At first my meal seems familiar, like countless other dishes I’ve eaten at Asian restaurants. A swirl of noodles slicked with oil and studded with shredded chicken, the aroma of ginger and garlic, a few wilting chives placed on the plate as a final flourish. And then, I notice the eyes. Dark, compound orbs on a yellow speckled head, joined to a winged, segmented body. I hadn’t spotted them right away, but suddenly I see them everywhere – my noodles are teeming with insects.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. On this warm May afternoon, I’ve agreed to be a guinea pig at an experimental insect tasting in Wageningen, a university town in the central Netherlands. My hosts are Ben Reade and Josh Evans from the Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit culinary research institute. Reade and Evans lead the lab’s ‘insect deliciousness’ project, a three-year effort to turn insects – the creepy-crawlies that most of us squash without a second thought – into tasty, craveable treats.
The project began after René Redzepi (the chef and co-owner of Noma, the Danish restaurant that is often ranked the best in the world) tasted an Amazonian ant that reminded him of lemongrass. Redzepi, who founded the Nordic Food Lab in 2008, became interested in serving insects at Noma and asked the researchers at the lab to explore the possibilities.
The Food Lab operates from a houseboat in Copenhagen, but Reade and Evans are in the Netherlands for a few days, and they’ve borrowed a local kitchen to try out some brand new dishes. I, along with three other gutsy gastronomes, am here to taste the results.
We take our seats at a long, high table as Reade and Evans wheel in a trolley loaded with our meals. We each receive a different main course. I get the Asian-style noodles and fixate on the bug I can see. “That’s a locust,” Reade says. “[It] was alive this morning. Very fresh.” But he’s much more excited about another, hidden ingredient: fat extracted from the larvae of black soldier flies (or, to put it less delicately, maggot fat). The whole dish has been stir-fried in it.
“I believe you’re the first human being on the planet to have ever been served anything cooked with this,” Reade tells me. But not to worry: “I’ve eaten some of it myself, an hour ago. I’m still alive.”
I inspect my plate.
Reade urges us to begin: “Eat before it gets cold.”
The next morning, Reade and Evans join 450 of the world’s foremost experts on entomophagy, or insect eating, at a hotel down the road in Ede. They are here for Insects to Feed the World, a three-day conference to “promote the use of insects as human food and as animal feed in assuring food security”.
The attendees are all familiar with the same dire facts. By the year 2050, the planet will be packed with 9 billion people. In low- and middle-income countries, the demand for animal products is rising sharply as economies and incomes grow; in the next few decades, we’ll need to figure out how to produce enough protein for billions more mouths. Simply ramping up our current system is not really a solution. The global livestock industry already takes an enormous toll on the environment. It’s a hungry and thirsty beast, gobbling up land and water. It’s a potent polluter, thanks to the animal waste and veterinary medicines that seep into soil and water. And it emits more greenhouse gases than planes, trains and automobiles combined.
The insect authorities assembling in Ede believe that entomophagy could be an elegant solution to many of these problems. Insects are chock-full of protein and rich in essential micronutrients, such as iron and zinc. They don’t need as much space as livestock, emit lower levels of greenhouse gases, and have a sky-high feed conversion rate: a single kilogram of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein. Some species of insects are drought resistant and may require less water than cows, pigs or poultry.
Insect meal could also replace some of the expensive ingredients (e.g. soybeans and fishmeal) that are fed to farm animals, potentially lowering the cost of livestock products and freeing up feed crops for human consumption. As an added bonus, bugs can be raised on refuse, such as food scraps and animal manure, so insect farms could increase the world’s supply of protein while reducing and recycling waste.
Over the next three days, they will lay out their vision for the future. It is ambitious and optimistic. They will speculate about creating an insect aisle at the supermarket and fast-food restaurants that serve bug burgers. They will imagine putting packages of ‘beautiful, clean’ shrink-wrapped mealworms on display at the meat counter, alongside the skirt steak and chicken wings. And they will dream about a world in which forests are thick, land is fertile, the climate is stable, water is clean, waste is minimal, food prices are low, and hunger and malnutrition are rare.
This conference, they hope, will be the beginning of it all. The experts assembled in the darkened auditorium are fired up, ready to give the world the gift of six-legged livestock. Are we ready to receive it?
This is an extract from a larger piece originally commissioned by and published on Mosaic Science. Read the full story here.