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Insects and food diversity

One of the main reasons that folk are putting forward for the consumption of insects is that they provide a sustainable, high protein alternative to livestock, but is this really a viable argument?

Relative protein yield of insects and cattle

Let’s get some facts on the table to start with.  We know that livestock production requires huge amounts of resources. It is also the major contributor of greenhouse gases as well as being implicated in deforestation and the production of marine dead zones. Because of these problems the reliance on meat as a major source of protein is barely sustainable now and certainly can’t be increased to the levels required by the prospective population of nine billion forecast for 2050, particularly if large parts of the developing world continues the shift toward a more meat-intensive diet that is currently being shown.

We also know that insects typically consume much less feed, use less energy, take up less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases, and require far less water to produce similar amounts of protein.  

From these simple facts that, it seems that if we are to create a sustainable food future then the replacement of livestock with insects is a complete no-brainer.  Unfortunately I just don’t see that happening, and here’s what makes me think that.

Screenshot of Quorn website

In 1985 the company Marlow Foods (a joint venture by Rank Hovis Mcdougall and ICI) brought Quorn onto the market.  Marketed primarily at vegetarians Quorn presents itself very much as a meat substitute. In fact their mission, as stated on their website is simply this. ‘To help consumers eat less meat’. This aim is reflected in their publicity and packaging: images of Quorn mince taking the place of meat mince in a shepherd’s pie or a spaghetti bolognese; Quorn burgers unchallenging nestled within nicely seeded buns alongside golden chips; Quorn cutlets sharing a plate with comfortingly familiar peas, carrots, and (presumably vegetarian) gravy.  The consumer is helped to eat less meat by offering something that replaces it in their existing diet with something that looks and behaves similarly.

So how successful has this been?  Figures are a little hard to come by but Quorn appears to be the most widely purchased meat substitute on the market, commanding somewhere in the region of 56% of all such products purchased.  In 2015 around 150 million pounds worth of Quorn were produced.  Given that Quorn is a highly sustainable product, offering similar economies of resource usage as insects and with a comparably small carbon footprint this seems encouraging, maybe even impressive.

Impressive at least until you find out that in the same year the UK meat industry alone produced around 2.8 billion pounds worth of stock, which my back-of-an-envelope calculation tells me is more than twenty times as much as that managed by Quorn.  In terms of meat replacement this is the equivalent of each of us swapping meat for Quorn in one meal about once every four months.  Not a bad thing of course but let’s face it, not enough to avert global catastrophe.  

Given that Quorn, with the combined might and marketing muscle of RHM, ICI, and the several owners it has had since it launched, can still only muster this modest degree of change, what chance do insects have?  In my opinion, as a meat substitute that chance would be somewhere between slim and non-existent, but does that mean there’s no point to this whole ‘entomophagy’ thing?

I’m going to say a firm ‘no’ to that.  On the contrary I believe insects have a very important role to play in the creation of a sustainable global food economy, but it isn’t as simple as taking the steak off your plate and putting a handful of crickets in its place.

Image of insect pasta

More important than meat replacement is the much more challenging, and exciting, prospect of changing the shape of food culture more radically.  If we are to move toward a future in which 9 billion people can eat healthily and without destroying the very environment they depend upon then we all need to recognise the impossibility of doing this whilst staying within our culinary comfort zone.   We have to embrace much greater food diversity than we do currently; a task which I suspect is especially difficult for us English, particularly if, like me, you were raised without even the expanded gastonomic possibilities offered by a local Chinese or Indian takeaway.  

There are far more opportunities to widen our dietary horizons now than when I was growing up, and even the smallest town will have cafes and restaurants that offer more than the meat and two veg of yesterday, but this needs to go much further.  We need to eat things which we’re not used to and arrange our plates in ways that lack the familiarity lent to them by the presence of the charred part-carcass of a dead animal.

Eating unusual foods arranged in unrecognisable patterns on the plate can be discomforting, and let’s face it, it doesn’t get much more unusual, to western sensibilities at least, as eating creepy crawlies.  As foodstuffs they stalk the very perimeter of the acceptable, hovering between the absolutely untenable and the interestingly exotic.  As outliers in what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘food space’ they show us the reach of that space, and reveal that it’s a lot bigger than we’re used to, and this is a good thing.  Edible insects give us something to aim for, something to flex our epicurian muscles against, something so beyond the comfort zone that engagement with them stretches that zone into a more relaxed shape.

Bourdieu Food Space redux

This for me is a significant argument for advocacy around edible insects. (There are others of course).  We won’t save the planet by thinking it’s just about replacing bacon with mealworms and steak with crickets but if we each allow ourselves to be a little more relaxed about what we think this stuff called ‘food’ can be; if we each extend the boundaries of our taste in the direction of those six-legged beasties way over there, then maybe we can change our habits enough to change the world.