This vision of food's future could have legs – but rather more than you might like.

Nutritious, abundant and easy to farm in density, edible insects should be the answer to a raft of environmental worries – were it not for the 'yuck' factor. But could that change?

Tuesday, September 1, 2020,
By Dominic Bliss
A collection of edible bugs, including crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms, beetles, scorpions, and locusts. All are ...

A collection of edible bugs, including crickets, grasshoppers, buffalo worms, beetles, scorpions, and locusts. All are potentially high protein and very sustainable and quickly-reared produce for human consumption. But they're probably not making you hungry.

Photograph by Tim Gainey / Alamy

In his recent book, Insects: An Edible Field Guide, writer and insectivore Stefan Gates recommends 12 British creepy-crawlies for the dinner plate. Among them are meadow grasshoppers (“crunchy and nutty with a strong umami hit”), black garden ants (“pleasantly zesty”), and speckled bush crickets (“a cross between ready salted crisps and roast chicken”). All fairly palatable if cooked correctly and consumed with an open mind. 

There is one item, however, on Gates’ menu that would challenge even the most adventurous of gourmands. (Look away now, if you are of a tender disposition.) That’s the giant house spider. Yes, with the straightest of faces, Gates suggests we deep-fry them before tossing them in salt and paprika. “The eating experience is mainly crunch and funky-tasting juice,” he claims, “but there’s a savoury protein punch from a plate of them.” 

The giant house spider. Not the natural choice for a snack – but surprisingly interesting to the palate, according to some.

Photograph by Tim Gainey / Alamy

That’s the problem with eating arthropods. In the Western world, at least, they tend to turn stomachs. Elsewhere, though, they are a regular feature on the menu. Across many parts of Asia, Africa and Central and South America, entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) is perfectly normal. Diners will happily pop beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets into their mouths. According to a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (a United Nations agency), “insects form part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people”, with over 1,900 species on the menu. “In most Western countries, however, people view entomophagy with disgust and associate eating insects with primitive behaviour,” the report adds.

No such squeamishness at Pembrokeshire-based Bug Farm Foods and its accompanying restaurant Grub Kitchen. Here, the husband-and-wife team of entomologist Dr Sarah Beynon and chef Andy Holcroft study insect farming (although they don't carry it out on a commercial scale), and offer the odd creepy-crawly (mealworms, crickets, grasshoppers and ants) on the restaurant menu. They recently developed an insect and plant-based mince which they hope will feature in school dinners across Pembrokeshire when education re-starts post-coronavirus. “We aim to turn entomophagy from a novelty to normalcy,” they state boldly.

A cricket farm in Dalat, Vietnam. 

Photograph by Godong / Alamy

Insects on sale in Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok. Insects are commonly sold as street food in the Far East and Africa, and commonly appear in cuisine in countries such as Mexico. 

Photograph by Deen Qeramit / Alamy

Across the other side of the country, in the back garden of a west London family home, there’s another small-scale insect farming operation called Horizon Edible Insects. Run by Tiziana Di Costanzo, it produces mainly mealworms, but some crickets, for sale to the public, and offers insect cookery classes. Before COVID-19 struck, it was farming around 50kgs of mealworm larvae a month.

“We’ve sold some to London restaurants,” Di Costanzo tells National Geographic. “But chefs are generally reluctant to have live animals in the kitchen. Mexican chefs are more used to the idea because they already have insects in some of their traditional meals.” 

In a large shed, Di Constanzo keeps her mealworm livestock in multiple trays stacked high. She feeds them on fruit and vegetables discarded by local greengrocers. Once ready for the plate – and crucially, before they mature into beetles – she places the larvae in a fridge to encourage hibernation, before finishing them off in the freezer. “It’s humane,” she insists. “We say our abattoir is our fridge.” Most end up ground down into powder and used as a protein sprinkle for standard dishes.

“We sprinkle cricket powder on our porridge,” she adds. “We put it in a pizza base. You can enrich bread with insect flour. We add it to spaghetti or make mealworm burgers. We are constantly developing new recipes.”

