In a 2012 episode of “The Simpsons,” an iron deficiency prompted Lisa Simpson to supplement her vegetarian diet with grasshoppers, but giant taunting insects infiltrated her dreams and put her off the idea. Most Americans would agree: eating bugs is the stuff of nightmares. But each year, more people — Michelin-starred chefs and suburban homemakers alike — are coming around to creepy-crawly cuisine. And as it happens, before long we may have no choice but to chow down on insects.
Entomophagy, aka the consumption of bugs, has been around in practice since prehistoric times, and indigenous populations have depended on it. Today, 2 billion people around the globe consider insects a diet staple. In China, cockroach farms are a booming business. In parts of Africa, foraging for termites to roast and fry is a common childhood chore. In the Mexican region of Taxco, the annual Jumil Festival is a boozy celebration of the stink bug, which smells like cut grass but tastes like cinnamon, and the event culminates with the crowning of a Jumil Queen.
Yet America has, for the most part, resisted bugs on our menus (native tribes relied on entomophagy, though early European immigrants looked down on the practice). The anti-bug mentality stuck, and pop culture has only reinforced our notion of insects as dirty, slimy, creepy and anything but appetizing.
Additionally, America’s affluence has afforded us the privilege of a national bug aversion — meat remains our number one source of protein despite the high cost of livestock production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans are among the highest per capita consumers of meat in the world; we each put back an average 71 pounds of beef, pork and lamb annually.
But our dietary model is unsustainable. That’s the gist of a 2013 report from the United Nations, which determined that absent bugs, the agricultural industry cannot scale to feed a global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion people by 2050. In other words, the cost of meat will skyrocket enough to make even the wealthiest among us reconsider filet.
If insects entered the mainstream food supply, however, we could feed the world while reclaiming the 30 percent of Earth’s land currently needed for producing farm animals and their feed. Because insects are the most efficient form of protein on the planet, their production would require less water and cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent. Plus — rich in vitamins and healthy fats, and with double the protein of steak — bugs pack a greater nutritional punch than beef, pork or chicken.
So eating bugs might save the world, and we’ve got technology to make it happen. But convincing people to do it? According to a new crop of insect food startups, that’s a whole other hill of ants.
Megan Miller, former trend forecaster in the technology and media spheres and co-founder of Bitty Foods, says the key is starting with an insect that has positive connotations, like the cricket (think warm summer nights and grassy fields), and making these bugs look a lot less buggy.