A Bug’s Life: Will Americans Eat (More) Insects Before Or After We Stop Running Our Cars On Corn?

Posted on

"A Bug’s Life: Will Americans Eat (More) Insects Before Or After We Stop Running Our Cars On Corn?"

chapul-cricket-bars

Fun facts: “An individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it,” according to Scientific American. And NPR reported last year, “2 billion people worldwide already enjoy insects with gusto — in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia.”

Not-so-fun facts: Climate change and dust-bowlification will be sharply reducing arable land and potable water in the coming decades, just as we are adding another 2 billion people to a planet already beyond its carrying capacity. At the same time, many developing countries are shifting toward a meat-based diet that can require 10 times (or more) the land per calorie produced as a grain-based diet.

Something’s gotta give.

As the super-cautious U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned us a month ago, on our current path we face a “breakdown of food systems” and more violent conflict.

The solution, we’re told, is staring us right in the face — literally. Vox proclaims “For your own personal health and for the overall health of the planet, you should be eating more insects. Seriously.” Heck, even a mainstream publication like National Journal just published a piece, “Eat a Cricket, Save the World.” And in February Fox News actually published a non-hippy-bashing piece of straight reporting, “Cricket energy bars aim to get more Americans to eat bugs.”

I am reminded of one of the punchlines for the classic joke “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup”: “Quiet, sir, or everyone will want one.” Who’s laughing now?

Insects for food are getting a lot of buzz for good reason. Crickets are more protein-dense than beef or chicken, and they’re high in other essential nutrients.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization issued a detailed report in 2013, “Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security,” with this chart of the relative greenhouse gas (GHG) impact:

GHG production

Production of GHGs per kilogram of mass gain

And if low emissions of GHGs don’t move you, here’s land use:

land use

Land used due to the production of 1 kg of protein from from various sources. The grey bars are the minimum values and dark green bars are maximum values found in the literature.

And if land use doesn’t persuade you, here’s water consumption — grams of protein per 100 gallons of water used (via Chapul):

waterconservationdiagram

So assuming we maintain our do-little climate policy and spread dustbowl-ification around the globe even as extreme weather, sea level rise, and higher temperatures drive up food prices to double or triple current levels, we can be quite certain that post-2050 some 9 billion people will not be eating the current American diet, since there won’t be enough land or water.

Of course, we are the breadbasket of the world, so Americans may be the last to feel the stomach growl of food insecurity. Here, even big jumps in wholesale prices have only a modest effect on retail prices and family budgets. The situation is quite different in places like Egypt where food costs can be 40 percent of the family budget or more. This is but one of many reasons Americans are unlikely to rush to embrace culinary insects.

I have no doubt that Americans will ultimately feel some moral responsibility in the coming decades to help the world deal with its inevitable “breakdown of food systems,” as the IPCC put it, or the “long-term and politically dangerous food crisis” we have begun, as uber-hedge fund manager Jeremy Grantham put it in his 2012 analysis, “Welcome to Dystopia.”

But we have a lots of other strategies that are probably easier for most Americans to swallow than crickets. First off, as CP has reported, Americans throw out a stunning 40 percent of our food — total U.S. food losses and waste comes to more than 600 pounds per person! I think we all know that it wouldn’t take a lot of money or effort to sharply reduce that waste.

Then there is the question I discussed 3 years ago — “The Corn Ultimatum: How long can Americans keep burning one sixth the world’s corn supply in our cars?” As former President Bill Clinton warned in 2011, “too much corn for ethanol fuel could lead to higher food prices and riots in poor countries.” Grantham was more blunt in 2012:

If one single tankful of pure ethanol were put into an SUV (yes, I know it’s a mix in the U.S., but humor me) it displaces enough food calories to feed one Indian farmer for one year! To persist in such folly if malnutrition increases, as I think it will, would be, to be polite, ungenerous….

Our ethanol policy is becoming the moral equivalent of shooting some poor Indian farmers. Death just comes more slowly and painfully.

So I’m inclined to think we won’t keep our corn ethanol policy forever, especially as corn prices triple or even quintuple (!) over the next 20 years “as extreme weather caused by climate change devastates food production” in the words of an Oxfam study.

That doesn’t mean we won’t eat bugs … or, rather, more bugs. As Scientific American notes:

Even if they aren’t ingredients, the Food and Drug Administration permits a certain amount of insects in food products because it’s practically impossible to keep them completely out. The Food Defect Action Levels outlines the permissible amount of bugs (and other natural contaminants) allowed in food. According to guidelines, pasta may contain an average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams; a cup of raisins can have 33 fruit fly eggs….

For the non-squeamish, the FDA has this helpful guide — the Defect Levels Handbook — to how many insect parts are allowed in your favorite food. TMI?

And lest you think eating crickets is somehow a leftie-hippy thing, SciAm notes that in the Bible, Leviticus 11:22 states:

Of them you may eat: the locust of any kind, the bald locust of any kind, the cricket of any kind, and the grasshopper of any kind.

Look at the bright side: At least we’re not talking about eating Soylent Green.

« »

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the ThinkProgress Privacy Policy and agree to the ThinkProgress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, or Hotmail’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policies as applicable, which can be found here.