We Should All Be Eating More Insects, But We Probably Won't—Yet

Why the United Nations is super-focused on bugs as food right now.

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Reuters

The insect-eating habits of a small tribe in the Indian state of Assam might offer some insight in how to provide the nutritional needs of the booming global population. According to a new report on Scroll.in, Indian researchers have been looking at the way the Bodo tribe, in the northeastern part of the country, routinely incorporates caterpillars, beetles, termites, and crickets into a seasonal diet.

For the Bodo people, who have immense knowledge of the insect life in their region, bugs are a staple. The tribe consumes as many as 29 species of insect, according to Jayanta Kuma Das and Arup Kumar Hazarika, who teach in the zoology department at Cotton College in the Assam city of Guwahati. 

“These insects provide high quality of proteins and supplements (minerals and vitamins) even when dried,” they write in a report on their research. “Some of these sought after species, especially those with high nutritional content, ought to be cultivated with modern techniques to increase their commercial values and availability.”

This inquiry into the insect-eating ways of the Bodo people is just one small part of a global effort to investigate the nutritional value and feasibility of using insects for nutrition. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has been focused on “topics pertaining to edible insects” since 2003, for the simple reason that food security is looming as one of the most important geopolitical concerns of the next generation. In May, the FAO is helping to organize a major international conference on the subject.

The FAO predicts that by 2050, the world’s population could be at 9 billion. With climate change increasing pressure on agriculture around the globe, food shortages and dwindling supplies of livestock feed could lead to widespread malnutrition and social unrest.

Insects, says the FAO, are a potentially powerful solution:

One of the many ways to address food and feed security is through insect farming. Insects are everywhere and they reproduce quickly, and they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint over their entire life cycle. They are nutritious, with high protein, fat and mineral contents. They can be reared on waste streams like food waste. Moreover, they can be eaten whole or ground into a powder or paste, and incorporated into other foods.

Already, some 2 billion people, mostly in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, supplement their diets with insects, as humans have done throughout their evolutionary history. But in many parts of the developed world, the “ick” factor is a powerful disincentive to eating bugs, although that’s not preventing future-minded innovators from imagining inventive ways of breeding crickets for human consumption. (Insects, aside from a few types of locust, are also not kosher or halal.)

And Indian researchers are coming up against an even more deeply ingrained cultural resistance to human consumption of insects: vegetarianism.

Even among those who do eat meat, according to Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit economist, the association of eating insects with caste taboos in India will discourage their use. Dalits (once known as “untouchables”) ate insects out of desperation, he says. “If you ask them to go back to eating just that, they will tell you to go to hell,” he told Scroll.in. Middle-class Indians, aside from those who might think eating insects is trendy, will shy away from what is widely perceived as a symbol of poverty.

Prasad says that he doesn’t see insects becoming a food solution any time soon, unless the FAO’s most dire projections become reality. “When people start dying of starvation, people of any caste will eat whatever is available.”

For the Bodo, as for many people who eat insects as part of a traditional diet, insects are not an emergency food, but an enjoyable and nutritious treat. The FAO would like more of us to start seeing them that way. Cultural habits might make the conversion to entomophagy a difficult one, even if in the end, protein is protein.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.