanthropologists and biologists speculate that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed prodigious quantities of insects–a fact conveniently omitted by most contempoary aficionados of the ” cave man diet.” More recently, 19th century European arrivals to Australia marveled at aboriginal tribes’ insatiable appetite for insects and the dramatic impact such a diet could have on their health and appearance, as documented in a fascinating ethnography, The Moth Hunters.

What’s surprising is how enduring the human taste for Insecta remains. According to the FAO, more than two billion people — 30 percent of humanity –already supplement their diet with insects. And given the number of insects out there — 1 million distinct species have already been identified and nearly 2,000 proven edible — diners have a crunchy smorgasbord to choose from. “The most commonly eaten insect groups,” we learn, “are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies.”

Soy-Glazed Mealworm, Anyone?

Most of today’s insect-eaters live in the developing world, in countries where insects are perceived as a perfectly acceptable and convenient source of energy: readily (or at least seasonably) available, highly portable, and requiring fewer inputs than agriculture or animal husbandry. In terms of nutrition, insects provide an outstanding advantages, having ” high fat, protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content,” and can be a particularly important diet component for children under the age of five in poor countries.

While many in the West may recoil in disgust, the FAO makes a compelling case on food security grounds for entomophagy (eating bugs, in science-speak).

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