Does This Bug You?
Much of the hand wringing over the EU’s approval of insects as food is misinformed and misguided
In January, the European Commission - the European Union’s executive body - authorised two more insects for human consumption following a detailed assessment by the bloc’s food safety regulator EFSA. This is done under the EU’s Novel Food Regulation.
The approval concerns two specific products - the frozen, paste, dried and powder forms of the larvae of lesser mealworms (a type of shiny black beetle) and the partially defatted powder derived from house crickets.
Both will be marketed as ingredients in food products like bread while the powder form of mealworm larvae could also be used in supplements.
Products containing these ingredients must be clearly labelled, and there are currently 8 more such applications waiting for approval, according to the Commission.
Up in arms
The latest approval brought the number of insects that can be sold as food for human consumption in the EU to a grand total of four. To some, however, it might as well have been a decree barring us to eat anything except creepy crawlies.
In France, right-wing politician Laurent Duplomb accused the EU of harbouring ill intentions. “We cannot let the French eat insects without their knowledge,” he said, utterly ignoring the stipulation for clear labelling.
In Bulgaria, “fringe politician and social media influencer” Georgi Georgiev Gotti claimed adding powdered insects to food will cause cancer, Radio Free Europe reported.
“As the disinformation spread, the rumor mutated, with some social media posters adding further nefarious EU intentions to force people to consume insects. They claimed powdered insects would be added to many foods, including bread, but it would all be shrouded in secrecy, with no labeling required,” the article said.
In Italy, Coldiretti, the largest farming union, took a different approach. It said Italian food is excellent - no disagreement there - so there’s no need to eat insects - not the point here! - and warned insect powder could cause allergic reaction.
“This is an acceleration that does not seem to interest European consumers and especially Italians who, for the vast majority, would never bring insects to the table, as they are considered alien to their national food culture,” it said in a recent press release.
Sure, some of these folks are fringe figures but we know how quickly these things can spread and take a life of their own.
What does Thin think?
When an audience member raised this issue during my recent talk at Reykjavik University, I told them that I tend to be a maximalist on these issues.
I would rather put every option on the table and then take things away based on a cost-benefit/harmful-helpful analysis instead of putting things on the table only after we are absolutely sure they are of use.
This is partly because time is not on our side, but also because to me, an issue like insect as food and feed is a bit of a no-brainer, as long as nobody is being forced to eat anything they find disgusting, whether that be snails, maggot-infested cheese, pig’s blood pudding (all considered delicacies in Italy) or crickets.
Look, I get the ick factor. I really do. I grew up in Southeast Asia, where bugs were part of our food culture, even though I was never the biggest fan. I also realise geography and historical issues may have shaped people’s attitudes to insects. Whereas they are seen as pests and nuisance in Western societies, they have decorative, health and social purposes in tropical countries.
Still, as an immigrant in Europe, I can’t help but feel that a lot of the reactions are knee-jerk, ill-informed and unnecessarily hysterical.
What is the real fear here? Is it because some of these people consider cultures associated with eating insects as primitive or inferior? Or is this just another avenue to bash the EU? Why are insects considered worse than additives? At least the bugs are organic, no?
This paragraph in a Slow Food Italy article summed up my feelings better than I can.
“It must be said, however, that it is bizarre to have such a heated debate about insects when the food industry has for years - and without much controversy - been using ingredients and additives that are sometimes not at all natural and in the long run even quite harmful, whereas crickets are not harmful.”
For millennia, insects have been part of the diet for many cultures around the world. Below are some interesting factoids about them from a seminal 2013 report from the FAO, the UN food and agriculture agency.
Insects are a cheap and easily available source of protein for many communities. They are high in protein, vitamins, fibre and minerals.
They are very efficient at turning their food into body mass. To get a kilo of crickets, you need 1.7 kilos of feed. In comparison, you need 2.5 kilos, 5 kilos and 10 kilos respectively to get a kilo of chicken, pork, or beef.
They emit fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than cattle or pigs.
Their cultivation has much less environmental impact than meat. They require significantly less land and water than cattle rearing.
They pose a relatively low risks of transmitting zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
There are more than 1,900 edible insect species.
If you want to try your hand at it, here’s an issue from two years ago about two cookbooks that showcased the long but waning tradition of cooking with insects in the southern parts of Africa.
More than just food
Again, I get it if you don’t want to eat insects. But their use goes beyond food for humans. They can be a great alternative to feed our animals, whether they be livestock or household pets, because the same benefits listed above still apply.
At the moment, about a third of global cereal production goes to feeding livestock, which also requires a large share of agricultural land, either for grazing or growing its food, although the FAO has said much of the grasslands and pastures are only good for grazing animals and cannot be converted to croplands.
Nevertheless, with expectations that demand for animal protein will grow, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, there are real worries that this will lead people to cut down trees to grow cereals to feed animals.
So insect protein could replace this as well as fish meal, which is also becoming increasingly scarce and expensive. Some experts have said insect-based feeds are comparable with fishmeal and soy-based feed formulae.
There are still many questions that need to be answered around insect farming in terms of suitable species, their housing and feed requirements, managing their waste, and whether we are switching from one form of factory farming to another.
It’s important that we’re not replicating for insect farming the model of intensive animal agriculture, where the primary focus is on profits and efficiency at the expense of animal welfare and sustainability.
Women Driving Food Systems Transformation
Next Tuesday, I’m moderating a discussion with some very cool women, a couple of whom were featured in my “The Dazzling Dozen” issue. Come join us if you can. You can register here.
Impact From Our Hunger Profiteers Investigation
Here’s the write-up on the investigation we did.
Three Good Reads
Where Has All the Chartreuse Gone? - Everyday Drinking
Jason Wilson is a veteran journalist and another comrade from the Substack Food Fellows programme. His newsletters are breezy but thoughtful and this one is a great example.
To those who aren’t in the know, Chartreuse is “a liqueur so legendary that a color is literally named after it” and produced by the Carthusian monks, based on a secret recipe created by a medieval alchemist.
Veganism didn’t agree with me. What’s the most ethical alternative? - The Guardian
Peter Godfrey-Smith’s long essay where he documented his foray - and departure - from veganism is best taken with a pot of tea (or coffee) on a rainy morning. It’s refreshingly honest and provides a lot of food for thought.
These foods are climate-friendly and, just as important, delicious - Washington Post
This piece from columnist Tamar Haspel is a good beginner’s guide on where to start if you want to eat well but in an environmentally-friendly way.
Leaving you with a revelation that made me 🤦🏽♀️
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There are a couple of insects available as food here in New Zealand, and an indigenous tradition of eating some insects too. Mostly they are prohibitively expensive novelties at this stage, but I imagine the price may come down. I've tried a few types of insect, mostly heavily disguised admittedly.