June 23, 2024

When Cortni Borgerson thinks about the trillion or so periodic cicadas emerging from underground, she sees more than clumsy flying insects fluttering from tree to tree in search of a mate. She sees lunch.

Some might find that idea revolting, a belief often, if unknowingly, steeped in colonialism and the idea that eating insects “uncivilized.” But Borgerson, an anthropologist at Montclair State University, is among those eager to change that perception. She is a big fan of eating bugs of all kinds, but finds crickets particularly tasty. “It’s one of the best American insects,” she says.

Their texture, she says, is something like peeled shrimp, and their taste similar to what you’d experience “if a chicken nugget and a sunflower seed had a baby.” She recommends that first timers cook them like any other meat and try them in tacos.

Borgerson is not alone in her fascination with edible insects. In the lead up to this spring’s emergence with double blood, a flurry of cicadas recipes, sweet treats and culinary odes sang the bulky bugs’ praises. The interest is part of a growing social movement in favor of alternative proteins among consumers demanding a more sustainable food system.

“They are this magical insect that crawls up, that people are excited about and interested in,” she says. “People are more excited about eating them than they might be about other types of insects.”

The buzz surrounding this cicada emergence presents an opportunity to break down wrong stereotypes and misconceptions about eating insects, says Borgerson. If you ask her, the creatures are more than nice. They are a sustainable alternative to carbon-intensive proteins such as beef and an effective way of addressing rising rates of food insecurity.

“Some insects have an incredible opportunity, and a potential, to reduce our carbon footprint in a delicious but sustainable way,” she says.

About 30 percent of the world’s population considers insects a delicacy or dietary food, a practice that dates back millennia. A study published earlier this year found that more than 3,000 ethnic groups across 128 countries eat 2,205 species of Insecta, with everything from caterpillars to grasshoppers appearing in dishes of every description. These invertebrates are a rich source of protein, fat and vitamins. The creatures are mostly eaten by consumers in Asia, North America – mainly Mexico, where people enjoy 450 varieties – and Africa.

The idea remains a novelty in the United States, true only six species is consumed regularly (crickets the most popular). Consumer attitudes, based on old stigmas, remain an obstacle to wider adoption.

Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University who study the western bias to eat things like beetles, calls the “ick” reaction many Americans have to the idea a cultural byproduct of colonization.

“Disgust is felt very viscerally and biologically,” she says. “So to tell someone their aversion to insects is culturally and not physiologically programmed is a hard thing to wrap your head around because you can feel your stomach turning, you can feel the gag reflex coming up as you are disgusted by the idea of ​​eating insects. But disgust is one of the least learned emotions. So we are disgusted by the things that our culture says we should be disgusted by.”

Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs and chief advocate for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, searches for cicadas. Jennifer Angus

Such a reaction can also be a sign of internalized bias, she says. Native peoples throughout North America once consumes a variety of insects, a practice that European colonists considered “uncivilized”—a way to “other” non-white communities and cultural practices. “Is it racist? Yes, simply put,” says Lesnik.

The race-based foundation of that ideology panned out investigation in the wake of viral right-wing claims that a shadowy global elite will make people eat insects. Politicized conspiracy theories – such as the suggestion that Bill Gates will taking away meat and forcing everyone to eat insects – is insidious misinformation that Joseph Yoon fights daily.

“I think the idea of ​​edible insects makes people think about the lowest denominator,” says Yoon, the founder of Brooklyn Bugs and chief advocate for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development. “It’s for the apocalypse. It’s for poor people. It’s for marginalized communities in developing countries. And so the idea of ​​this creates a feeling of fear, anger, resentment. Instead of putting insects in a silo because you don’t understand… we can work together to provide solutions for our global food systems.”

Eleven years ago the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization called bugs a promising alternative to conventional meat production. In the decade since, a surge of North American startups has begun to turn insects into a primary food source for humans, an ingredient (flour commonly found), or as raw material for cattle and pets. The market for such things in the United States is expected to boom $1.1 billion by 2033; worldwide is the figure more than three times as much.

Still, for an industry in its infancy, the viability of scaling insect protein into a legal climate solution remains a burning question, one Rachel Mazac has studied closely. Mazac, a sustainability researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Center, is one of the scientists who tried to quantify the carbon footprint of producing things like crickets, mealworms and black soldier flies on an industrial scale. So far she is found that making insects “extremely efficient”. use of land and water compared to conventional livestock. Although she acknowledges the lack of data on the subject, Mazac believes insects warrant further consideration as a viable alternative to more common — and carbon-intensive — meat.

However, not everyone sees insects as a climate solution. Matthew Hayek, an environmental researcher and assistant professor at New York University, co-authored a 2024 recording of more than 200 climate and agricultural scientists who showed widespread support for greater efforts by governments and the private sector to encourage alternatives after meat and dairy. But he doesn’t believe insects belong on the list of urgent solutions. Among other things, he questions the environmental impact of feeding them to livestock, and whether the creatures can be raised and harvested humanely.

“This is a valuable area of ​​inquiry for fundamental science and research and development,” he says. “It’s not worth it as a real climate solution at a market level for someone to invest in a climate solution.”

Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, doesn’t buy it. He says every possible alternative protein must be on the table, because dealing with the climate crisis requires reform of the global food system. “We need to look at all options when we talk about how to be better stewards of our planet,” he says. “We need to diversify as much as possible.”

Doing so, however, will require consumers and policymakers to set aside old ideas and consider new possibilities. That, Tomberlin says, will spur the kind of research and funding needed to “safely and efficiently” develop the processing and production practices needed to make insect protein a viable, scalable alternative to other meats. Only then will the idea of ​​eating insects be more than a flurry of trendy headlines, and cicada tacos more than a fleeting novelty.

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