After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Critique sustainability claims used by some actors in the food industry.
- Articulate the risks of adopting single-focus solutions when addressing larger systemic problems.
- Explain how the material realities and symbolic representations of a food can overrun rational arguments about its benefits.
Eat bugs, save the planet.
You’ve probably heard this catchy slogan or read something along the same lines. As North American and European eaters scramble to find more sustainable foods to fill their insatiable appetites, especially for protein, they’re considering all kinds of avenues: soy, other legumes, algae, even lab-grown meats. Some of the more daring among them are turning to critters that have long embodied the epitome of the inedible: insects.
With their small size, their fast metabolism, their high feed conversion ratio, their capacity to thrive on a variety of foods, and their adaptability, bugs have convinced some advocates they are the greener alternative to industrially raised livestock. You can stack them in boxes, feed (some of) them your table scraps, raise them in an industrial hangar or even in your closet—as local as it gets. They’re said to emit very minimal greenhouse gases and to consume a fraction of the food and water needed to raise the equivalent weight in cattle.
Sounds great, right? Maybe a little too great, in fact. There are many problems with this proposal. First, the actual benefits of eating insects are not that clear yet, and the ways in which they’re currently promoted and sold aren’t coherent with sustainability imperatives. Second, and perhaps most importantly, bugs are an extremely hard sell. Though about two billion people around the world consume them regularly and enthusiastically, most eaters in European-derived cultures consider them disgusting, dirty, and even dangerous, including many eaters from religious backgrounds. Indeed, kosher and halal laws do not endorse the consumption of some species or life stages, such as larvae. (Grasshoppers and crickets are generally considered acceptable, since they are explicitly referenced in sacred texts.) Because of these barriers, edible insects provide a rich case that illuminates the difficulties in changing food habits to incorporate more sustainable, or at least less environmentally destructive, behaviours.
In this chapter, I consider how the specific case of edible insects plays into notions of food sustainability and how the nascent related industry has integrated these assertions to promote its products. To do so, I examine the different types of products currently on offer by North American and European companies and the claims included in their marketing or labelling. I also draw on 27 interviews with stakeholders in the edible insect industry, including consumers, researchers, growers, and entrepreneurs, as well as fieldwork activities such as participant observation in industry gatherings and insect farms.
Unclear Benefits Jeopardize the Industry’s Credibility
One of the central issues with promoting insects as a solution to environmental problems is that it’s still unclear exactly how much more sustainable they are when compared to other animal protein sources. The research is still preliminary, mostly because insect farms are few and far between, their processes aren’t standardized, and most facilities are too small to draw significant conclusions about their environmental impact. It’s simply too early to accurately predict the industry’s direction as it matures and scales up. It will certainly gain in efficiency and standardization—wherein different firms use processes similar enough that they can be meaningfully measured and compared in homogenous ways. But it will potentially lose, as most industrial production has, the capacity to balance out negative externalities as they accumulate. For instance, when grown in your cupboard, mealworms can eat all kinds of carrot tops and apple peels—a boon for sustainability when you divert those from the garbage or compost bin. When grown industrially for commercial sale, however, each batch needs to be identical to previous ones for reasons of food safety and regulation, which means the insects need a steady and consistent food supply, not a haphazard waste stream. Many companies address this issue by feeding their bugs grains or chicken pellet–like granules, drastically weakening sustainability claims.
With the limited information we do have, we can ascertain that growing bugs is almost certainly better than growing cows, probably better than growing pigs, and potentially better than growing chickens. Yet this hasn’t stopped many companies from taking such restrained conclusions and turning them into fervent marketing pitches, with very little regard for the accuracy of their claims. Statements on the promotional websites of four successful companies selling insect ingredients or ready-to-eat insect products illustrate this well. They compare insects and beef in terms of water usage, one of the numerous variables utilized to calculate environmental costs. Entomo farms (Ontario, Canada) boasts ratios of one unit of water for insects for 13 in beef production; Micronutris (France), of one for 50; Chapul (United States), one for 11.8; and Näak (Quebec, Canada), a whopping one for 2000. None of these companies cite a source, and the exact units of measurement they base their comparisons on isn’t clear. Such problematic disparities undoubtedly undermine the edible insect industry’s credibility: if they can’t get their numbers right, why should we trust them to feed us a food that’s already pretty unsettling? What’s more, they distort public perception in an area already subjected to much dispute, confusion, and controversy. Beyond insects, anything that creates doubtful claims around food sustainability or resembles greenwashing runs the risk of undermining all efforts to lower the environmental impact of our foodways.
Existing Products Aren’t Compatible With Sustainability Claims
Comparing different foods’ environmental impact to decide which one is more sustainable means that, down the line, one food will be chosen instead of others. Insects are probably more sustainable than many animal products. The problem is that they’re so dissimilar to meat that positioning them as a sustainable replacement is unlikely to convince you to ditch your steak or chop. From a sensory perspective, they don’t look like meat, they don’t taste or smell like it, and their mouthfeel is completely different. From a functional point of view, they’re mostly incompatible too: unless they’re ground into a patty with other binding ingredients, they can’t be pan-fried to medium-well and sliced as a single uniform piece; they don’t bleed or exude meaty juices; and they’re a multitude of small bits rather than an imposing piece of meat you can saddle with potatoes and two veg. From a symbolic perspective, they lack the prestige and importance generally accorded to meat in European-derived cultures; in fact, they’re seen as the opposite—as revolting famine foods.
