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Entomophagy: Could Eating Insects Save the World?

Entomophagy is the technical term for eating insects...

By Kristin Wolfe, Exhibit Interpreter
Edited by Erin Dreps, Education Coordinator

Believe it or not, it has been a common practice in cultures around the world for thousands of years. In fact, the earliest record of insects used for human consumption comes from Greek literature in the early 1500s, in which Aristotle refers to cicadas as a delicacy.

Americans have resisted what the rest of the world has known for millenia

Protein is a vital part of the human diet, and one that Americans tend to consume in the form of meat, in larger and larger quantities every year. Producing livestock to meet the ever-growing demand for meat requires incredible amounts of water, feed, and land, and these resources are not unlimited.

Despite the common nature of this practice in many other countries, Americans have historically expressed a strong aversion to the idea. But that is beginning to change.

As advocates for habitat and species conservation and environmental stewardship here at Butterfly Pavilion, we’re acutely aware of the need to explore more sustainable alternatives. Shifting from cows, pigs, and chickens to insects would significantly reduce our resource use. For example, it takes 10,000 times more water to raise one pound of beef than one pound of crickets! Further, the rearing of livestock is responsible for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than all forms of transportation combined.

But decreasing negative environmental impacts isn’t the only enticement entomophagy has to offer. Scientists have found that insects are a healthier alternative for humans to other forms of meat. Pound for pound, mealworms contain as much protein as beef in addition to having less fat and less calories. There are also more vitamins and essential amino acids found in most edible insects than other meat-based proteins. Further, crickets actually contain about five times the calcium and ten times the iron found in beef.

And we’re not the only ones interested in insect-eating’s potential, even locally.  A 2018 article by Rachel Walker in 5280 Magazine features “Crickets as Protein” as a major health trend in Colorado. This is good news for local businesses like the Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, an edible cricket farm located in Denver, not too far from a restaurant called Linger where you can enjoy cricket and cassava stuffed empanadas. Yum!

So why do most Americans cringe at the thought of eating a bug?

Western culture promotes the idea of insects as dirty and creepy pests, rather than something to consider eating for dinner. Have you ever seen a movie or TV show where cockroaches or a tarantula are used to scare people? Most likely, you’ve seen many. This is vastly different from many tropical areas around the world where insects are often represented positively in legends, myths, and dancing, and also used for decoration, entertainment, and medicine. Fried scorpions in China, spiders in Cambodia, and grasshoppers in Thailand are considered a delicacy, rather than something appropriate for a horror film. Where other cultures respect and even admire our arthropod friends, popular culture has conditioned many Americans to recoil and avoid them.

How do we change the way millions of Americans feel about eating insects?

In short, education. When people learn about the dynamic (and often essential) roles insects play in our world, they can begin to re-think their own assumptions about their value. Rather than the “gross” cockroach under our shoe, these animals can be appreciated as essential decomposers cleaning up the forest floor. No longer do we assume the bee’s purpose is to sting us.  Instead, we recognize them as crucial pollinators providing honey and one out of every three bites of food we consume. Similarly, a mealworm on your plate sounds less like a reason to never go that restaurant again, and more like a sign of a business making a commitment to sustainability.

The mission here at Butterfly Pavilion is to foster an appreciation for all invertebrates, including insects. We do this partly by facilitating interactive educational experiences in our exhibits. Our ‘Bug Bites’ Spineless Spotlight program that you can see on Sundays and Fridays at 1:30 pm teaches guests about insect-eating, including the insects they unwittingly eat every day, followed by an opportunity to try some different insect treats! Through our efforts, and those of other individuals and organizations looking to encourage more sustainable food sources, we hope to make a big impact in conserving our world for future generations.

So maybe one day, sooner than you think, we’ll be grocery shopping and crickets may be on the grocery list! After all, lobster was once considered a poor man’s food in America, and look at it now…

Sources:

Bodenheimer, F. S. “History of Entomophagy.” Insects as Human Food. Springer, Dordrecht, 1951. 39-69.

DeFoliart, Gene R. “Insects as human food: Gene DeFoliart discusses some nutritional and economic aspects.” Crop protection 11.5 (1992): 395-399.

Hoddle, Mark. Entomophagy (Eating Insects). Center for Invasive Species Research. University of California, Riverside. http://cisr.ucr.edu/entomophagy.html. 2016.

Van Huis, Arnold, et al. Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. No. 171. Food and agriculture organization of the United Nations, 2013.

Walker, Rachel. “Eight Health Trends Growing in Colorado in 2018.” 5280 Health. January 2018.

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