There are many environmental reasons to eat insects. But first you have to get past the ick factor.
By Peter Frick-Wright
A watershed hydrologist by training, Crowley was born in Phoenix and has spent most of his life in the Colorado River Basin. He has a beach bum's blond mane and a laid-back comportment left over from a stint as a surfing instructor, but he's also the type to measure trail runs in hours. After graduate school, his work quantifying agricultural water use and helping cities hash out water rights left him feeling increasingly frustrated with the prospects for changing the country's water management systems.
Then, one day in June 2011, he was riding Salt Lake mass transit and listening to a TED Talk by Dutch entomology professor Marcel Dicke. Give a cow 10 pounds of feed and you get 1 pound of cow, Dicke explained. Give crickets 10 pounds of feed and you get 9 pounds of cricket.
Something clicked. Crowley knew that growing alfalfa for cattle was the biggest single use of water from the Colorado River. In fact, agriculture sucks up more than 90 percent of the freshwater consumed by humans worldwide. Beef requires 15.8 gallons of water per gram of protein; pork, 5.8; chicken, 5.2; and soy, 1.6. Crickets require only 0.8. He started crunching the numbers about how much water could be saved if we got even a small portion of our protein from insects—and he started getting very excited.
The crispy layer of chitin burst open, exposing a soft but not quite gooey interior. It was like a peanut butter–filled pretzel with legs.
Over the next year, Crowley studied how to start a company, picking the brain of anyone in the food industry he could take out to lunch. Last July, his Kickstarter campaign raised $16,000. Making cricket bars throughout the fall in a local kitchen and selling them primarily online, he ran out of his stock by Thanksgiving. This February he hired his first employee. By March, Chapul bars were for sale in 50 stores, mostly natural foods grocers, in 11 states.
Each bar costs $3, but the ingredients aren't exactly cheap, Crowley noted. "It's a good thing that I don't have a business background," he said. "Because I don't know if what I'm doing is a bad idea."
But bugs may not always be relegated to specialty grocers. Two years ago in the Netherlands, a chain of Costco-like stores called Sligro began carrying freeze-dried locusts, mealworms, and other whole insects supplied by Dutch company Bugs Originals. The company also makes a prepackaged product called Bugs Nuggets, which are 80 percent chicken and 20 percent mealworms.
If bugs do find their way onto American shelves, Chapul may not be there alone. Bug Muscle, a start-up in Southern California, is pursuing an insect-based protein supplement for bodybuilders, mixed martial artists, and survivalists—folks who don't care what they're eating so long as it gives them the right type of nutrition, founder Dianne Guilfoyle said.
Like Crowley, Guilfoyle had to learn how to launch a company to get Bug Muscle off the ground. Unlike Crowley, she is marketing and refining her product by giving out samples at cage fights and eyeing a contract with the U.S. military.
Bug Muscle's end goal, however, dovetails nicely with Chapul's.
"We're trying to take the yuck factor out of the American mind-set," Guilfoyle said. "I don't want to stay a small company. I want it to go big."
No matter how big entomophagy becomes, though, it won't take up much room.
Recently, Dutch scientists Dennis Oonincx and Imke de Boer of Wageningen University (the same school where Dicke teaches) analyzed the production of mealworms and found that it requires only one-tenth of the land required to raise an equivalent amount of beef.
"We consider the low [land use] of mealworms to be particularly important," they wrote in the journal PLOS ONE. "Expansion of agricultural land is a major source of [greenhouse gas] production."
Like mealworms, crickets are remarkably space-efficient to raise because they prefer dark, teeming environments. A cricket farm is essentially a concentrated animal feeding operation—without the suffering.
At Timberline Live Pet Food in Marion, Illinois, one of the largest cricket farms in the country, pens are stacked vertically 12 feet tall, which makes for 2.4 million square feet of useful production space in a 200,000-square-foot facility. And with property set aside and builders at the ready, owner Todd Goodman said, his ability to expand the operation is virtually infinite.
So far, though, he sells crickets only as pet food. Last year, 10 companies approached him looking to buy them for human food. And Goodman said he's willing, though he hasn't come to terms with anyone yet. But while he stands to profit from increased consumption, he's not exactly cheerleading the concept.
"I've never eaten a cricket, and I'm not gonna," Goodman said. "And I'm certainly not going to encourage you."
Throughout human history, most agricultural innovations have involved dominating the natural environment. We rerouted rivers and harnessed wild animals to feed ourselves, then fertilized the soil with natural and artificial nitrogen. We engineered cornstalks to grow unnaturally close together and crossbred wheat into a more efficient version of itself.
But entomophagy represents an adaptation in our way of thinking. If we make bugs a regular part of our diet, it means we are responding and adjusting to our environment rather than the other way around. And it's happening without panic or famine, just a slightly shy tummy.
Near the end of our day at the Great Salt Lake, as Crowley and I hiked the shoreline, we stopped for lunch on the leeward side of a rocky outcropping. Snacking on pita bread and mangoes, we discussed the superiority of bugs as a food source. Suddenly Crowley lunged forward and plucked a grasshopper from the grass near his feet. We'd just been talking about how insects and humans are biologically different enough that we aren't likely to pass diseases between species, but I still wasn't quite ready for what came next.
"You want to split this?" he said.
I had just eaten, and the grasshopper was still twitching, and there was a bit of green ooze seeping from its abdomen. But the thing about entomophagy is that unlike with most of our food, the more you learn about bugs, the better they start to sound.
I took it from him and considered my options.
"Cheers," I said.
Peter Frick-Wright is a frequent contributor to
Sierra. His previous story was "The Last of the Southwest" (July/August 2012).
David George Gordon's Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, Revised: 40 Ways to Cook Crickets, Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes, and Their Kin (Ten Speed Press, July 2013) could turn a vegan into an entomophagist—almost. Far from being a close-your-eyes-and-turn-the-page grossfest, it makes an utterly convincing case for the environmental, health, and economic benefits of insect-based cuisine—and serves it up with heaps of humor and history.
While the rest of the world happily munches on arthropods, North Americans and Europeans are the "weirdos for not eating bugs," Gordon writes, speculating that farmers in Europe first turned their noses up at this "widespread, nutritionally beneficial" cuisine out of spite because it ruined their crops. Just in time for grilling season, here is his recipe for Sheesh! Kabobs. Marinating the orthoptera overnight helps reduce the "chitinous crunch." —M.P. Klier
Photo by Chugrad McAndrews
Yield: 6 servings
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, thyme, and tarragon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
12 frozen katydids, grasshoppers, or other large-bodied orthoptera, thawed
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 small yellow onion, cut into 8 wedges
- Mix all ingredients for the marinade in a nonreactive baking dish. Add the katydids, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.
- When ready to cook, remove the katydids from the marinade and pat dry. Assemble the kabobs by alternately skewering the insects, bell pepper, and onion wedges to create a visually interesting lineup.
- Brush the grill lightly with olive oil. Cook the kabobs 2 or 3 inches above the fire, turning them every 2 or 3 minutes and basting them with additional olive oil as required. The exact cooking time will vary, depending on your grill and the type of insects used. However, the kabobs should cook for no longer than 8 or 9 minutes.
Reprinted with permission from The Eat-A-Bug Cookbook, Revised.