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Ants in your rice? Eat up if researchers succeed in growing bugs for food

It's not just Asians. Scientists in the US, who study insects, are thinking harder about how to turn them into good food.

Ants in your rice? Eat up if researchers succeed in growing bugs for food

Rice pilaf and termites, prepared by Brooklyn Bugs, a company that promotes entomophagy. (Photo: Justin Butner/The New York Times)

Repeat after me: Entomophagy. It’s derived from Greek and Latin: “Entomon”, meaning “insect”, and “phagus”, as in “feeding on”. Some think it’s the future of food.

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report declaring the need to swap traditional protein sources for insects to support a sustainable future. The report helped drive an explosion of efforts all dedicated to making mealworms your next meal.

Some experts think that entomophagy is the future of food. (Photo: Pixabay)

Presenters at a 2018 conference in Georgia, Eating Insects Athens, published papers this month in a special issue of the Annals of the Entomological Society of America. The volume showed how people who study insects scientifically are now spending more time thinking about eating them. Here are some highlights of what the researchers found.

READ: Ants, crickets and cockroaches - healthy snacks that taste like potato chips

THANK CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

When Christopher Columbus returned from the Americas, he and members of his expedition used the insect-eating of the native inhabitants as an example of savagery, and as justification for dehumanising people he would later enslave, said Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University and author of Edible Insects And Human Evolution.

While Aristotle and Pliny the Elder both indulged, Christopher Columbus ascribed the insect-eating of indigenous inhabitants of the New World to savagery. (Photo: An Rong Xu/The New York Times)

While it wasn’t the only factor, the colonial era deepened the stigmatisation of entomophagy in mainland Europe, and in turn, among European settlers in the Americas. Further distaste grew as insects threatened profitable agricultural monocultures supported by slavery and industrialisation.

It wasn’t always that way. Aristotle loved cicadas. Pliny the Elder preferred beetle larvae. They weren’t that different from insect eaters among other cultures on other continents.

READ: Food of the future? Five-star edible insects served up as Thailand gets creative with bug business

THOSE WHO EXPERIENCED COLONIALISM MAY LEAD THE WAY

Evidence of insects in written reports, fossilised faeces and mummies found in caves across North America, and corroboration from nearly every other continent, suggest humans have valued insects as food for millenniums.

Today, billions of people still consume more than 2,100 insect species worldwide. Even in the United States, Kutzadika’a people or “fly eaters” cherish salty pupae from Mono Lake in California.

Evidence of humans eating insects for millenniums has been found in fossilised faeces. (Photo: Pixabay)

Some shoppers may be following suit, purchasing popular cricket flour and protein bars from manufacturers like Chapul in specialty shops and on Amazon. That company is named after an Aztec word for cricket, and pitches itself to customers as aiming to reduce water usage by livestock in the American West and connecting with native cultures’ food knowledge.

UNDOING CENTURIES OF ENTOMOPHAGY-PHOBIA

Many of us were programmed early in life to fear insects, and developing an appetite for them won’t be easy. “It’s okay if you think it’s gross. It’s totally fine,” said Dr Lesnik. “You didn’t ask to be programmed this way.”

But entomophagy advocates think reprogramming can transform people’s attitudes toward insects. For instance, kale, sushi, lobster and even olive oil or tomatoes were once scorned and unfamiliar in some cultures.

Dead black soldier flies, which eat waste and convert it to protein. (Photo: Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

But change can come about. With education and by acknowledging negative feelings toward eating insects, adults can try to resist passing them to their children.

“It will really benefit them if they don’t think bugs are gross,” she added. “Because it’s our kids’ generation that’s going to have to be able to solve those problems.”

STILL, INSECTS AREN’T YET BEEF OR CHICKEN

In the United States, black soldier flies, good at converting waste products to protein, have long been used as feed for poultry and farmed fish.

READ: Microplastics may enter foodchain through mosquitoes

To better understand how to produce more of them, researchers have just characterised their reproductive systems – from the tracts’ shapes to the sperm tails’ lengths. They have also discovered that larvae raised in relatively low densities are more likely to survive, grow heavier at each life stage and develop more quickly.

That kind of research could be a model for eventually mass producing other insects for human consumption, like mealworms or crickets, which we’re a long way off from growing in ways that could feed the masses. While years of agricultural research have guided industry regulations aiming to make beef, poultry and pork healthier and safer, and less wasteful of what they eat, similar research and rules for most insects are a long way off.

Scientists are studying insects' reproductive systems to figure out how to produce them in large quantities for food. (Photo: Pixabay)

WHEN INSECTS ARE AND ARE NOT FILTHY

Here’s a conundrum: When an insect is in our food, the Food and Drug Administration considers it “filth”. But as long as manufactured insects are “free from filth, pathogens, toxins,” the Department of Agriculture says it’s food.

While regulations are clear about insect food sales, they’re more like guidelines for insect food and feed production. The lack of stronger regulations may be limiting the number of insect-based foods on the market today.

READ: Rotten shark made you queasy? A vomit bag for every guest at the Disgusting Food Museum

Even if consumers become more comfortable with the idea of eating insects, they won’t stay that way without specific regulations meant to ensure quality and safety. That’s a goal supported by industry groups like the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture, recently formed, in part, to work with regulators as more bugs are introduced into our diets.

By JoAnna Klein © The New York Times

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