Science

In Praise of Eating Bugs

From culinary diversity to global food security, insect-eating cultures have a lot to teach us. Will we listen?

The first time I knowingly and deliberately ate insects, in Kunming, China, it was a simple act of cultural deference. If you are a guest in another country, and they offer you bugs to eat, it is rude to decline the offer.

In January of 2010, Xu Jianchu, an ethnobotanist working with China’s minority peoples, hosted a richly diverse feast for our working group on the ecological and social interactions that lead to the emergence of new diseases. The revolving table seemed to me like a Tibetan Wheel of Life—delicate, colorful, carefully arranged chaos. There, among the stir-fried, kebabed, and spiced-up flowers, roots, pods, leaves, lobster sushi, chicken, and pork, was a basket of crisp, deep-fried worms. Omphisa fuscidentalis, the bamboo borer, is a moth of the Crambidae family, but in the kitchen and on the plate, the larvae are simply called “bamboo worms.”

Struggling to overcome my Canadian squeamishness in the name of cross-cultural collaboration, I tried some. They tasted to me like french fries, but with small, crunchy heads. Xu, watching me with a smile, said he preferred them not quite as thoroughly fried, a little softer and juicier. Then regaled us with tales of all the foods he had eaten, which seemed to cover just about anything that had once wiggled or crept on the earth, or flown in the air, or swum in waters brackish or sweet. I neglected to ask Xu about the possible destructiveness of traditional foraging for bamboo and the viability of rearing worms in bamboo plantations.

There are a lot of other things I would still like to ask Xu Jianchu, perhaps over a cup of insect tea, made from the feces of vegetarian insects. A 2013 scholarly review paper suggested that traditional Chinese insect tea lowered blood lipids and had antihypertensive and hypoglycemic effects. I am thinking now that I must go back to Yunnan and ask Jianchu about the ten species of cocoons eaten by the Wa people, and what the Tibetans do with Cordyceps, a caterpillar whose body is taken over by a fungus.

One could spend many lifetimes exploring all the other bugs eaten by minority and indigenous people around the world, who could teach all of us non-insect-eaters so much about diversity in the kitchen.

While our global agri-food technocultures fuss over efficiencies of process and economies of scale, where else but from among these minorities will come the voices of renewal?

In 1973, social planners Horst and Webber proposed that there are some problems which, because of messy boundaries, complex interactions, and different perspectives on what constitute solutions, cannot be tackled using conventional problem-solving or scientific methods. They labeled these wicked problems. Often, what we see as an individual problem is in fact a subset of a much bigger, messier, problematic situation, which technical problem-solvers are trying not to think about.

Entomophagy, at least insofar as it is seen as a solution to the problem of sustainable global food security, is one subset of a much larger, wicked, problem—the current industrialized agri-food system, the same one that has given us such food bounty for the last century and made possible our much-celebrated and sometimes despised “way of life.” Given that our “way of life” has become globalized, the notion of scouring wadis and gulches for overlooked oases of food in a world of eight or nine billion people is not entirely without merit.

The world today is a fundamentally different planet than when our ancestors first dug termites out of mounds or began arguing with bees over who should have access to their sweet treasure hoards. Yet there are remnants, tide-pools of living knowledge and practice that have so far escaped the tsunami of industrial progessivism. These eco-cultural remnants are relevant insofar as they have survived into the twenty-first century; they have enabled people to survive and even remain resilient in the face of radical environmental, political, cultural, and climatic changes.

Globally, we can begin our searches in the small enclaves inhabited by marginalized people in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, enclaves where ecological and survival knowledge are sequestered, such as the American mountain valleys or Mexican forest glens. These are the places where the identification, husbandry, processing, and preparing of insects are now being preserved.

But before we do so, it is worth pondering why these practices have been marginalized in the first place, and thus what the challenges might be in mainstreaming them. The progressive, modernist notion is that they are simply inefficient, suitable perhaps for subsistence, but not for a modern, science-based world. There is little credible evidence of any sort that this is true. Many ideas, people, and cultures have been marginalized by an odd mixture of so-called enlightenment science (that is, the science of non-insect-eating cultures), religious enthusiasm, colonial arrogance, television, social media frenzies, pop-stars, and well-funded public relations campaigns.

