David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. “Smell the meat,” he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.
“Perfumey, tastes like salty apples,” one says. “Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” another adds.
The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal. The Gastronauts’ meal may seem more like a reality TV stunt than a radical environmental strategy, but Gracer is on a serious mission to shake up how we all think about our food supply. Gracer, a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.
Gracer wants people to move away from getting their protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens because raising livestock has a huge negative impact on the environment, regardless of whether the animals belong to subsistence farmers in developing countries or a Western industrial conglomerate. A United Nations report released in 2006 calls the livestock sector “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” The report notes that, among other adverse impacts, livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. (That’s more than what is produced by transportation worldwide.) And the problem is only going to grow, with global production of meat reaching 465 million tons by 2050, double the amount produced in 2000.
“Americans have no idea how wasteful these large mammals are,” Gracer says. “If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.” Insects, he claims, are nutritious. Although they typically contain less protein by weight than beef or chicken—100 grams of giant water bugs or small grasshoppers, for example, have about 20 grams of protein, compared with 27 grams in the same amount of lean ground beef—they do have other benefits. For instance, grasshoppers contain just one-third of the fat found in beef, and water bugs offer almost four times as much iron. A 100-gram portion of the cooked caterpillar Usata terpsichore has about 28 grams of protein. In their dried form, as they are commonly sold in Africa, insects such as grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein.
Raising insects has a low impact on the environment. They require little water, perhaps because they obtain much of their moisture from their food. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, about enough for a large hamburger. By contrast, to supply water to a quarter pound of crickets, Gracer simply places a moist paper towel at the bottom of their tank and refreshes it weekly. Insects, he says, also need less food and space than vertebrate sources of protein and therefore could replace or supplement food resources that may become scarce in the future, such as fish stocks, which a recent study indicates may collapse by 2048.
Founded in 2005, Gracer’s company, a one-man operation called Sunrise Land Shrimp, educates people about insect eating, or entomophagy. On a roughly monthly basis, Gracer will visit a high school or give a public lecture, and he recently appeared on The Colbert Report (video). Not long ago he traveled to Thailand to attend a United Nations workshop on entomophagy. “I would love to counteract the portrayal of entomophagy that we see on Fear Factor and Survivor,” he says. “It’s my interest to bring it out of the zone of freakdom.” But even Sunrise Land Shrimp doesn’t sell insects—yet. In the United States insects are generally available only as novelty foods, such as the salt-and-vinegar-flavored crickets sold by Hotlix, a California company that specializes in insect-based candies.
Outside the United States, though, in Botswana and Zimbabwe, insect gathering is becoming commercialized. And rural villagers in southern Africa harvest caterpillars from the local mopane trees. Traditionally, mopane caterpillars have been an important source of protein for the villagers, but more recently they have also been packaged and sold as a regional delicacy.
In fact, at least 1,400 species of insects are eaten around the world, and the practice dates back thousands of years. However, even commercially distributed species such as the mopane caterpillar are harvested from wild insect populations, meaning that they are subject to year-to-year fluctuations and problems of overharvesting. What is needed to stabilize the insect food supply is the development of farms. “I’ve been working for a long time on trying to convince people that farming insects for the production of animal protein and other materials might be a good idea,” says Robert Kok, chairman of the department of bioresource engineering at McGill University, near Montreal. “Even if they didn’t want to eat them ‘whole hog,’ so to say, it would be possible to extract the protein and oil from them and then manufacture food products from those components,” Kok adds.
William White of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Houma, Louisiana, is skeptical that this will ever come to pass in the United States, where food tends to be overabundant rather than scarce, at least among those above the poverty line. “I don’t believe that we’ve reached the level of scarcity in our food supply, at least in Western societies, where people would be willing to incorporate insects at any level in their diet,” White says. “Certainly in the United States, the [response to] insects almost borders on a phobia.” As Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of What to Eat, puts it, “I think people would have to be desperate for food to make insects a principal part of their diet.” There are other obstacles too: Some insects, such as sea shrimp, cause food allergies; others sequester toxins from plants or may harbor pesticide residues.
Even if we don’t all switch to Bug Burgers, Gracer and his insects are helping to change our habit of making knee-jerk decisions about what we should and shouldn’t be eating. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, 854 million people around the world went hungry in 2003. Really thinking about our food choices could be the first step toward feeding our planet’s ever-growing population in a sustainable manner.
Gracer continues to spend much of his spare time speaking at museums and schools about the benefits and joys of bug eating. In the long term, though, he has grander plans: He would like to import edible insects such as the popular mopane caterpillars or set up a commercial operation selling insects already available here, such as spicy Mexican grasshoppers, or chapulines. He knows his mission is not an easy one; for one thing, there is the small matter of funding. “If I did this for a living, my family and I would be eating bugs all the time,” he says.