Eat what bugs you: Redefining our relationship with insects
Timothy Seekings (自然資源與環境學系博士生)
Having grown up close to nature and having had many types of pets throughout my childhood, my conception of animals changed dramatically when I began studying insects – in particular, edible insects. This broadened by understanding of the overwhelming presence and large role that insects play in the natural world and social history. For humans to look at insects as simply a class of animals is like a little finger looking at the entire body as simply other organic tissue. In other words, it is a bit of an understatement. In terms of historical presence, biomass, sheer numbers, and distribution, we have to concede that we live on a planet of insects. Furthermore, in their role as pollinators, providers of resources such as silk and honey, as a food source, as transmitters of diseases, and in other roles, insects have shaped human development and even civilizations.
Now the time has come reevaluate our relationship with insects. They have been (re-) discovered as a vast renewable food resource with the enormous potential to feed a growing world population. The advantages of insects are numerous: they are nutritious as well as energy and resource efficient, they have short life cycles, and they are highly reproductive. However, insects as food for humans face social barriers. In modern or Western contexts, people have a strong bias against insects. They regard them as dirty, disgusting, and dangerous. Despite this, entrepreneurs and researchers believe that it is possible to convince consumers to eat insects. I have researched edible insects for the last four years, mainly rearing crickets and preparing them as food together with participants, and witnessed peoples’ reactions to food insects first-hand. In short, they range from disgust to delight. It seems, however, that the more opportunity people have to learn about the cultures of edible insects and to engage with them in the context of cooking, the more they are willing to eat them. Action research is a good way to investigate application of insects in food and people’s attitudes. This is important for understanding the potential role that insects can play in our foodways. I think that insects as food are here to stay. Whether they will become mainstream or remain a niche food is unclear and depends on economic and cultural factors. For now, it is certainly worth to investigate insects as a local, nutritious, and more sustainable food source, keeping in mind that foodways change over time and that we need to reduce our environmental footprint, much of which is related to the food we eat.
Growing up with nature and animals
I grew up in the southwest of Germany, in a family that spent lots of time in nature. In our free time, we explored rivers, mountains, and seas across Europe. At home, in our garden, my parents recreated the landscapes of our travels by bringing back seeds, plants, stones, sand, tadpoles, shells, and drift wood from all the places that we went. We recreated the world of our travels in miniature in our “back yard”. After about three decades of passionate landscaping and constantly adapting the house and garden to the changing needs of a growing-up family, we had a wondrous little garden with ponds, hills, paths, differently themed areas, rich vegetation, and even a little stream. We were also always friendly to animals and at different times had cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, budgies, zebra finches, fish, crabs, frogs, in addition to fostering the odd hedgehog, feeding the wild birds in our garden in the cold winter months, and borrowing dogs from friends to take on hikes. It so comes that until this day I feel an affinity with the natural world and (non-human) animals.
Studying insects expanded my concept of animals
However, only a few years ago, when I began my postgraduate studies in environmental studies and ecology, my conception of animals began to change and expand dramatically. In the search of a research topic and following my passion for nature, food, sustainability, and practical engagement, I discovered the research field of edible insects. Currently, my work has to do mainly with farming crickets, preparing them as food, and using this action to start a discussion about the relationship between our foodways and the environment and our relationship to edible insects. At the beginning, however, I knew very little about insects, and I suspect that, like me at the time, many people have never spent too much time considering the important roles that insects play in the natural world and the sheer numbers of insects that exist. As entomologists like to remind us, we actually live on a planet of insects (Van Huis et al., 2014).
Astonishing insect facts
Consider this: Insects are the most species-diverse taxon of animals on planet earth, with the number of identified species exceeding one million. According to estimates, another two to thirty million unidentified species might exist (Smithsonian, 2018). Compare this to the only five and a half thousand species of mammals on Earth. In absolute numbers, for each human, there are about two-hundred million to two billion insects (Van Huis et al., 2014) and for each kilogram of human, there are about hundred-fifty kilogram of insect (Smithsonian, 2018). While likely constituting the largest share of biomass of terrestrial animals, they are also found in almost every terrestrial and freshwater environment on the planet (Foottit & Adler, 2017). Furthermore, many of them are airborne. In the air column up to heights of two and a half miles above the earth, tens of millions of insects can be present at any one time (Raffles, 2010).
