Monday, 1 July 2013

Insects on the Menu

For some years, I have been promoting the notion of insects as a source of food for people. They are relatively cheap, efficient to farm, and nutritious. The idea is now being taken seriously as a potential solution to feeding billions of humans into the future. 

Recently, I have been involved in a series of activities on insect-eating, with some interesting events still to come. Read on for more details...

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, they exhibit a wide range of shape and form plus some intriguing and bizarre life cycles. They also play a vital role in the maintenance of the biosphere, as recyclers, pollinators and as a food source for other organisms.  In the latter context birds, reptiles, amphibians and insectivorous mammals are often viewed as the principal protagonists but humans can also play a significant role.  Eighty percent of the world’s population consume insects as a regular part of their diet, not just in times of hardship but on a seasonal basis as supplies of various insects become available. These peaks of insect abundance are eagerly anticipated and relished in tropical areas around the globe. The United Nations has recently become interested in insects as a possible part of the solution to the problem of matching a rising human population in the approaching decades with the provision of food, as there are growing concerns that current agricultural practices will not be able to do so. In 2008 the Food and Agriculture Organisation within the U N  organised a conference in Chang Mi to investigate how SE Asia uses insects as a provision of protein in human diets. The results are available in the report Man Bites Back (downloadable as a free PDF  This year they held a second conference in Rome to look at how the western world could utilise insects in human diets and how western perceptions might be changed to make this happen. The report from this conference is also available as a free downloadable PDF entitled Edible Insects (
By a curious coincidence, the day after Edible Insects was released I was giving a talk on this very subject at the Science Museum's Dana Centre in London. This was part of an event organised by University College London that explored human entomophagy.  The talks began with Katherine Brown from UCL who outlined the evolution of the human digestive system noting that we all have genes that can produce enzymes to break down insect specific compounds such as  trehalose indicating that insect have been a major part of our diet in our distant past.  I then gave a tour of the globe explaining which insects are eaten where, by whom and why. The London based company Ento then described their road map to introducing insect vegetable patties into UK markets (see their web site at and on youtube The session was followed by a Q&A and a lively debate on the pros and cons of entomophagy.  
Insects as a protein source for humans has been a soapbox of mine for some time, beginning when we organised an insect tasting session as part of the Faculty of Science's Weird World exhibition at the city museum and running through to the present day. Just last year I delivered a talk to the Children’s University on why people in the tropics eat insects and we don’t. The lecture was followed by a banquet of crickets baked in a variety of sauces from Hoi sin to sweet chile, prepared by me and Peter Bickerton from the MBA (a fellow advocate of moving insects into our diets). The 100 or so children and parents present descended on the feast like locusts with the odd remaining insect being carried home as tasty trophies to siblings, absent parents , aunts and uncles.

This same talk will also be presented to the citizens of York as part of the Royal Entomological Societie’s Insect Festival in July 2013. It will take place at Victor J’s Art bar where the entomological artist Michael Derby is exhibiting a range of his painting of beetle faces. A chance to get up close and personal with coleoptera. The talk is on Thursday 4 July 2013 and the exhibition runs from 2-13 July2013.

Following the success of insect dishes prepared by local Michelin-star chef, Peter Gorton, at the Insect Film Festivals, Peter decided to add an insect evening to the series of themed gastronomic events that he runs at his Tavistock restaurant. The event will feature an insect-based, four-course meal interspersed by short talks from me. The date is 22 August 2013, so check the Gorton’s website for details.  Following this will be a live cooking event in the Exeter Shopping Centre as part of the gorilla project.  This will be on 25 August 2013 and Peter and I will be smoking crickets, cooking up an interesting risotto and producing a chocolate cake with a difference.  

The human population is rapidly increasing and is predicted to hit 9 billion by 2050. The agricultural systems that we have in place today will struggle to produce enough food to feed all of these people. That assumes we we maintain our current productivity but, as we have seen this year, changing weather patterns have drastically reduced the harvest of many crops in the UK and further afield leading to higher prices and shortages of some staple foods. New solutions need to be sought and the WHO are convinced that insects have a part to play.  Not wild caught or harvested insects but insect farms that can produce thousands of tons of insect protein and have a real impact in addressing the food shortages that may arise in the future. The UN’s FAO have  joined forces with the atomic energy authority to produce a report that investigates the problems and some solutions to setting up insect production units. So, many of the world's leading humanitarian organisations are taking this very seriously.  The European Union have asked all member states to investigate how insects can be introduced to western  diets. Professor Arnold van Huis, at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, has been researching and championing this idea for decades and has been the main author of the recent WHO report.
His cook book, co-authored with one of Amsterdam’s star chefs Henk van Gurp, is entitled The Insect Cookbook and has been a best seller across much of Europe. So, as lady Macbeth said, “screw your courage to the sticking post” and come along and try a cricket or two.  You will enjoy them (honestly) and if you are under 40 years of age they will be on a menu or in a supermarket near you within your lifetime. So face the future now and be one of the first to enjoy this brave new delicacy.
Peter Smithers

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