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Sarah Jane Keller | May 23, 2013 09:10 AM

When I was in middle school my Dad and I were catching grasshoppers for fishing bait, but we ended up in the kitchen frying them instead. Since it’s hard to go wrong deep-frying anything, they were kind of tasty, like popcorn. In a Calvin and Hobbes-inspired move, I decided to take some to school and add shock value to my lunch. For some reason I remember grossing out only the boys at my table, and probably ruined any subsequent chances for youthful romance.

What I couldn’t understand is why some people find eating grasshoppers so disgusting. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is wondering the same thing in a new report [pdf] titled Edible Insects: Prospects for food and feed security. The authors hope to start a discussion about virtues of entomophagy (that’s the eating of insects) as more than a stunt, fad, or foodie trend. As we careen towards an estimated human population of nine billChinaInsectson people by 2050, the UN wants us to think of minibeasts as a legitimate way to deal with current or impending global food insecurity and inefficiencies in our food system.

According to the report, insects can often serve as nutritional stand-ins for chicken, pork, beef and fish. And the environmental benefits of raising arthropods for food are abundant. Since insects are cold-blooded, they are efficient at converting feed into protein: “Crickets, for example, need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” And, if that’s not enough, “minilivestock”, as they are called, don’t necessarily require land for rearing—they can even be used as feed for other stock, while taking up less space and resources than fishmeal or soy.

Plus, nearly everyone else is doing it. As many as two billion people around the world eat insects, and 1900 species have been identified as edible, mostly from the tropics. The larvae of yellow jacket wasps are popular in Japan. In Niger, grasshoppers are a treat at roadside stands, and markets. In one study, researchers found that the insects caught in millet fields were fetching a higher price in local markets than the millet. Palm weevil larvae are the most commonly eaten beetles in the tropics.

So why are insects not eaten more widely in western countries? One idea the authors propose has to do with domesticating mammals. Compared to caterpillars, cattle provide much more than food: shelter, transportation, plowing fields, or as a milk source. And since 13 out of 14 of the world’s domesticated mammals are from Eurasia (llamas are from Americas), Westerners had little need to turn to bugs as food sources. Plus, insects aren’t as reliably available in temperate climates, anyway.

Since religion influences so much of Western culture, maybe you’re wondering if the Bible has played a role in cultural dislike of insects. Turns out it doesn’t: the study’s authors recount a number of times where the Bible says dining on locusts is a-okay. There’s even a story about a Danish priest who, in 2012, did a live demonstration of the story of John the Baptist, who “did eat locust and wild honey,” in the book of Mark. At least one person complained to the bishop about it, and “left the church due to the priest’s stunt of eating grasshoppers.”

According to the report, insect aversion ultimately comes down to culture, and people from the wealthy, Western world are inexplicable grossed-out by eating insects. It could have something to do with the shared experience of insects-as-pests, eating your crops, biting you, and carrying diseases. (And I didn’t see this in the report, but compared to mammals or poultry, honestly, insects kinda have a texture problem if you can afford the later.)

In the West, Mormon crickets, along with grasshoppers and crickets, can be such a pestilence (I mean potentially abundant food source) that during a 2003 infestation the Idaho transportation department posted signs warning of “cricket slicks”—worse than black ice, as noted in High Country News. The voracious hopping herbivores were also abundant in the late 1800’s, when Mormon settlers fresh off the wagon train lost their crops due to lack of rain and a surplus of grasshoppers. Florence Dunkel, a Montana State University entomologist who calls edible insects “land shrimp,” contributed a story about those settlers to the UN report.

With a harsh winter bearing down, the settlers turned to the nearby Ute people, who supplied the Mormons with delicious and nutritious “prairie cakes.” When the settlers learned that in addition to serviceberries and nuts, Katydids were the main ingredients in the tasty cakes, they didn’t seem so tasty anymore. The Mormons were so put off that they stopped partaking of the cakes. That katydid is now called the Mormon cricket, even if Mormons don’t like to eat them today.

So far this year’s rangeland grasshopper forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in on the low end, calling for zero to eight grasshoppers or Mormon crickets per square yard over much of the Western U.S. But if you want to make your own prairie cakes, I’m sure there will still be plenty land shrimp available to harvest.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News intern.

Insects for sale in mainland China by Renato Morbach via Flickr Commons

Photo of Mormon cricket wearing a radio tracker courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This year’s grasshopper and Mormon cricket forecast courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Alexander Mensing
Alexander Mensing
May 23, 2013 02:27 PM
Awesome. Let's start a prarie cake collective. I've been enjoying three or four different kinds of insect foods - chapulines (crickets), a beetle I forget the name of, chinicuiles (worms) and escaramoles (ant eggs) - in Mexico!
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
May 23, 2013 03:40 PM
I think there is a lot of cultural reluctance to eat anything one is not used to. For a while I lived in a place where insects are still a food of choice not necessity. At the market prices usually exceed the cost of pork or fish. The way I overcame my involuntary revulsion was to try them once when I was hungry.

I had an 8 AM appointment with someone from the provincial agriculture department at his house. When I got there his wife was gently sauteing a kilo of water buffalo dung beetles in a dry wok with a few drops of soy sauce. It was easy to actually taste the critter and they were very good. Ever since I’ll try anything with six legs.

As with any wild source of food, understanding where it comes from and how to harvest it broadens one’s understanding and appreciation. The fish you catch yourself tastes better. I blogged about preparing the ant eggs from the nest by our back door here. http://laobumpkin.blogspot.[…]daeng-red-ant-egg-soup.html

I would think that until a way can be found to economically harvest insects here in America they will have a hard time catching on. The delicate flavor doesn’t lend itself to canning. It does seem a shame we spend so much effort to kill insects eating our crops, and we could be eating them.

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