History of human-insect relations
Insects not only outnumber humans, they have also been inhabiting this planet for a much longer time. While first human-like ancestors appeared between five and seven million years ago, insects have been around for over four hundred million years. Considering this pre-eminence of insects is a humbling exercise. When our ancestors first started to become humans, insects were already key in ensuring functioning ecosystems and played a major role in diverse food webs. In other words, as humanity, we “grew up” with insects everywhere around us. We have thus since ancient times made use of valuable resources that they provide us with. Honey, for example has always been a prized substance, with apiculture, the controlled keeping of bees, dating back to about nine thousand years. The other major insect product that humans have benefitted from is of course silk, the cocoon-forming thread of the mulberry silkworm, which is technically not a worm, but the larva of the moth, Bombyx mori (家蠶). As such, insects have not just always played an important role by providing crucial ecosystem services such as decomposition and pollination, but actually indirectly shaped human civilization. Take the Silk Road, for example, which for almost two millennia was the prime economic trading route connecting Eastern and Western cultures via the Eurasian continent. However, besides serving an economic and cultural role, insectswere also key in decimating human populations. At merely two millimetres body length, the flea Xenopsylla cheopis (印鼠客蚤) is among the smallest insects. Yet it was at least partly responsible for wiping out between thirty and sixty percent of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century in an event that became known as the bubonic plague (鼠疫). Again, this had severe implications for the social development of European culture.
(Re-)discovery of insects as a food resource
We see that a long-standing and varied relationship between humans and insects is nothing new. However, at this juncture in history, around the turn of the 21st century, this relationship is taking on an unanticipated and dramatic turn, which is perhaps best captured by the title of an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Insect Science: “Insects for Food and Feed: if you can’t beat them, eat them!” (planned for the year 2020). Yes, the modern world is now turning to insects as a source of food and feed. The technical name for the practice of eating insects is “entomophagy”(食蟲/嗜蟲/食蟲主義) and is in itself nothing new. In fact, scholars suggest that insects have always been part of human foodways, all the way back to pre-human history. Even presently, insects feature in the foodways of an estimated two billion people, worldwide, who make use of up to one thousand six-hundred species (Vantomme, 2014). As a food source, they are eaten in times of food shortage, as staple foods, snacks, and as prized (and pricey) delicacies.
What is new, however, is that this practice is now being promoted in Western, modern, and so-called developed societies. It has become the subject of academic debate and scientific research, as well as the focal point for start-up companies and large businesses, with new enterprises constantly entering the growing edible insect market worldwide. At the highest levels, the topic has been discussed and published in reports by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, attracted funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Hult Prize, as well as government agencies and international funding bodies worldwide. In addition, most major media outlets have published stories on edible insects in recent years. Therefore, it is clear that an international edible insect movement is emerging (Müller et al., 2016).
Edible insects are promoted as a sustainable solution for feeding a growing world population, especially when they are compared to traditional forms of livestock that currently meet our unsustainable demand for meat and dairy products. Because of the unique biological and other qualities of insects, they provide a good source of nutrition while requiring only little land, water, energy, and feed input. They have short life cycles and high reproduction rates. In addition, they produce little pollution and can be fed on a wide range of organic matter. Therefore, the thinking goes, the rational thing to do to ensure our own health and that of the planet would be to eat less meat and dairy products and eat more insects. It makes sense, but it is not that easy.
First of all, our food choices are not based on rational decisions. They originate in distinct cultural histories and are embedded in complex social webs of meaning. Our food is determined by but also indicates our social and economic status. It is part of our identity and the subject of fashions, fads, and economic pressure. Food is as much biological sustenance as it is a cultural expression and emotional experience. This becomes clear when dealing with edible insects, especially in a modern or developed cultural context, such as in Taiwan. Many people have a deep-rooted bias against insects. They are commonly seen as dirty, disgusting, and dangerous (Looy, 2011), as well as pests. In addition, in the Western tradition, eating insects has long been associated with primitive behavior of backward, underdeveloped, or poor people, in other words, it was antithetical to the idea of being civilized and modern. This bias against insects is one of the main hurdles that stands in the way of this ancient and at the same time newly proposed sustainable food source. It is also the crux of much of research, which centers on consumer acceptance and willingness to eat insects and the question of how best to prepare insects as food for modern or Western consumers.
Action research with edible insects
In my four years of engaging in action research with edible insects by rearing crickets and using them in food, cooking and eating together with participants, I have had many opportunities to get first-hand impressions of people’s reactions, from primary school children in Taoyuan County to university students in Taichung and Hualien, and grandmothers at a country fair in Fuli. But it all started with my own reaction when I cooked the first crickets I had farmed. I experienced a severe mental hurdle, which I had to overcome before I could place the insect body in my mouth, chew it, and finally swallow it. My stomach felt uneasy, as if doubting whether it was really food that I had just eaten, and I felt slightly nauseous and confused. That was the first time. Subsequently, it became easier and more natural with every time I ate crickets until the point now, at which for my mind and body, crickets are fully accepted in the category of food, and I enjoy trying out new ways to prepare them.
This aversion against eating an insectis a common reaction of people who have never eaten insects before and are presented with a whole cooked cricket. They hesitate, look away, shudder, close their eyes, make “disgusted” faces, shriek, and finally try and muster the courage to take a bite. This is usually quite an entertaining situation for all bystanders, and there is lots of laughter and talking, with people challenging each other to do it or to be the first to try. In those cases, people clearly have to overcome a substantial mental barrier, and their acceptance of crickets is clearly not as high as if they were offered a biscuit some other familiar food.