Social Darwinism was long ago discredited and discarded by (most) evolutionary biologists. Its ideas, however, continue to creep into many of our activities, including our practice of science and the programs and activities we continually create to “lift people out of poverty,” or to promote health and sustainability. While insects may well have been eaten historically by billions of people, it is argued, they have done so because they were poor, and starving, and had no other options. Insects might have been good for subsistence, but can they improve global food security in any substantive way?

Tim Flannery, the Australian ecologist, asserts that hunter-gatherers are quite capable of doing any of the jobs on offer in the modern world, but that the reverse is not true. Flannery goes on to cite research that demonstrates that our “tendency towards civilized imbecility has left its physical mark on us. It’s a fact that every member of the mini-ecosystems we have created has lost much of its brain matter. For goats and pigs, it’s around a third when compared to their wild ancestors. For horses, dogs and cats it may be a little less. But, most surprising of all, humans have also lost brain mass. One study estimates that men have lost around 10 percent, and women around 14 percent of their brain mass when compared to ice-age ancestors.”

So, we can surely learn from people whose ways of living have survived by being invisible to the global economy, and who may have some tips on how to compensate for our failing brain capacities that do not involve taking more drugs. But we need to be careful to do this learning in ways that neither marginalize them further, shaming them into driving their insectivorous practices “underground,” nor suck them into the mainstream and disempower them even as we seek their inherited wisdom. It is a delicate conversation, burdened with centuries of colonial bullying.

The roots of these attitudes are deeply embedded in non-insect-eating societies. One small vignette from Adam Hochschild’s heart-wrenching history King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa speaks volumes. In 1886, Henry Morton Stanley led a disastrous, arrogant, ill-advised expedition up the Congo River to “rescue” Emin Pasha, a German naturalist and physician who had been appointed governor of Equatoria—and who in fact needed no rescuing. Half of Stanley’s 389 native porters died. Among those that survived, according to Hoschschild, “When they ran out of food, they caught and roasted ants.”

Ants, then, were seen as a food of desperation, to be eaten when they ran out of “real” food. But even what we eat when desperate is constrained by what our cultures have conditioned us to see as possibilities for food. The porters saw the ants as food; their American scribe did not. I am reminded of a saying among the Yansi, an indigenous group in Zaire: “As food, caterpillars are regulars in the village but meat is a stranger.” Which says as much about what they consider to be “meat” as it does about the importance of caterpillars in their traditional diet.

My grandfather’s diary from the 1920s famine in the Ukraine doesn’t even mention insects as a food of desperation. At one point he writes, “And what did we eat? Rats, dogs, crows, horsemeat, bread made from pumpkins, beets, millet porridge and millet chaff.” Like most people of northern European descent, he was aware of insects, but when thinking about food, they were visible only as pests. My grandfather was not unusual in his views. These deeply held attitudes about what can be used as food, and what cannot be imagined as food, are difficult challenges for those promoting entomophagy as a response to a globally desperate food security situation.

Even among those who are earnestly trying to be sensitive to indigenous knowledge and culture, as well as ecological resilience, we encounter a subtle deference to the language of colonial culture. Mopane worms, caterpillars of the emperor moth Gonimbrasia belina, have been integral to the food cultures of many tribal groups in southern Africa since prehistoric times. Nevertheless, recent published reviews of this important food source refer to the practice of eating mopane worms as a “livelihood strategy” for marginalized households whose “livelihood alternatives” are otherwise limited.

Livelihood strategies is a phrase often used by development specialists to describe how people in economically and politically disempowered communities cobble together a way of life, and the term encompasses provision of food and shelter, income-generation, and daily living practices. As sustainable development became a catchword globally in the 1990s, the phrase sustainable livelihoods was increasingly used in development aid circles. The International Fund for Agricultural Development refers to the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (SLA) as “a way to improve understanding of the livelihoods of poor people.”

