The insects we once regarded with disgust are now being touted as the solution to the world’s food shortages. Can insects really save the world?

Norwegian journalist on ecology for NY TID, Oslo.

Bugs

Andreas Johnsen

Netherlands 2016,1h 13min

Bugs follows Ben Reade and Josh Evans as they tour the world in the tasteful realm of insects. At Copenhagen’s Nordic Food Lab which belongs to Noma-chef Rene Redzepis, they embark on discovering how to prepare some of the world’s 1,900 edible insect species, and create delicacies fit for a world class restaurant.

The background is also political: Insects are constantly referred to as a sustainable alternative to meat, and as something we ought and should consume more of in the future. So, Josh and Ben, who later leaves the project and is replaced by Roberto Flore, sample larvae, termite queens, flies and grasshoppers, locates everyday dishes as well as delicacies, goes hunting in anthills and squeezes honey straight from the hive of African stingless bees. They start out as disgusted by insect eating, but after a while they gobble up everything in their way, fearless and curious – and, in the process, ask themselves whether insects actually are the sustainable protein source of the future. Because, if insects are introduced into the current food system driven by large companies sporting dollar signs in their eyes – will it remain a sustainable food stuff?

It is a relief to watch a documentary on sustainability which does not insist on having found the solution.

Problematic. The journey is thought provoking to witness. From their enthusiasm and joyful outbreaks when discovering a whole new world of flavours and textures, to their disappointment and shattered illusions once they realise that to most of the players, money is still what matters first and foremost, and the insect arena is as unethical as the rest of the food industry. In Kenya, they join insect hunters at work. A boy of twelve takes them inside a large construction where a sharp light is supposed to attract grasshoppers. He hunts there between seven pm and seven am. The sharp light hurts their eyes, and they wake the next morning suffering from a serious case of snow blindness. When they arrive at the hospital, they are greeted by a long row of young, blind men – and back in Denmark they conclude that they are unable to uncritically recommend people to eat more insects as long as the current production methods damage people. They continuously debate this dilemma, and are uncertain whether they can defend elevating insects to a gastronomic delicacy when this would most likely normalise it as a food, and thus increase demand for it. Who would line up to profit from it, and at what human and environmental cost?

A learned aversion. There is no ‘Praise the Lord’ moment in the considering of insects as a potential solution to the environmental challenges facing food production. But at the same token, the film feels somewhat life-affirming. Something profoundly human takes place in the meeting of the practical knowledge of the indigenous people and the technical finesse of the master chefs. Hunting for food has formed part of our existence since day one. It is not long since we started going to the shops to purchase imported garden blueberries instead of going for a walk in the woods to pick them ourselves, when the forest is overflowing. I myself grew up partially self-sufficient, eating food from from the garden, the forest and the sea.

Something profoundly human takes place in the meeting of the practical knowledge of the indigenous people and the technical finesse of the master chefs.

Following their trip around the world, Josh returns to Europe, or rather The Netherlands. He and Ben are cooking with farmed insects, and whilst squeezing black gunk from some of them and cleaning them out thoroughly with his hands, he talks about their journey. «I got food poisoning once, » he says. «It was from eating a burger in Australia. And when I think about it, that burger was the most unnatural food I ate during that whole trip.»

The insects never made him ill. But these are what we find loathsome, despite eating bee vomit (honey) without a second thought, and consider snails from the French kitchens to be a delicacy. And what about prawns, the insects of the sea? They are consumed with glee on every Norwegian pier, every summer. Our Western aversion to insects is revealed as learned and paradoxical. Insects do not make you ill, but if you watched the junk food documentary Supersize Me, you are aware of what a Western fast food diet can do to your body in a short amount of time. We are affected by lifestyle diseases and obesity, whilst spending inordinate amounts of resources producing nutrient-poor food which trigger our brain’s addiction centre. The fear of making a sustainable food source such as insects alluring to an industry and food system they are unable to vouch for, is an evident and growing worry for the chefs.

It’s the economy, stupid. It is a relief to watch a documentary on sustainability that does not insist on having found the solution. The truth is, it is not the food we need to change, it is the way in which we manufacture and distribute it. This is such a complex issue, that one single documentary would not suffice. When diversity disappears for the benefit of large mono cultures – whether soy, sweetcorn or large-scale industrial breeding of cows and pigs – we are left with a vulnerable food basket and an ecosystem close to collapse. Insects are sustainable as food only as long as they are part of a natural diet based on local ingredients and conditions.

And whilst the FAO – the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization – insists that we need to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 to feed the World’s nine billion people – the UN’s WFPD World Food Programme states that we already have food enough for 12 billion people – only that it is completely incorrectly distributed.

So, it is not about insects versus meat. It is about profits versus sustainability. Nestlé, Monsanto, Kraft Foods and General Mills are unable to make insects a sustainable food – because, to them, the bottom line is money, not the future of the planet.

Are insects the sustainable food of the future? In an ideal world: yes, as a natural part of a varied, diverse and locally-based diet. In the real world? It remains to be seen.


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