Can it go wrong? - General

worm_sad.pngIt seems almost impossible to imagine edible insects being the ‘next big thing’, but it wasn’t that long ago that sushi was a similarly unthinkable food item in the west. Raw fish was considered not only disgusting but dangerous. It took clever compromises like crab-and-avocado rolls to bring people round to the idea.

If 'Pestaurants' aren't a sign that corporate takeover of edible insects is possible, what would be?

Now, sushi is hugely popular – and thoroughly corporate. It literally comes on conveyor belts; a huge multi-million dollar industry. And as we’re seeing with insects now, sushi’s breakthrough in the west started off in the trendy and experimental restaurants of Manhattan, Los Angeles and Sydney.

Now you can pick up sushi, or something approximating it, in supermarkets – but is the bland, mass-processed ready meal something to aspire to? The edible insect industry is estimated to be worth $522 million in 2023. Do insects await the same uniform fate as sushi, once they become popularised and profitable?

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Strange glimpses of this possible future can be seen in the enthusiastic promotion of entomophagy by pest-control giant Rentokil. Their pop-up ‘Pestaraunts’ are a bizarre affair, seemingly going against the basics of marketing: if you’re aiming to make something attractive as food, don’t associate it heavily with ‘pests’ and chemicals! Florida-based Pest Control also promote insect-based recipes on their site – right next to dire warnings of ‘webworm infestation’. If this isn’t a sign that corporate takeover of edible insects is possible, what would be?

Soya was once proclaimed the new protein source that would save the world; now its mass production fuels the meat industry and results in the destruction of 4 million hectares of South American forest every year. In its adoption by the agricultural industry it changed utterly; the bland and often genetically modified soya we and the cattle eat today is totally removed from traditional soya production and preparation.

It’s not that we don’t have enough food to go round – the problem is one of distribution and environmental impact

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There’s a cultural appropriation and destruction of tradition that often accompanies the shift into mass production; could this be the case with edible insects too? Let’s hope that chocolate-coated ants sold in plastic tubs online are a one-off rather than a sign of things to come – marketed as favoured delicacy of Guane Indians (who, records suggest, were wiped out by colonisers several hundred years ago), the marketing suggests that each one has been hand-toasted by local tribespeople. If this is the route down which the edible insects trend is headed, concerns about exploitation and appropriation are definitely not misplaced.

Perhaps it makes sense to look closer to home for insects. We try to do this for other food sources – eat local, shop local – but would this mean entomophagy remaining a small-scale, niche interest? Calls for mass-production of insects either for human or animal consumption make many uneasy.

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

As the UN point out in their 2013 report on edible insects, it’s not that we don’t currently have enough food to go round. Overproduction and wastage of food are commonplace. The problem is really one of distribution and environmental impact; that the way we produce meat and grains not only pushes the planet closer to destruction, but doesn’t even manage to feed everyone equitably. What’s to stop edible insects from simply becoming part of this broken system?


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