food sustainability

How to get people to eat insects

wizard of id

The bravest man in history was the first to try a raw oyster, according to the minstrel in the Wizard of Id. Plenty of other foods are similarly weird, or must have been at some point.

Not so very long ago, raw fish would have been frowned upon in British society. Sushi restaurants have normalised it, and no eyebrows are raised when people in the office get their bento box out of the fridge and eat their lunch at their computer.

Give it another few years, and we might be able to say the same thing about insects. We know that our meat consumption is completely unsustainable as it is, let alone extended to the world’s growing middle classes, or a larger world population. At 15% of global emissions, meat can single-handedly scupper any chance of preventing dangerous climate change. There’s also the land footprint and water use, and the widespread cruelty to animals to consider.

We’ve discussed alternative meats, vegetarianism and cultured meats, but one of the other options is to eat insects. Pound for pound, they are generally more nutritious than our more usual carnivorous choices. They require a fraction of the resources to breed and grow. Animal welfare issues are not negligible, but considerably less charged. And they are already a common food in many parts of the world. It should be a no-brainer of a protein source.

But then, nobody wants to actually eat bugs, do they? That’s reserved for torturing celebrities on reality TV, and the whole point there is to show how revolting the very idea is. So there’s a cultural mountain to climb before most of us tuck in – a harder sell than sea vegetables, which I hope will be another staple of 21st century eating. Perhaps even harder than bioengineered foods, which are also on their way. So how do we break down some barriers for insect eating?

The first thing to say is that we aren’t going to start by selling insects in the meat aisle, however tasty a handful of grubs might be in a stir-fry. I suspect insects will first appear as an ingredient, probably branded. Like Quorn. Nobody fancies fungal mycoprotein for dinner, so the success of Quorn is all in the branding. Insects will probably be an industrial catering ingredient or protein additive first, then a consumer-facing brand of some kind, and may not appear as whole insects for quite some time.

When they do, it’s going to be some niche supplier or Kickstarter style start-up. Perhaps a famous chef will give them the thumbs-up at some point, but that would still be a gimmick if they aren’t readily available to buy. A start-up might surprise us with a winning formula, but I would expect that the primary thing that will take it into the mainstream is a push from a well known brand. That’s what NB Studios argue, and they have mocked up some examples. Here’s one of them:

hovis cricket loaf

This is all about the comfort of familiarity. I’d eat a slice of cricket loaf toast, that sounds great. And if it’s Hovis making it, maybe others would too.

How close are we to any of this? Well, I haven’t seen the big brand intervention anywhere, and I’m pretty sure it’s not going to happen without that. I’m not really counting the novelty suppliers selling ‘chocolate ants’ and that sort of thing either, as we’re looking for things to be normalised. But there are a few smaller pioneers out there that I’m keeping an eye on. If this post has whetted your appetite, I may explore some of them in a future post.


    1. Just imagined this – Lab breeds insects for human consumption. Then breeds bigger and bigger insects for our consumption and their profit. Lab insects get out, breed, and eat insects found in natural surroundings. Wildlife threatened by shortage of insects.

        1. There are only a few who can do without profit seekers and Monsato is trying now to have control over them too. Those few will be caught up one way or another by profit seekers.

  1. Unlike some animals, there’s no benefit to breeding larger insects – you eat them whole, so there’s no need to increase the amount of meat per animal. And much of the advantage is that they’re so small and quick to reproduce. So I don’t really see the danger there. Besides, I would eat and indeed have eaten grasshoppers, but I they’re not exactly pretty and I would be less likely to eat a giant one!

    Profit is an important motivator in making this happen, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with making a profit if you make it fairly and use it well.

  2. There may well be no ‘sensible’ need, but many people who can will pay for something bigger than others have, and manufacturers are only too capable of making something look attractive. Whatever, imagination is not necessarily prophesy!

    Of course profit is an important motivator and perhaps fine if made fairly and used well. I was looking at the common bad effect it frequently has on people and corporations and the consequences on us all.

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