Prehistoric food of the future

No, not the latest scandal to hit some beleagued fast-food chain store, but the next big thing in feeding an ever-increasingly populated planet, according to research released during the International Food Security Salone held in Milan this October.

Scientists have been researching entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, as a way of addressing the ever-encroaching food-security issue for at least the last ten years. Edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids which make them eminently suitable for human consumption, as well as a potential source of feed for livestock.

“Research began when we looked at the fact that the world’s population has doubled since the 1960s and is predicted to reach 9 billion by 2050. Increasing pressure on agricultural land, water and fisheries means we have to study every avenue available to find new forms of sustainable nutrition,” says Paul Vantomme, Senor Forestry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The idea starts to make more sense when you consider that most of Africa and Asia have long viewed bugs as fair game. According to the FAO, more than 2 billion people already eat creepy crawlies on a daily basis. In Thailand for example, where there are an estimated 20,000 insect farmers, deep-fried crickets are prepared in huge pans and sold off in bags to be munched on like peanuts.

Here in Milan assembled experts agreed that edible insects will have an important niche to fill in the future. Crickets, for example, turn out to be incredibly energy efficient to produce. Where cattle require around 10kg of feed to produce 1kg of beef; 1kg of cricket can be reared on around 1.7kg of feed, which is clearly much better for the environment. They also need much less water, and produce around 100 times fewer greenhouse gases than cows. And if you are watching your waistline, you’ll be happy to know they are also much lower in fat than their ruminant alternatives.


    A typical Milanese risotto … with a new dressing.

Experience with Asian cuisine has led some western food entrepreneurs to experiment with new recipes that could make insects more palatable to US and European consumers. A key feature of getting bugs on the Western menu, unsurprisingly, is to distance the food product from the many-legged animal it came from. Cricket chips (or ‘chirps’) are now available from Six Foods, a start-up company based in Boston, which reputedly taste ‘nicely nutty’. They grind up their organically reared crickets into a flour that is about 70% protein. This is impressive when you consider wheat flour contains between 5-15%. They source their bugs from the Big Cricket Farm, another US startup, who market them with the tagline ‘crickets just taste good!’


But quite apart from the taste, there’s the issue of food safety to consider. Companies like Big Cricket Farm use organic feed for their mini livestock, but in other parts of the world where entomophagy is currently practiced hygiene is often a secondary issue. Until this year edible insects in the US have been reared for pet food and fed on waste – such as out of date dog food. Participants in the Milan salone acknowledged that there need to be cultural, social and economic shifts before the consumption of insects could become widespread. Regulation is clearly needed to reclassify bugs as a primary food source and guarantee they are fit for human consumption.

Here in Italy the ick-factor is alive and well. Online retailers “” feature a slice of their pizza of the day: a margherita with double cheese and scorpion. Crickets in tins compete with ant eggs and beetle larvae – but none of them look particularly appetizing. Without clearer guidance on what to do with them, there’s a strong sense that this is novelty food to be served alongside the scorpion vodka. offer freeze-dried worms in a bag, next to a picture of a beautiful Asian woman picking something indefinable out of a bowl with her chop-sticks. Bologna-based Microvita has a massive fly on its homepage.

There is clearly a long way to go before insect-cuisine catches on, but the debate in Italy is heating up. “We will eventually need large-scale production of sustainable protein” says Andrea Mascaretti, the organizer and instigator of the Salone, “and we want to keep on looking into insect-based solutions. We are not just talking about insects for human consumption but also for use in animal food and aquaculture. In 2013 more than 795 million tones of cereals were produced, and it is projected that by 2050 we will need another 520 million tones. Edible insects could really help us fill that gap.” Cricket-chips anyone?

A typical Milanese risotto … with a new dressing.

Alison Micklem

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