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Edible insects are one hop closer to our plates

The Montreal Gazette by Laura Shine 29 January 2019

Monday was a watershed moment for the edible insect community in Quebec.

Yes, there is such a thing. Insects have been crawling into the food spotlight lately, bolstered by assertions about sustainability and health. They’re good for you and good for the planet, say enthusiasts, whose numbers keep growing.

On Monday, a new threshold in acceptability was reached: food TV superstar Ricardo Larrivée included powdered crickets in a quintessentially homey recipe, for banana bread. His guest, nutritionist Bernard Lavallée, declared that if anyone could get Quebecers to eat insects, it must be the revered Ricardo.

He may be on point. Sure, bugs are still a long hop from most Canadians’ shopping carts. But last October, a study revealed that an impressive 10 per cent of Canadians agree or strongly agree that bugs can provide a replacement to meat, an idea that found higher than average support (12 per cent) in this province.

Tellingly, Loblaws started stocking powdered crickets in 2018. A host of products found a spot on competitors’ shelves: energy bars, pasta, crackers. Along with the Ricardo endorsement, these items enhance observability, one of the cornerstones of acceptance: the ability to see an innovation actually being used, ideally in an ordinary way (banana bread, protein bars) by ordinary people (the guy next to you in the check-out line).

The bug trend is hitching a ride on our ever-growing protein obsession. Protein is popping up in the most unexpected places: bread, deserts, even flavoured water. But with meat increasingly in the crosshairs, consumers are looking for alternative sources.

Enthusiasts claim that bugs pack a greener protein punch, requiring less feed, water and space than traditional livestock. By now, we know that industrially raised livestock cause dramatic deforestation, churn out greenhouse gases and require a mind-boggling volume of water to produce —up to 15,000 litres per kilogram of red meat. That’s the volume of a small above-ground swimming pool.

So, should you hop on the bandwagon?

It’s always good to hedge our bets by broadening our ideas about edibility. But new protein sources should replace something else, not just add to an already crowded diet.

Though our current dietary fixation might make us think otherwise, we in the “rich world” consume plenty of protein already — almost twice the required amount on average. Insects might be a part of the solution, but only if you give up your steak and chops once in a while.

Foods are not inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, sustainable or not. This fiction resurfaces over and over again, with different actors leading the hype. Soy, salmon and quinoa were all once touted as miracle ingredients (and, incidentally, faultless protein sources). Turns out that mass-scale monoculture, factory farming and globalized supply chains will transform any product into a monstrous, devastating resource-gobbler. Insects included.

Foods are part of a system, and it is that system that we have to question. A system that is primarily convenience-oriented, dependant on massive waste, where cheap unsustainable foods are available everywhere at any time. A system where actual costs — to the planet, to the workers, to the animals — are left out of the price we pay.

Gimmicky insect products won’t address this adequately, unless they’re only used as gateways to bypass consumers’ reluctance. Otherwise, they risk turning bugs into the next flash food fad. Insects as part of a manifold strategy to reduce meat consumption? Great. Bugs as a protein addition to cupcake mix? I’ll take a pass, thanks.

There’s just no such thing as a free lunch. Let us not overlook this once again as bugs wriggle onto our plates.

So, should you give insects a go? Sure. But while you’re at it, bypass the meat counter.

Laura Shine is a Public Scholar and PhD candidate at Concordia University. Her research focuses on the edible insects industry.