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Bugs: coming to a restaurant near you?

It’s an interesting time to think about the future of food. Globalisation, wanderlust and culinary creativity means that people are exposed to global cuisine like never before. Agricultural systems are however, struggling around the world. Add environmental issues like climate change and water scarcity to the mix and the future of food becomes even more complex. As the world’s population is set to rise to nine billion by 2050, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation claims that we need a 70% increase in the food that we produce to sustain the people the planet will be home to.

We know that eating meat is bad for the environment but how likely is it that we’ll all turn vegetarian to save the planet? Celebrity initiatives like Meat-free Monday have been trying to shape consumer behaviour and influence a low-meat diet and vegetarian-only restaurants are becoming more common. It’s not just meat; animal-based produce like eggs, milk and other dairy products all form part of global diets and are both land-intensive and a major source of greenhouse gases. With the population increase combined with the growth of the middle-classes (and increased incomes), livestock production is only likely to go up.

Social norms evolve over time and acceptance to explore alternatives to our traditional sources of nutrition may even include foods that were previously seen as unacceptable. This is where edible insects are coming in to the picture – is it time to change what we eat and what we serve in our restaurants? There are a growing number of restaurants that have bugs on the menu; from Archipelago in London (UK) Afrodite in Nice (France) and Bug Appétit in New Orleans (USA) to name just three.

Eating insects has been part of some cultures for generations and can be considered a delicacy. This is particularly true in parts of Africa and Asia including Cambodia where Bugs Café in Siem Reap serves a selection of crickets, grasshoppers, ants, silkworms, scorpions and spiders. Nutrient-rich, insects can make a vital contribution to the diets of poor and developing countries whilst also helping to reduce environmentally damaging systems associated with farming. Some contain more iron than spinach and other green vegetables and so make a much more nutritious and often, cost-effective snack, whilst others such as crickets have twice the level of protein as beef. High in fats, proteins and micro-nutrients, edible insects are also produced with lower greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. Their ability to multiply quicker than livestock means that demands can be met in a timely way. The cost, environmental and nutritional benefits means that edible insects may well be coming to a menu near you.

In Europe, the market is relatively immature but things are changing. Nordic countries in particular are leading the way through academic research and trials to scale edible insect production, for example, the Swedish University Centre for Agricultural Sciences is exploring agricultural by-products that can be used as feeds. Big businesses are also seeing the value in thinking about insects as substitutes to protein and nutrients in their products and it is driving corporate research and development investment. The mass production of insects is becoming a reality. Part of the challenge that the western market faces is the limited consumer acceptance of eating insects so they are being introduced in to the food market in subtle ways – in chocolate bars and cakes in powdered form rather than “bugs on a stick” that form part of the streetfood culture in parts of Asia.

As Josh Evans in his documentary Bugs points out, whilst there are some environmental advantages of substituting edible insects in our diet to replace resource intensive meats, we might have got our priorities wrong. The market-driven supply and demand culture that has permeated societies means that consumption patterns are fundamentally unsustainable. Mass farming edible insects that are exported around the world surely perpetuate the same problems rather than fixes them? The challenge for the future is facing up to those that dominate the food markets and regaining control of what we eat and where it is produced.

Over time, market liberalisation has meant that consumers have stopped eating seasonally and now expect year-round access to produce, disregarding the need to eat what is produce locally and within their own agricultural contexts – the boom in awareness of the benefits of avocados for example has seen restaurants dedicated to eating that one fruit in different ways becoming the “go to” places of our time. This is in countries that have never grown avocados nor will they. The social and environmental implications of such trends are huge. Meanwhile, to counter this there is also growing interest from those wanting to consume locally sourced, organic produce that is in season. There are restaurants that are making this part of their brand differentiation and identity. What we’ve learnt is that a blanket approach to food consumption hasn’t worked.

It’s an age-old question: do consumers lead or respond to trends? What role is there for chefs and restauranteurs to put environmental sustainability as much on the menu as the latest culinary delights?! I would argue that they have a big role to play, but I’m biased. We should be doing more to ensure that people get the nutrients and food that they need, wherever they are. Eating bugs might be one step in that process.

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