Overcoming the Yuckiness of Eating Bugs and Seaweed Can Help Save the World

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June 25 2012 6:15 AM

Why You Should Love Grasshopper Tacos and Kelp Pasta

How overcoming the yuck factor can help save the world.

Florentino Azpetia, chef at Girasoles restaurant in Mexico City, prepares a grasshopper taco (taco de chapulines), a typical Mexican delicacy, in the restaurant's kitchen 19 October 2001.
Florentino Azpetia, chef at Girasoles restaurant in Mexico City, prepares a grasshopper taco (taco de chapulines), a typical Mexican delicacy, in the restaurant's kitchen on Oct. 19 2001

Photograph by Jorge Uzon/AFP/Getty Images.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on the future of food.

About 200 years ago, the lobster was regarded by most Americans as a filthy, bottom-feeding scavenger unfit for consumption by civilized people. Frequently ground up and used as fertilizer, the crustacean was, at best, poor people’s food. In fact, in some colonies, the lobster was the subject of laws—laws that forbade feeding it to prisoners more than once a week because that was “cruel and unusual” treatment.

Things obviously changed for the one-time prisoner’s grub. It’s a gastronomic delicacy, the star of festivals, subject of odes to New England summers, a peer of prime rib.

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I’m telling the story of the rise of lobster (as described in David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Gourmet piece “Consider the Lobster”) because it’s a tale of hope, a shining example of triumph over the yuck factor.

Much of the conversation about how to solve the coming food crisis caused by soaring population, diminishing resources, and a warming planet focuses rightly on technology, reducing waste, and improving food access and distribution methods. But equal urgency needs to be devoted to simply broadening our appetites. Two food sources that strike many as unpalatable—insects and seaweed—could play a critical role in not only feeding the 2.5 billion extra humans expected by 2050, but doing so in a green, climate-friendly way.

With the exception of honey (bee vomit), insects pretty much reside in Fear Factor and Bizarre Foods country. If you’re not familiar with the bug-food phobia, consider March’s Frappuccino incident. A barista revealed that Starbucks was using cochineal beetles to color its strawberry frap, prompting headlines like “Starbucks Lovers Bug Out Over Creepy Frappuccino Incident.” Within weeks, Starbucks apologized, replacing the beetle juice with tomato-extract coloring. The point: Insects are overwhelming viewed as filthy, creepy, dangerous, inedible—and not just to vegans.

But this prejudice against eating insects—four-fifths of all known organisms on earth—is slowly starting to change. A growing number of people are beginning to recognize that bugs, such as mealworms, grasshoppers, and crickets, may be the ultimate sustainable protein source. In fact, in January 2012, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization held an insect summit of sorts—37 international experts gathered in Rome to discuss the role of insects in achieving global food security.

Many insects are what you might call superfood—rich in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, high in essential vitamins and minerals like calcium and iron. More important, insects are green super-foods. Bugs are cold-blooded (they don’t waste energy to stay warm), so they’re far more efficient at converting feed to meat than cattle or pigs. Ten grams of feed produces one gram of beef or three grams of pork, but it can yield nine grams of edible insect meat, according research from Arnold van Huis, an entomologist at Wageningen University. Yet insects still have virtually the same amount of protein as beef or pork. A 100-gram portion of grasshopper meat contains 20.6 grams of protein, just 7 grams less than an equivalent portion of beef.

If the protein numbers and energy efficiency don’t move you to try a grilled locust, consider this: Insects use a fraction of the water and land of conventional livestock, plus they’re climate-friendly. According to van Huis’ research, breeding edible insects, like locusts and crickets, emits just 10 percent of the methane from livestock and about 0.3 percent of the nitrous oxide. Insects are also natural recyclers that thrive on paper and industrial wastes—stuff that would normally be trashed.

Insect-eating doesn’t have a yuck factor in most of the world. Venezuelans eat French-fried ants. Ghanaians eat bread made out of termites. Thailand has more than 15,000 locust farmers. As pro-bug people like to point out, 70 percent of the world's population eats more than 1,400 insects.

Fear of insect eating is peculiar to North Americans and Europeans. Advocates of a global surge in “micro livestock”—that’s the euphemistic term some like to apply to insect farming—are trying to challenge the phobia.

The European Union has offered 3 million euros to member states that promote the use of insects in cooking. The Dutch government has given $1.3 million to support insect-husbandry research. A barbecued ant-eating festival in the Netherlands in 2006 attracted more than 20,000. You can now buy mealworms, buffalo worms, and locusts—as well as products containing insects, like Bug Sticks and Bug Nuggets—at Sligro, the Dutch equivalent of Costco.

For years, a small group of American entomologists have been tireless promoting bug-eating with books like Creepy Crawly Cuisine and The Food Insects Newsletter, but now the foodies and entrepreneurs are helping. José Andrés, last year’s James Beard Outstanding Chef winner, serves a popular chapulin taco stuffed with Oaxacan-style dried grasshoppers at his D.C. restaurant Oyamel. Andrés raves about not only the mouthfeel of young crispy grasshoppers, but also their sustainability and benefit to humanity. Insect-dishes are starting to show up on daring restaurant menus—flatbread made out of roasted cricket, pan-fried locusts, stir-fried silk worm larvae, and chocolate-covered scorpions. Others take a different approach: The Chicago start-up Entom Foods aims to deshell insects with a pressurization technique, so that insect meat is in cutlet form. The idea is that Americans will be more willing to embrace grasshoppers and ants if they’re unrecognizable. Get ready for mealworms shaped as hamburgers and shrimp.

