We Tell Ourselves Stories to Learn to Eat Bugs

Researchers are hoping to create a cultural context for eating insects and, in turn, helping to save the environment.

Cricket onion salad. (Photo: Flickr)

Sep 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

A team of scientists, researchers, a nutritionist, and a chef laid out a picnic blanket on the grassy lawn of Einstein’s Garden in Brecon Beacons, Wales. No, this isn’t the beginning to a joke—it was the premise for the Bug Banquet held at the Green Man Festival in late August. There was no risk of insects overrunning lunch—the bugs were lunch.

“You get kids and adults coming up to some insect food or live insects, and normally somebody will go, ‘Eww!’ ” said Charlotte Payne, a research associate in the department of population health at the University of Oxford, who helped organized the event. But those initial visceral reactions quickly get turned on their head thanks to peer pressure. “The other people react by going, ‘Don’t be silly. Just try it,’ ” she continued. The respective roles of grossed-out and goader were evenly split between the some 5,000 children and adults who chowed down on grasshopper brownies and cricket fudge between performances by Father John Misty and St. Vincent.

The picnic was a form of what Slow Food International calls “taste education.” By teaching children and adults about food in the context of its relationship to culture and pleasure, the idea goes, eaters can learn to value the social importance of food—any food. It may be one of the most promising ways to normalize the idea of eating insects for dinner.

For her part, Payne likes to tell the “stories” behind insects. She may consider herself more scientist than taste educator, but she is naturally drawn to framing insects within a cultural context. It’s not simply that insects are a component of diets in many parts of the world; it’s that they play a role in culinary and societal traditions.

As an example, she tells the story of Japanese wasp hunts, in which, at the same time each year, a small piece of white string is tied to a wasp that is then followed through the forest until it leads the hunters to its nest. Once located, the nest is dug up, and the rest of the day is spent picking out the wasp larvae. “It’s quite an intricate process, and at the end of the day, everybody has their family meal around it,” Payne said. That it is laborious, dangerous, and time-consuming is part of the fun, she explained, and this kind of seasonal food activity is something most people can relate to.

“I think it’s something a lot of people have a memory of from their childhood—like going crab fishing, like hunting for clams at the seaside, like foraging for blackberries in autumn,” she said. People know this feeling of associating a food with a season, and it takes a lot of work, and at the end of the day, you all enjoy it together as a family or as a community. I like to show that side of edible insects.”

If wasp hunts can become the new clam dig, culturally speaking, it could be a big deal. Because “insects have huge potential for the future,” Payne said. Why? Protein. Thirty percent of the world’s ice-free land surface is used for livestock production, and those animals are responsible for about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and a leading contributor to climate change. About a third of the world’s crops are fed to animals; in the United States these animals consume 80 percent of corn. Environmentalists, in other words, don’t love livestock.

Edible insects offer an alternative that can address land use, food waste, and climate change in one fell swoop, Payne said. “We’ve yet to see exactly how that’s going to play out, but in theory, insects could provide a far greater amount of protein than cows or sheep for the same amount of land. They can also thrive on things that are currently going to waste within our food system, like distilled brewers grain,” she said.

Insect tartare isn’t likely to take the place of beef anytime soon, though in the last several years of her research, Payne has noticed a shift in cultural perceptions. (“People used to think it was crazy,” she said.) In the meantime, her Ph.D. research will examine the financial feasibility of dual farming of crops and insects.

“As we see a growing interest in insects as food, we see a growing concern on the terrible effects pesticides are having on our environment,” she said. “I think it makes complete sense to start this kind of double farming approach. To not only farm grain but also pests that are on the grain. And then you’ve got organic corn, and you’ve got organic grasshoppers. I think this is something that could change agricultural systems, ideally across the world.”

Brownies, in the meantime, are a good way to spread the grasshopper word.