Can We Have Our Insects and Eat Them, Too?

Can We Have Our Insects and Eat Them, Too?

“You are going to sit there, young man, and eat those bugs before you go outside and play with your friends.” This could be the scene in a future kitchen where a child refuses to eat his, um, crickets. A movement is gaining steam that sees insects as an environmentally conscious way to do away with food insecurity across the world.

The notion that we must eat bugs to cure world hunger is patent nonsense, although more than 2 billion people in Asia, Africa and South America choose to eat ants, grasshoppers, butterfly larvae and other bugs.

In China, a factory breeds 6 billion adult cockroaches for livestock feed and human medicine in an artificial intelligence-powered colony. To each their own — only some patients receiving the cockroach medicine might not know the source.

Here in the United States, we’re warned about such ingredients. Open-minded patrons of places like Denver’s Linger restaurant can try dishes like “sweet and sour crickets,” made of black ants, rice, diced crickets and grasshoppers.

Some would like to see U.S. consumers nudged a bit further in that direction. Marie Boyd of the University of South Carolina School of Law argues that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could open up the insect-food market by ceasing to refer to the maximum number of maggots in cherries or fly eggs in canned fruit juices as “filth.” She believes the FDA should acknowledge insects as food to help “facilitate greater cultural acceptance.”

My FDA experience suggests that regulation isn’t responsible for getting people to accept one type of food or another. Eco-consciousness, on the other hand, might get consumers moving toward a heaping bowl of cricket flakes and milk every morning.

But when it comes to feeding a growing world population, the practice is about as helpful as a child with a bubble mower following his parent with a lawn mower. Sophisticated farming techniques will do far more.

Recently the Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened an exhibition on precision farming, telling the story of how farmers leverage technologies like GPS to use less water, fertilizer and pesticides and still get vastly increased crop yields. For the first time in history, the world’s farmland is shrinking. Every two years, an area roughly the size of the UK is abandoned to the wild.

It’s not just precision agriculture. In the United States, 20 to 25 percent of crops fail due to weeds, pests, and water deprivation (twice that in the developing world). But genetic modification and its sophisticated cousin, gene editing, are reducing crop failures and drastically increasing agricultural output per acre of land. GM crops reduce the need for plowing and water usage, and gene editing uses desirable traits from a plant’s own DNA to help reduce crop disease.

But there’s more. We are now starting to see vertical indoor farms that can be placed anywhere, even a desert or the middle of a city, using CO2 to enhance growth.

As most of us are no longer linked to farms, some might think of farmers as unsophisticated. But farmers must deal with constantly fluctuating prices and demands, weather, different soil types, and competition to improve crop quality and yields. To do it, they’re using some of the most sophisticated technologies on the planet.

The fact is that in 2019, food insecurity is largely due to Third-World economic conditions and the 30 percent of worldwide food production that goes to waste. Global food shortages won’t require us to overcome our collective gag reflex and start eating insects.

If you choose to eat insects, fine, but don’t feel guilty if you don’t.

Richard Williams, a former director for social sciences at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, is a senior affiliated scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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