“Thirty years ago, if you said there will be a sushi bar on every corner in London and Birmingham people would have laughed at you.”

Dr Howard Bell

One British farmer who has reared insects on a much larger scale is Dr Howard Bell, in eastern Cumbria. A couple of years ago, as a side project on the family sheep farm, he was producing thousands of crickets and mealworms. The latter were the most viable since they require less maintenance, less space and happily munch away at crushed cereal crops. But Bell, who now runs an entomology consultancy called Highfield Biological Consulting, abandoned his bugs after it became clear he would have to invest huge amounts of money in infrastructure, machinery and staff to make it a viable business. 

His story is similar to other British experiences in insect farming. After a flurry of small-scale farms which sprang up in the 2010s, most, like Bell’s, have since folded – leaving just a handful of tiny ventures still operating. As well as Bug Farm Foods and Horizon Edible Insects, other examples include Six Legs Farm in Worcestershire and Instar Farming in Lincolnshire. 

Nevertheless, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation continues to promote insects as a nutritious and environmentally friendly food for humans. (Also for farm animals, but that’s a separate issue). “Insects as food and feed emerge as an especially relevant issue in the 21stcentury due to the rising cost of animal protein, food and feed insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes,” they state.

When it comes to replacing some of the world’s mammal and poultry farming with insect farming, the environmental benefits are clear. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, crickets are 12 times more efficient in converting feed to meat than cattle are, for example. They require far less water over their lifetime and far less farmland. A study from Wageningen University in the Netherlands estimated that, in comparison to beef cattle, mealworms require a tenth of the land space to produce similar amounts of protein. They also calculated that mealworm larvae, crickets and locusts emit miniscule amounts of greenhouse gas and ammonia compared to notoriously windy cattle; “lower by a factor of about 100”.

In 2015, Jumbo stores in the Netherlands began selling burgers made of Buffalo worms, citing the low-impact nature of insect farming and potential health benefits. Sainsbury's was the first major grocer in the UK to stock bugs on the shelves in 2018, with Eat Grub Roasted Crickets. 

Photograph by Nick Gammon / Alamy

So why are large-scale insect farms not more prevalent? Dr Bell says it’s naïve to expect the world’s major food producers to suddenly switch from mammal and poultry to insects. “What are the chances of the insect industry replacing 300 million tonnes of animal tissue annually any time soon? The answer is zero,” he says. “Cattle farmers in Argentina aren’t suddenly going to start producing insects instead.”

He also recognises that creepy crawlies will need a very canny marketing drive before they ever become a regular fixture on menus in the west. “Insect foods will probably take off when the insect is not identifiable as such; when you just know you’re eating protein derived from an insect, as opposed to an actual invertebrate.”

Or as Dr Beynon stresses: “Getting over the yuck factor is a major barrier to insects being incorporated in our everyday diets.”

A cheese platter with the novel addition of mealworms. Many in the field of entomophagy believe younger palates will grow to appreciate the positive aspects of – and be less squeamish about – insects as a human food source.

Photograph by Creadius / Alamy

There are precedents. As Bell points out, just a generation ago raw fish, for example, was anathema to the western palate. “I always use the example of sushi. Thirty years ago, if you said there will be a sushi bar on every corner in London and Birmingham, serving raw fish, people would have laughed at you.”

In 2019 three academics from Imperial College London published a survey with a group of London schoolchildren and their parents, assessing the potential of insects as mainstream food. They reported “a promising picture of the insect market in the West,” but stressed multiple marketing strategies would be needed: exposure to insects at an early age, for example, as well as education in entomophagy, competitive pricing, celebrity endorsement, peer-to-peer marketing, and crucially, no visible body parts. 

Back at Horizon Edible Insects in west London, Di Costanzo agrees that entomophagy will be more acceptable to younger palates. “Amongst millennials there is no squeamishness,” she says. “It’s more the older generations who have objections. And now people have perhaps travelled to Thailand or China and seen how easily insects are consumed. It’s just a matter of trying them once before you realise it’s not such a big fuss, because they taste okay.”

Then again, she has never sampled the “crunch and funky-tasting juice” of the giant house spider.

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