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Why We Should All Eat Bugs

Mike Rothman frys periodical cicadas, harvested in their teneral stage, on June 04, 2021 in Hyattsville, Maryland.   (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mike Rothman frys periodical cicadas, harvested in their teneral stage, on June 04, 2021 in Hyattsville, Maryland. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Years ago, we treated some dinner guests to silkworms sautéed in olive oil. No, our guests didn’t unfriend us. The bugs, gifted to me by a friend originally from South Korea, were a supplement to our standard American fare.

Opinions differed as to what the worms tasted like. Some thought beans. I voted for liverwurst, though that was based on long-ago memories of elementary school lunches that permanently turned me off that meat. (It’s utterly off the menu in my vegetarian adulthood.) I enjoyed them, dipped in dijon mustard, more than my guests. No one retched, which makes Americans’ instinctive ick seem gastronomically timid if not neurotic.

I’m rarely ahead of the cultural curve. But I beat the European Union’s food safety regulators, who just got around to making mealworms the first insects to receive their safe-to-eat benediction (except for people with prawn and dust mite allergies). And this winter, a TIME piece asked: “They’re Healthy. They’re Sustainable. So Why Don’t Humans Eat More Bugs?”

Westerners’ standard response, which is to gag, is no less real for being emotional. (No matter that parts of the world consider insects a delicacy.) Good capitalists are experimenting with workarounds, making products like insect-based flour and protein bars to avoid serving the critters straight, in the exoskeleton. Investors should support these entrepreneurs.

The rest of us should educate ourselves about the benefits of bug-eating, starting with the environment.

The author sautéed silkworms in olive oil for a dinner party. (Courtesy Kathleen Burge)
The author sautéed silkworms in olive oil for a dinner party. (Courtesy Kathleen Burge)

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry calls 2021 a potentially make-or-break year for slowing global warming. TIME quoted entomologists and the United Nations, who argue that cultivating bugs could replace a lot of livestock as a protein source. A projection and a fact undergird that summons.

The projection: By 2050, 9 billion people will live on Earth, demanding a doubling of food production.

The fact: Farmed animals, including poultry, take up more than 80% of global farmland and spew 60% of agriculture's greenhouse gases, yet yield only 37% of consumed protein. That’s a cost-benefit ratio that would appeal only to the guys who wrote Donald Trump’s tax cut. (Remember all the jobs it created? Neither do the data collectors.)

By contrast, insect-farming would gobble up fewer resources, and compared with pork production, it spits out a fraction of the greenhouse gases per kilogram of food.

My South Korean friend’s native country is one of several insect-snacking cultures that are trying to profit from bug cultivation. Research, farming and marketing entrepreneurs are sprouting globally. Mass-marketing edible insects will require finding ways to industrialize production of what are, after all, tiny animals and, in countries like ours, overcoming that ick factor.

“I’d rather eat dirt,” a co-worker once remarked on hearing about entomophagy (I had to look up the word, too). Even a cricket expert interviewed by TIME took three tries to choke down the subject of his studies, finding, to his surprise, that he liked them.

Grossing out over guzzling grasshoppers makes little sense when you consider other things we eagerly eat. Who looks at the living, moving versions of calamari or lobster roll and thinks, yum?

The rest of us should educate ourselves about the benefits of bug-eating, starting with the environment.

Meanwhile, could vegetarians and vegans get on board with bug-eating? In such matters I turn to the famed philosopher Peter Singer. As a vegan, he takes this stuff seriously; as a writer, his 1975 book "Animal Liberation" launched the modern animal welfare movement. A thoughtful if controversial thinker who's open to new evidence, Singer’s views have evolved. A dozen years ago, he didn’t lose sleep killing a cockroach. But in 2017, new research gave him cause for pause, arguing that insects might be capable of subjective experience, “the most basic form of consciousness,” Singer wrote. If true, that would elevate them above plants and animals such as jellyfish and roundworms.

“That does not mean that we should launch a campaign for insect rights,” he concluded. “We still do not know enough about insect subjective experiences to do that; and, in any case, the world is far from being ready to take such a campaign seriously. We need first to complete the extension of serious consideration to the interests of vertebrate animals, about whose capacity for suffering there is much less doubt.”

Singer’s first-things-first approach would be only the start of ethical reckoning. Even if bugs can suffer, that surely takes second place to preserving the planet from climate change, which harms some insects (while benefiting others). Moreover, it’s hard to envision majorities of well-meaning people equating human and insect welfare. If feeding humans, for whom hunger is a horrific aspect of their vast consciousness, requires eating insects with vastly less consciousness, doing so will be an unstoppable moral steamroller, unless we someday replace all animal foods with plant-based alternatives.

Advocates of confirmatory research about arthropod consciousness have a point. But we shouldn’t forget that human health, and the planet’s, may hinge on munching mealworms with our Merlot.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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