I have no objection to the use of SLA terminology per se, but I have yet to hear it applied to urban professionals and Silicon Valley acolytes in cities of North America or Europe. Yet one could argue that it is these livelihoods that are unsustainable, not those of villagers in Malawi. This reminds me of the OIE program to assess animal health infrastructure. When one Chief Veterinary Officer suggested that the countries of Western Europe or North America should undergo such reviews, the OIE officials were offended. This was a tool for evaluating “developing” countries, not “us.”

Is entomophagy a kind of neocolonialism, or is it, as I am hoping, a way for modern urbanites to develop SLAs? In this century, a series of FAO workshops brought what had been a niche activity in the world food debates out into the open. Reports from these workshops—Forest Insects as Food: Humans Bite Back (2010) and Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security (2013)—have already launched a kind of global beetle-mania. The reports are full of surveys and case reports of “ethnic groups” who ate, and still eat, insects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Suddenly entomologists, archeologists, and anthropologists were combing the world, looking for more reports of people who ate, or had eaten, bugs.

Behind all this were the billions of people who, until they were “discovered” by the new entomophagists, had been quietly, with little fuss, going about eating locusts and weevils and termites just as if they were regular food. The stories of these people are, quite literally, all over the map, and are as culturally diverse as the ecosystems within which they emerged.

As insects creep into our cooking repertoire, we would do well to pay attention to those stories—which insects were eaten, and why, and how were they prepared? At its best, the path to normalizing insects on the plate is a path that leads through mutual respect to greater ecological and cultural understanding.

In parts of southern Africa, people eat the stink bug Encosternum delegorguei when the mopane caterpillars are pupating underground and unavailable. But stink bugs are not just eaten “as is”; to make them palatable, they are washed three times in warm water, then boiled, and then sun dried. To detoxify an armoured ground cricket (Acanthoplus spiseri) before eating, one should pull off its head, remove its gut, boil it for at least five hours, and then fry it in oil. An insectivorous adventurer who ignores this advice may end up being seriously inconvenienced by an inflamed bladder. Mopane worms need degutting, and dung beetles cleaning, before they are eaten.

We can improvise based on the original recipes, but the traditional entomophagists among the minority peoples of China and Africa and Latin America should be recognized as the Julia Childs of the new entomophagy movement.

In many cases, Julia’s children may be already gone. I suspect it’s too late, for instance, to find American indigenous cooks who can show us how to best prepare a desert fruitcake or a locust soup. Some recipes, however, live on in current practice. Among the insects that have been traditional sources of food for people in various parts of the world, those that have managed to find the cushiest jobs in the postmodern economy are palm weevils, mealworms, and crickets.

For those of us who grew up in temperate zones, tropical palm weevils are among the least familiar of the edible insects. Originating from tropical Asia, palm weevils are often considered pests because they can transmit parasites from tree to tree. They are also a culinary delicacy in much of the non-European world. Semi-cultivation of palm weevils, in which the farmer-foragers create larvae beds by knocking down trees and exposing the pith for the weevils to lay eggs, has been reported from Paraguay, Colombia, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand. The Jotï, a semi-nomadic people from the Venezuelan Amazon, cultivate two species, Rhynchophorus palmarum and Rhinostomus barbirostris, although they prefer the latter for its richer flavor. In Southeast Asia, where the larvae are known as sago worms, they are called “sago delight” when fried. A Cameroonian cookbook describes red palm weevil larvae, also known as coconut larvae, as “a favourite dish offered only to good friends.”

In Thailand, demand for sago larvae, once foraged for occasional snacks or eaten as a form of pest control, has taken off to the point that farmers cannot keep up with the increasing demand. The traditional farming methods are to cut down cabbage or sago palm trees, drill holes into them, and then place breeding pairs of weevils next to the holes. The dynamics between increased demand and traditional foraging are a worldwide phenomenon, and increases in human populations and the felling of palms for farming are already being felt ecologically and culturally. In Venezuela, the Jotï now walk four to twenty hours farther than they once did to find palms to prepare for weevil cultivation. In Thailand, traditional methods have been replaced by putting breeding pairs into plastic containers, where they are fed ground palm and pig feed. By 2011, 120 Thai farmers were producing forty-three tons of weevil meat annually, as well as frass, which was used for fertilizer.