The yuck isn’t the only challenge to industrial-scale insect farming. You’d have to eat roughly 100 grasshoppers to equal the amount of protein in a 12-ounce steak. But at a time when 1 billion people are chronically hungry, and when the raising of livestock already takes up two-thirds of the world’s farmland and generates 20 percent of greenhouse gas emission, class Insecta, subphylum Hexapoda needs to be more aggressively explored as a food source.

Another vastly underexplored food source, with yuck factor issues, is kelp. Now the idea of farming plants in the oceans isn’t new. In 1973, Soylent Green portrayed a world in which people eat wafer-like rations supposedly made from plankton (emphasis on “supposedly”). In the post-World War II era, some idealistic scientists enthused about the idea of solving human food needs with a fast-growing, protein-packed algae called chlorella. Plankton soup, the food historian Warren Belasco reports, was even served at a Venezuelan leper colony.

Plankton soup and algae burgers didn’t take hold, and I didn’t seriously consider the possibilities of marine plants until an aquaculture consultant named John Forster pointed me to an eye-opening essay he authored called “Towards a Marine Agronomy.” Forster revives the argument that, given demographic projections, the sea must play a much greater role in food security.

Oceans are the slackers of food production—they cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, yet yield 2 percent of our food. Two percent. And it's not because we haven't done a good job catching or growing fish.

Forster, an aquaculture veteran, argues that the greatest promise of sustainable aquaculture isn’t in efficiently raised finfish or shellfish. Nor is it in lower-on-the-marine-chain seafood, like sardines or anchovies, as sustainability-mind chefs like Barton Seaver and Bun Lai have advocated. The panacea is at the very, very bottom of the marine food chain: phytoplankton.

The virtues of phytoplankton (which include algae and seaweeds) as a primary food sources are many. Kelp, a type of seaweed, is nutrient-rich, low in fat, and grows at turbo-speed. Often described as the tree of the sea, kelp grows nine to 12 feet in three months—without freshwater, deforestation, or fertilizer. And because it’s the one of the fastest-growing plants on earth, kelp draws down a lot of carbon. In fact, a World Bank study showed that the production process of seaweed farms could actually have a negative carbon footprint, absorbing 20 percent more carbon dioxide than it emits per cycle. In another study, Ronald Osinga of Wageningen University in the Netherlands estimates that just 1 percent of the Earth's ocean surface—an area roughly the size of the state of Washington—would be needed to grow an amount of seaweed equal to all of the food plants currently farmed on land.

Marine agronomy is not a novel concept in Asia, where seaweed has long been a staple crop. But Asian countries have increasingly recognized that the long strands of red, green, and brown seaweed found on beaches could play a much greater role in their food production. As Brendan Smith reported in the Atlantic last year, Japan and South Korea have invested millions in kelp farming, while the Philippines has increased sea farming by more than 100 times in recent years.  

In the United States, though, seaweed is still largely off the menu, save for an appearance as an appetizer at Japanese restaurants. That’s changing.

Seaweed is starting to appear under the more palate-pleasing names like “sea vegetables” or “sea lettuce.” Two Maine companies, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables and Ocean Approved, are paving the way, introducing a host of seaweed derived products—kelp noodles, kelp energy bars, kelp pickles, seaweed-flavored tortilla chips. And they’re starting to show that is not a monolith—there’s a stunning of diversity of sea flora, with names such as Irish Moss and Digitalia, Lave, and Bladderwrack.

Although plankton soup is not likely to appear soon, marine agronomy will inevitably contribute a larger role in the world’s food production—whether it’s as “sea vegetables,” as livestock feed, or as ingredients in processed foods.

About two years ago, I put together my first Perfect Sustainable Meal. It’s intended to be symbolic, an effort to make the simple point: There is no silver bullet. Feeding the world in a sustainable way will require a mix of strategies—some natural and ancient, others high-tech, and, yes, yucky-seeming. So let’s toast to the perfect sustainable meal of the future, version 2.0:

Appetizer: a locally-grown mesclun mix (from a farmers market)

Main course: a grilled barramundi filet (raised in a recirculating aquaculture system) served on a bed of kelp pasta, accompanied with a Hawaiian papaya (genetically engineered)

Desert: a chocolate-covered grasshopper

Also in the special issue on food: five “food frontiers," including technologies to make diet food tastier and fight salmonella; small-scale farmers decide whether to embrace automated agricultural equipment; why the electric rice cooker may be the most important kitchen tool of the future; how we can feed ourselves in space; the United States and Europe switch perspectives on GMOs; celebrating the inevitable decline of the cookbook; and the case for bringing back home ec. This project arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.

Josh Schonwald is a Chicago journalist and the author of The Taste of Tomorrow: Dispatches From the Future of Food

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