Studies on consumer acceptance or willingness to eat try to come to a deeper understanding of the underlying factors at play here. Questions include “How can acceptance be increased?” and “What roles do the presentation of the food, informative context, demonstration, and participation play?” Based on the literature, and my own findings, there are several factors that help in increasing acceptance. Information is one of them: in other words, telling and showing people that eating insects is normal, healthy, and done by billions of people worldwide. Next is the insect food itself: it needs to look appetizing, and especially smell and taste good. Sounds like a no-brainer, but there have been several cases in the Netherlands of insect products that were introduced in supermarkets but which lacked these basic qualities and subsequently were a failure. Considering food appropriateness is also important, in other words, preparing the right kind of food for the right kind of situation and audience. Another factor is demonstration: eating the insects first, for all to see, before offering it to people. What I consider the most powerful tool, however, is participation. If people are introduced to the topic and then invited to participate in creating dishes with crickets, for example in the context of a workshop, they seem to have a higher level of acceptance, in other words, ensuring that people are involved in washing, degutting, cooking, and arranging the insects as part of a meal. The idea is that cooking as a social activity places the insects at the center of a cultural culinary practice (Deroy et al., 2015) and thereby renders them socially acceptable ipso facto. Finally, authenticity of the prepared food should also be considered. One of the participants of this research introduced a recipe for a cricket dish from her home, South Vietnam: deep-fried crickets on a bed of finely grated cabbage, garnished with mint, peanuts, served with prawn crackers and a sour spicy dipping sauce. This is a recipe handed down from her mother. It is authentic because it has a definite geographic and cultural origin, which lends it a degree of authority that a newly created or improvised dish lacks. It is then not merely a dish with crickets, but a traditional dish and people relate to it as a proponent of (in-) tangible cultural heritage.
Conclusion: Better public relations for edible insects
From offering crickets in classes from primary to post graduate level, cooking with students, conducting workshops, vending at festivals, and engaging practically with this topic in numerous other ways, many different observations and finding are the outcome. People display very varied reactions. Taking a closer look at my vending booth at Fuli Harvest Festival in 2019, a visitor looked at the various cricket dishes on offer and expressed in an almost offended manner how disgusting that was. By contrast, another visitor came back with a big smile in her face to get a second helping of fried crickets, saying how delicious they were. Therefore, many unanswered questions remain, and more research regarding peoples’ perception and acceptance of edible insects should be conducted. At the same time, more effort should be spent on identifying traditional and new ways of cooking insects and processing them into a variety of delicious food products. The potential environmental benefit of having a local and more sustainable food source such as insects is certainly worth investigating. Regarding peoples’ acceptance of edible insects, a comparison to sushi is sometimes made in the literature. Previously, Westerners regarded the idea of eating raw fish as disgusting. It was only through a series of events and innovations, that began in the United States in the 1970s, that sushi slowly began being accepted by increasing numbers of people (Corson, 2007). Today it is a popular food worldwide, available in restaurants as well as in supermarkets throughout the Western world.
Because edible insects are now increasingly embraced by an educated and affluent Western middle-class, it is quite likely that their image will improve to the point that they will become more and more accepted in modern foodways around the world. Whether they will become really a mainstream or remain a niche product depends on how economically they can be farmed and how innovatively they can be made into food products among other factors. One thing seems clear though. For the first time in modern history, the tables have turned and we are seeing insects in a new way. Rather than regarding them as a nuisance and a pest, we are coming to view them as a convenient, nutritious, sustainable, and abundant food source. It is a bad news for insects, but potentially good news for humans and the natural environment.
Corson, T.(2007). The Zen of Fish: the Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket. New York: Harper.
Deroy, O., Reade, B. and Spence, C. (2015). The insectivore’s dilemma, and how to take the West out of it. Food Quality and Preference, 44, 44-55.
Foottit, R.G. & Adler, P. H. (2017). Insect biodiversity: Science and Society vol.1. New York: Wiley.
Looy, H. (2011). Entomophagy Reconsidered Part 7 – Are Educational “Bug Banquets” Effective? Entomological Society of America. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLKUmdoHwvE. Accessed March 27th, 2018.
Müller, A., Evans, J., Payne, C.L.R. and Roberts, R. (2016). Entomophagy and Power. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, 2, 121-136.
Raffles, H. (2010). Insectopedia. New York: Pantheon Books.
Smithsonian (2018). Numbers of Insects. Available at: https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/bugnos. Accessed March 27th, 2018.
Van Huis, A., Van Gurp, H. and Dicke, M. (2014). The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet. New York: Columbia University Press.
Vantomme, P. (2014). Insects to feed the world – Summary Report. Wageningen : United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and Wageningen University.