Beyond sago larvae, we can cite the importance of mopane worms in eastern and southern Africa, which have valuable ecological work to do and are nutritionally rich food supplements and provide substantial cash income for rural households (25 percent in some parts of southern Zimbabwe). African countries have provided an endless stream of entomophagy stories and research reports. Almost all the people living in the forests of the Central African Republic are reported to rely on insects for their protein. A study of the indigenous Gbaya people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) found that insects formed 15 percent of their protein intake. Another study announced that “the average household” in Kinshasa, DRC, was eating 300 grams of caterpillars a week.

Termites, especially the fungus-farming termites of the genus Macrotermes, are a desirable food item across sub-Saharan Africa. A 2013 review of termites as food asserted that they “have unique nutritional qualities that can be exploited to provide high-quality diets, especially in the developing countries, which have been plagued by iron and zinc deficiencies as well as poor supply of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acid sources.”

People who eat termites sometimes also eat the clay from which the termite mounds are built, which is apparently high in kaolin, a treatment for stomach upsets. In ostensibly more sophisticated Western countries, some of us grew up eating Kaopectate, which, at least in its original formulation, was much the same thing—to stop diarrhea. Pregnant and breast-feeding women are said to benefit especially from eating termite mound clay; the benefits, according to one research report, are improvements in calcium intake, stronger fetal skeletons, and increased birth weight, as well as reduced hypertension associated with pregnancy.

Cone-headed grasshoppers (Ruspolia nitidula) are also popular in Uganda and have been, periodically, a significant source of income, their price per unit weight exceeding that of beef in the markets. This was especially true in the 1990s, when plunging coffee prices deprived many Ghanaians of their primary source of cash income. The reported constraints were that the grasshoppers had a short shelf life, and that, when retrieved from the drums where they were stored, they would bite.

It is all very well to talk about eating grasshoppers, stink bugs, and bamboo worms in Africa and Asia, but it will take more than just a leap of the imagination for bugs to go from there to grocery stores in Canada and the United States. One of the recurring questions among the new promoters of entomophagy is how insect-eating can be taken from its remnant populations of disappearing traditional, ecologically grounded communities and integrated into an emerging, Western-dominated, global food culture.

The success story most often cited of a food once marginal and now mainstream is that of sushi. If Europeans and North Americans can, in one generation, learn to eat raw fish as prepared in Japan, then why not insects? There are even evolutionary arguments for pursuing this line of marketing. According to the latest genetic research, insects may be thought of as descendants of terrestrial crustaceans; their closest living relatives are blind, cave-dwelling remipedes. From an entomophagical point of view, perhaps this “sisterhood” of insects and crustaceans can be used to alter the public imagination. With all due respect for, and apologies to, Daniella Martin’s YouTube scorpion-eating performances, distinguishing and imaginatively distancing edible land crustaceans from spiders and scorpions might offer more effective marketing possibilities.

Japan was the source of the American and European infatuation with sushi, and now is also on the forefront of the new entomophagy movement. Japanese culture has a long history of explicit engagement with insects as entertainment, natural phenomena, and food. The Japanese word mushi, which can refer to a bug, a germ, an insect, or a spirit, reflects this complex cultural perspective.

It is not yet clear which bugs will find a home in the brave new entomophagical world, or into whose kitchens they will fly. From what I have seen and read and heard, one man is ahead of this wave of insect-eating culinary changes. Born into a community in central Japan where insect-eating was normal, and now based in that most futuristic of cities, Tokyo, Shoichi Uchiyama has become a national and global champion of insect-eating. The author of several books on the delights of entomophagy, he leads and inspires the Konchu Ryori Kenkyukai (Insect Cuisine Research Association). Daniella Martin describes her memorable encounter with him in her book Edible. Having watched Uchiyama-san on YouTube and seen him celebrated in popular newspaper reports and an NKH World documentary on insect-eating in Japan, I had to visit Uchiyama-san as well.

One morning, Kyoko and Kenichiro Iizuka, my local guides, took me out to him and several other people for insect hunting and roasting along the Tama River. After a half-hour train trip out of the city, we walked a few blocks to a small shop, where Uchiyama-san picked up his bicycle. The bike was loaded with the accoutrements and equipment necessary for hunting and picnicking, including a tarp, butterfly nets, a propane camping stove, and bags of cicada (locally caught) and ant larvae (imported from China). Our intrepid hunting group walked in the baking heat to the riverbank, where we parked under a bridge. Then we set off to catch lunch.

