TOULOUSE - Will we be forced to eat spiders, larvae, crickets and other creepy-crawlers in the near future? In the face of mounting demographic pressures, we may be faced with this question sooner rather than later.
“With 20 billion cattle, twice the number of the 1980s, the earth has reached its maximum number of ruminants. We’re going to need other sources of protein,” explains Bruno Parmentier, director of the School of Agricultural Studies (ESA) in Angers, France.
Out of the 20 amino acids that create protein, eight cannot be produced by the human organism and thus must be provided through alimentation. Amino acids aren’t just for building muscles and renewing tissues – they also provide the five to seven daily grams (0.17 to 0.24 ounces) of nitrogen the body needs on a daily basis to create its own proteins and nucleic acids. When the organism doesn’t have its daily requirement, as is commonly the case in Africa and the Indian sub-continent, the body starts to lose weight, muscles melt, the immune system weakens and fatigue kicks in. In children, this leads to stunted growth.
We find interesting quantities of proteins in the plant world. But, neither soy – which is close to meat in terms of nutritional value – nor vegetables or oils will ever be able to satisfy our daily requirements, say nutritionists. Proteins from insects, however, provide the whole catalogue of amino acids our bodies need. Primitive ethnic groups know this very well. At least 3000 ethnic groups eat insect meal regularly, mostly coleoptera (beetles), lepidoptera (caterpillars and cocoons), and orthoptera (crickets and grasshoppers).
In southern Africa, insects represent 10% of the population’s animal protein intake. The Pedi people consider the mopane worm (Gonombrasia belina) as superior food – over beef. On the Reunion Island, the Potter wasp is a popular dish, fried or prepared in a spicy rougail (a ginger, hot pepper and tomato sauce). In Japan, the hornet, gutted from its intestines, is served in a fondue or as liquor. In total, two billion people around the world eat insects regularly.
Even though westerners do not have the same appetite for bugs, they already eat about 500 grams (17.6 ounces) of bugs a year unknowingly – in fruits or jams or through the cochineal dyes used in food coloring.
From Big Mac to “Bug Mac”
“The question isn’t should we eat insects – but when?” says entomologist Marcel Dicke, a professor from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. This has always been a constant in our world’s history – as countries are getting richer, they become more and more carnivorous.
“If China and India start following the same path, a day will come when the Big Mac will be a luxury product,” he says. Should this happen, the “Bug Macs” will be very useful – they contain more protein than meat (crickets contain 65% of protein, as well as minerals and vitamins A, B and C). Insects are low fat, they are plentiful, they don’t contribute to global warming and require six to ten times less food than bovines.
“Other protein sources just can’t compete with insects,” says Bruno Parmentier. Fish? “Humanity is 3,000 years behind on farming techniques and keeps emptying its fish reserves to satisfy demand. If we continue to use three to five kilos of small fish to produce a kilo of salmon, we are going to drain the whole south Pacific area.” As a consequence, “Soon, we should start producing carps, they are herbivorous and their transformation rate of vegetal proteins is particularly interesting – 2.5 kilos for one kilo of carp.” The problem is that carps smell of sludge and are full of fish bones.
Shrimps are also suited to mass production, they contain twice as much protein as white meats. The market witnessed a 300% jump in the number of people who eat shrimp within a decade, but its industry is accused of polluting drinkable water, surrounding lands and oceans. Vietnamese farms alone produce seven million tons of toxic waste per year.
As for soy as a vegetal source of protein – there is less and less available land for soy fields.
This leaves us with bugs – 1,200 of which are considered to be edible. “Most of them have a hazelnut flavor,” says Cedric Auriol, who just launched France’s first insect farm, near Toulouse. Insects taste like peanuts, cereals or even shrimp. “Despite that, almost no one eats insects in our societies,” says Berangere Boismain, whose “Insects: Tomorrow’s Little Cattle” project at the Nantes Design School in western France is making a lot of noise in the food industry. “With new packaging, we should be able to offer bug proteins as a substitute to meat,” she says.
Here are some of the ideas on her menu: vegetable kebabs with bug flour; grasshopper eggrolls; mealworm quiche; chocolate mousse with larvae. Hungry yet?