Perhaps because of this incompatibility with meat, the edible insect industry has thus far mostly developed as a purveyor of foods to add to our already brimming plates, rather than as a replacement to unsustainable items. Though companies selling insect foods compare their impact to meat’s, most of them sell products that never contained meat at all—mainly convenience or snack foods such as protein bars. Worse even, many others promote bugs as an additional source of protein, in foods such as brownie mixes, cakes, breads, or crackers. This fits in with the current popularity of protein as an additive in a number of foods that never contained significant amounts, catering to consumer demand and to marketing imperatives—even though a large proportion of North American eaters already consume close to twice the recommended daily amounts. But addding yet more protein to our crowded diets undoubtedly makes them less sustainable, not more.
In short, chewing on an insect protein bar between two carnist meals or adding cricket meal to your banana bread won’t stop global warming.
Insects Are a Tough Sell
Beyond the number crunching, a fundamental problem remains with positioning insects as a sustainable food: in European-derived cultures, almost no one wants to eat them.
Influencing food choice is an extremely complex task, and rational arguments—such as increased sustainability—just don’t work all that well. There is the theory—the top-down, logical calculation—and then the gritty, chewy, sensual practice of putting something in your mouth and swallowing it. Apart from some stringently “eco-aware” eaters, most consumers are primarily interested in the hedonic qualities of a food: Is this delicious? Do I feel good when I eat it? And no one can be expected to durably adopt a food they consider unpalatable or repulsive, no matter how environmentally conscious they are.
Yet many companies currently marketing insect products focus on abstract rational benefits rather than perceptible, measurable ones such as sensory pleasure. Most of them strive to mask the insect ingredient’s sensory properties with the use of spices, sweeteners, or strong flavourings. Näak, a Montreal-based company selling protein bars, even noticed a marked uptick in purchases once they lowered the amount of cricket flour their bars contained. Their consumers preferred the taste and texture of better-known ingredients and bought more bars, even though the environmental benefit attributable to bugs was lower. Therefore, if sustainability is a driving concern, it cannot supersede matters of taste and deliciousness; advocates need to focus on actual, perceptible benefits to the eater, not just the planet, if they want to foster real change in consumers’ plates.
There is one other thing to consider in the case of bugs. The energy, time, and money required to convince consumers to adopt more sustainable behaviours are enormous. When you add a scary critter into the equation, it becomes a herculean task, so it makes sense to critically examine whether it’s all worthwhile. Insects indisputably fare better (from a sustainability point of view) than behemoths such as cattle or lamb. But they still pale in comparison to most plant foods or even less resource-intensive, protein-rich animal foods that people already consume readily, such as eggs or small fish (in certain conditions). In such a context, it is worth asking whether all the energy mobilized to promote insects as a potential food—especially through a sustainability discourse—could not be more efficiently directed towards supporting foods that are already familiar to consumers and present less of an adoption hurdle. Legumes for instance, would be one option, if the real objective was to manage resources more efficiently and mitigate environmental destruction, rather than market a new niche product.
In the quest for more sustainable protein, a growing number of advocates have been touting insects as a potential solution—one that requires less feed, water, and space than conventional livestock, and which generates fewer noxious emissions. The nascent edible insect industry was quick to brandish such arguments to promote their products, even though sustainability claims were still preliminary, potentially undermining their credibility. What is more, the products currently on offer for consumers cannot conceivably replace more problematic protein such as meat; instead, they are mostly additions to our already high-impact diets, making them more onerous still. Finally, to generate true impact from a sustainability perspective, efforts to curb undesirable behaviours should be directed in the most efficient way possible, which might not tip the final balance in favour of insects.
Rather than focus on the consumer end of the food chain, advocates could investigate other creative—and less confronting—ways to integrate insects’ sustainable advantages into the food system. TriCycle (in Quebec, Canada) is experimenting with hyperlocal tailored technologies that integrate insects into sustainable ecosystems, rather than growing them as an end in themselves. The insects are valued as an end product, but other positive outcomes—such as integrated waste management and fertilizer from insect excrements—are also drivers. Producing insects as feed for animals, especially for fish and fowl, seems like another promising opportunity, one that could more directly tackle sustainability issues while bypassing consumer reluctance. Enterra Foods (in British Columbia, Canada) sells whole insects, meal, and oils for pets and livestock, replacing more resource-intensive meats without facing attitudinal barriers.
As a case study, insects illuminate the crucial necessity of examining sustainability claims in a critical light. They also show just how difficult it is to effect meaningful change in people’s dietary choices, especially when faced with a potential food that many find so repellent. Without discounting them altogether as part of sustainable food systems, it is important to critically consider the ways in which their benefits can be most efficiently mobilized, rather than to focus on developing a new lucrative niche of consumer-oriented convenience products with little demonstrable advantage.
Discussion Q uestions
- How can sustainability claims be critically examined for other foods that aim to replace animal protein, such as legumes or lab-grown meat?
- What are some of the ways in which the relevant industry markets these products, and are they coherent with sustainability claims?
- How do the material realities of these foods influence their potential adoption as a meat replacement?
BBC Radio 1. 2019. Would You Eat Insects to Save the Planet? BBC.
Deroy, O., B. Reade, and C. Spence. 2015. “The Insectivore’s Dilemma, and How to Take the West Out of It.” Food Quality and Preference 44: 44–55. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodqual.2015.02.007
Probyn, E. 2011. “Eating Roo: Of Things That Become Food.” New Formations 74: 33–45. https://doi.org/10.3898/nEWf.74.02.2011
Shelomi, M. 2015. “Why We Still Don’t Eat Insects: Assessing Entomophagy Promotion Through a Diffusion of Innovations Framework.” Trends in Food Science and Technology45: 311–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tifs.2015.06.008
Van Huis, A., J. van Itterbeek, H. Klunder, E. Mertens, A. Halloran, G. Muir, and P. Vantomme. 2013. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Wilson, B. 2019. “Protein Mania: The Rich World’s New Diet Obsession.” The Guardian, January 4.