As I walked down the narrow path among the tall grasses and shrubs, I heard a kazoo-like buzzing nearby. I approached the musical branch and was the reluctant witness to a thumb-sized hornet devouring a smaller, green insect, probably a grasshopper or mantis. Having heard all the horror stories about Asian killer hornets, I slowly backed away. Later, overcoming my better instincts for the sake of science, I checked into a much louder flapping in a tree. A praying mantis—several centimetres long—had her teeth into a cicada. When I netted the pair and showed it to Uchiyama-san, he informed me that the mantis was pregnant (and thus eating for more than one!). The Japanese name for the mantis is kama kiri which translates literally as “sickle cut” (kiri meaning “cut,” as in hara kiri).

At first, a lot of grasshoppers and mantises whizzed away just as my net came down. I finally caught a grasshopper, but when I swooped my net down on a second one and tried to stuff it into my ziplock bag, the first escaped. Eventually I learned how to cultivate patience, waiting until a bug settled before moving with startling speed to catch it, and then shaking my previous captives down to the bottom of the bag before stuffing in the newcomer.

Back at camp, under the cement bridge, Uchiyama-san and his helpers had set up the stoves and frying pans and busily cooked up the various bugs and larvae. I was told the flavor was “nutty,” and I suppose it was. I wondered what kind of nuts, and a couple of us decided that maybe the pan-fried cicada larvae tasted a bit like almonds. Now, when someone asks me what almonds taste like, I can say, “a bit like fried cicada larvae.”

After this adventure, Uchiyama-san and his coterie went back to his home to clean up. We met again at a railway station a few stops away, and then we were off to Akihabara, the world center of big-eyed anime cartoons, video games, movies, and manga. Japan International Volunteer Center (JIVC), which was running a community-based project in Lao PDR on the relationship between insect foraging and forest conservation, is located in an alley just at the edge of Akihabara. As I expected, results from the JIVC project looked promising but uncertain, as tends to be the case where local people are given hunting or foraging rights in protected areas. The theory was that if indigenous people were given these rights, they would protect the resources. But such a strategy does not account for political manipulation and the massive financial pressures that can occur if those resources gain traction on the open market. I spoke briefly about excrement, and the Laotian cricket farming project managed by Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières-Canada. Uchiyama-san and his staff prepared snacks of saltine crackers smeared with what I think was some kind of insect pâté, and topped with either crushed crickets, ants, or cicadas.

The next afternoon, Kyoko and Ken met me in the lobby of my hotel and we headed over to where Uchiyama-san has his office for an afternoon of insect cooking and tasting. There were about a dozen people, including a grad student in ESL from Ohio and an editor from the publisher Tsukiji Shokan.

The menu included hornet larvae, silkworm pupae, and silkworms. The geographic origins of these insects were not always clear to me. Some, I think, must have been imported. The silkworm pupae were white and pink and yellow. Apparently silk producers have bred various colored strains. We snipped off the ends and the larvae dropped out. My friend Zen Kawabata roasted them in a small pan over a camp stove in the street to get the “chaff” off. The hornets were bought from a company that cleans hornet nests from people’s houses, so it was doubly virtuous to eat them. We made tea from the feces of worms that had fed on cherry blossoms. The tea was cherry-scented and, if you didn’t know where it came from, light and tasty. We also tried green tea made from silkworm larvae poop, which tasted like green tea made from silkworm larvae poop. One of Uchiyama-san’s assistants made noodles from buckwheat dough that included powdered whole bees.

Reflecting on this later, I tried to discern where the path might be from this type of street cooking to North American kitchens and restaurants. There did not seem to be an obvious route.

Excerpted from Eat the Beetles: An Exploration into Our Conflicted Relationship with Insects by David Waltner-Toews. © 2017 by David Waltner-Toews. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. www.ecwpress.com

David Waltner-Toews is an author, veterinarian, and epidemiologist.

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