Insects Are Food

 | Mon 6 Oct 2014 16:45 ICT

CityNews – Bugs and Thailand go hand in hand. Showing up on every tourist’s Instagram page and every Thai bar table, these flying and crawling critters of all shapes and sizes are quite impossible to avoid.

This year has seen the topic of edible bugs (for humans, not just geckos) enter homes across the globe, following reports by the United Nations, who are trying to inform the masses of all the benefits of eating insects. But for Thailand, this is old news.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), roughly two billion people, or about a quarter of the world’s population, eat insects. Officially referred to as entomophagy, humans have been eating bugs for millennia. The FAO states that Africa, Asia and Latin America top the bug eating charts, so it’s not then surprising that Thailand has this year topped the list for the world’s largest producer of edible insects.

As anyone who has lived here knows, bugs are a popular delicacy; a box of fried crickets with kaffir lime leaf pair well with an ice cold beer on a Friday night. Entomophagy in Thailand has gone on for well over a century and is far from exotic and certainly not new. In fact, Thailand now has over 20,000 insect farms nationwide, producing an excess of 7,500 tonnes of insects per year.

However, for a westerner, the idea often still leaves our skin crawling (excuse the pun) and a sudden desire to eat something much more palatable, like a French fry. But following a report by the FAO, who predict that by 2050 the planet will have over nine billion people, forcing an increased food/feed output resulting in an even greater pressure on the environment, insects are quickly creeping to the top of the menu when it comes to a sustainable form of world food production.

Not only are insects full of high quality protein, amino acids and vitamins, but they are also have an extremely high food conversion rate compared to any other meat source today. This basically means that insects such as crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Per gram, they often surpass other meats in protein content, sometimes as much as double depending on the type of critter. Described as “mini livestock,” insects produce less greenhouse gasses and less ammonia that poisons our water and our land. They also happily feed on decomposing matter, leaving our organic waste to be used as their food source, creating an ecologically-friendly cycle and freeing up valuable crops for human consumption.

Economically, insect farming is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers entry even to the poorest sections of society. In Thailand, middlemen often buy insects from farmers and sell them as food to wholesale buyers who then distribute the products to street vendors. In more recent times, insects have even made their way onto supermarket shelves, marketed in ready-to-eat and microwaveable packages – imagine seeing that in the supermarkets in the west!

It seems that the greatest step is to convince the west that insect eating is far from dirty and not at all dangerous. There is time-honoured wisdom used when preparing insects, often featuring meticulous steps that need to be taken before they can be eaten, such as removing certain internal organs, legs, wings or faeces. However, compared to the preparation that goes into eating, say, a cow, these processes can be completed in no time. Moreover, these techniques are reportedly seamlessly pairing up with more modern manufacturing processes, opening up new avenues to mass produce these environmentally sustainable protein pockets. The UN suggests introducing the idea cautiously; perhaps starting off by using crickets as supplemental protein sources in low-end burgers and other meat products is the only way to encourage insect consumption globally.

For those of us in Thailand, bug eating is old, but if Thailand remains at the top of the game when it comes to edible insects, they could really cash in on what could soon become a brand new mass industry, exporting globally. However, it seems that these opportunities are stalled not only by disgust factors from the west, but also the lack of legislation.

According to the FAO, in most countries, regulations are not very clear. In the US, regulations allow certain parts of insects to make it into food – such as the cochineals that colour many American foods and drinks, including McDonald’s strawberry milkshakes – but nowhere do they focus on the insect as a meal itself. Yet on the other hand, the Dutch government has already invested over one million euros in research and legislation surrounding insect consumption and production.

Whatever your stance on the consumption of these tasty critters (I myself enjoy popcorn-flavoured silkworms), we can be safe in the knowledge that edible insects will no doubt make more of an appearance across the world in the not too distant future. Still squeamish? Conquer your fears! Once you get over the fact that you are eating a creepy crawly, the tastes are surprisingly quite good. Some are nutty, some rich and meaty, some sweet like honey, some even a little spicy…but regardless of whether you are for and against; it’s clear we can’t beat them, so why don’t we just eat them?