Locusts and grasshoppers are healthy, environmentally-friendly alternatives to beef. As the world population booms, edible insects may be the best solution for fighting hunger. But can Europeans stomach the thought?
At a noisy café in central Paris, three friends twist open a small snack jar and peer inside. "Woo, they smell kind of like paprika," says Katie Evans. She sticks her finger in the jar and removes a tiny grilled grasshopper. This is a delicacy in Mexico, but very uncommon in the European capital haute cuisine. Evans pops it in her mouth.
"Ooh it's spicy," she says. "All the way through, from head to tail, it tastes like pumpkin seeds."
These grasshopper snacks are produced by a gourmet spice company called Terre Exotique. At the moment, edible insects are only available by special order. But in the very near future, these crunchy critters (as well as crickets, locusts and thousands of other insect species) are expected to become more popular in hungry Western countries. That's because the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is encouraging wealthy nations to bump burgers and bite into bugs.
Protein for a growing population
With some seven billion people in the world today and a projected nine billion by 2050, one of the biggest concerns for world leaders is food security. The FAO says livestock production is one of the major causes of the world's most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. The organization says we simply can't sustain current levels of meat consumption - and insects are a viable replacement source of protein, which is gentler on the environment.
Insects have many of the same essential nutrients as meat. They are high in protein, they contain iron and calcium, as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, and vitamin D. Edible insects are considerably lower in fat than pork or beef.
"Insects are very nutritious," says the FAO's director of forestry, economics, policy and products Eva Ursula Muller. "They play a major role in food security. Two billion people in the world - that means one third of the population - already eats insects."
Environmentalists also support entomophagy, which means eating bugs, because insects emit less greenhouse gas than cows, require about a quarter of the feed and breeders need very little space to raise their batches of bugs. While livestock farms cut into forested areas, insect production plants can be set-up in small sealed buildings.
Bug business boom
Europe hasn't yet embraced entomophagy, but new businesses like French start-up Ynsect are quickly developing new products and pushing for change. At their offices in downtown Paris, a small group of entrepreneurs led by Jean-Gabriel Levon are creating animal feed from insect meal. On a tour of operations, Levon shows off his new product. It looks a bit like a pile of sawdust.
"It smells like fish food," says Levon proudly. "Fish love our product."
Ynsect's feed is made from ground mealworms and is also intended to feed chickens and pigs.
Levon actually wanted to make insect food for people. He and his partners developed an insect cookie and insect chips - but across the European Union, most regulations only allow small mail-order companies to deliver edible insect products. So the bug-lovers at Ynsect decided to start with animal feed, because this is also in high demand. The EU currently imports about 70 percent of the animal feed it needs. Soy and cereals are flown across the planet to feed pigs, cows and other livestock. Levon says his company can make an insect replacement right here in France.
In fact, there are plenty products Levon hopes to produce from his insect colonies. Insects are already used in make-up, pharmaceuticals and as a biological control agent for crop protection.
It may take some time for insect recipes to catch on in Europe and North America. It doesn't help that dozens of guests at Noma, a world-famous restaurant in Denmark that serves ants and fermented grasshoppers, fell ill due food poisoning in March. It's unlikely that the illness was caused by ingesting insects, but the incident gave the bug trade a bad bit of press. That said, more than 1900 insect species already find their way onto people's plates in hundreds of countries around the world.
Levon says that EU regulations aren't the only hurdle. In order for edible insects to make their way into European diets, people will have to change their attitude. He optimistically points to the successful introduction of raw fish recipes from Asia.
"Thirty years ago, nobody was eating sushi in Europe. Now everybody is eating sushi," Levon points out. "Why not the same kind of thing with insects?"
But he's aware that the general public will need time to adjust. "It's not the kind of thing you can do in a few years. It will take decades," he says.
EU invests in insects
Back at the Paris café, Katie Evans and her friends have finished their grasshopper snacks. They say they are quite willing to try insect snacks but they don't think entomophagy will fly in Europe.
"I really hope we don't have to eat insects in the future," says someone at a nearby table. "If we have to, I can eat grasshoppers but not worms. That would be awful."
Snacking on insects might be new for Europeans, but in China dishes like this are considered a delicacy
Another adventurous eater is slightly more optimistic about the future of insect cuisine. "It could become a popular appetizer," he says. "It's a dry kind of thing you can bring to a party - a definite conversation starter!"
Meanwhile, the EU has offered its members states three million euros ($3.85 million) to research the use of insects in cooking and in 2014, the FAO will host a massive conference in the Netherlands called 'Insects to Feed the World'. It's expected that most regulations banning the sale of edible insects with be lifted within the next ten years.
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