3 Oct
2015

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…

David Gracer making his case for entomophagy.

David Gracer making his case for entomophagy.

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It’s dinner time, and there are two food sources in your fridge. One has spent its life eating salads. The other has grown up scavenging rotting fish and, well, feces. Choosing dinner would be simple, wouldn’t it? Except for one minor complication: the dish that holds the scavenger contains lobster. And the one holding the veggie eaters is filled with crickets and grasshoppers. Before reaching for the takeout menus, David Gracer would like to talk to you.

“One might ask, ‘which is the more wholesome to eat? Do you want the one that eats leaves and flowers, or do you want the one that eats ‘et cetera’? Most people say they want the lobster, but that’s because we can’t see them eating what they do. Food for us comes from the grocery store, which separates us from the actual process of raising, feeding, and killing animals.” This, in turn, is why it is easier to reject insect consumption over animals.

David Gracer is an educator by profession and entomophagist by passion. In a recent talk, he used his professional skills to promote his passion in a talk sponsored by the Ocean State Bird Club (www.oceanstatebirdclub.org).
Entomophagy is the practice of eating bugs. Crickets. Stinkbugs. Spiders. Grasshoppers. While Gracer acknowledges that he’s engaged in an uphill battle against the popular perception of eating insects as offensive, he maintains that insects have long been a part of human diets. The origins of modern palate preferences are rooted deep in history, Gracer says.

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Moth… or dessert? You decide.

“The animosity that we have toward insects as a culture is based partly on the whole idea that insects (such as locusts) are competition or a threat when it comes to food production. We also look at bugs in our homes as vectors of disease, and people say ‘bugs carry disease and will make you sick,’ which is a lot like saying, ‘dogs bite people.’ Because occasionally, dogs do bite people, but the vast majority are benign, friendly, and great pets. In the same way, most insects represent a lot of help to us, including pollination and waste management. Insects do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of how nature works.”

Gracer pointed out that, since 1885, only about 25 books on entomophagy have been published. However, thousands of scientific papers have been published in the last five years alone. This is a reflection of the growing concerns about feeding the world in the midst of climate change. “Some people are really paying attention to insect consumption as a food source to the future.” Gracer provided a series of tables comparing various insect species to animal species used in human food consumption. More often than not, insects were at least as nutritious as animals at a fraction of the cost.

The history of insect consumption, while widespread, indicates a decline in recent centuries. “There are strong indications that the ancient Greeks and Romans had their favorite insect dishes. There’s a certain amount of entomophagy in the histories of China and Japan, and there’s a solid presence of it within certain Native American tribes, especially in parts of the country where the land was less conducive to raising crops and animals.” While many cultures have eliminated insects from their diet, Thailand continues to value them. Indeed, Thailand is one country where prepared insects are sold in marketplaces right alongside chickens and vegetables. “In Thailand, the desire for insects actually exceeds supply.”

Gracer maintains that bug consumption is sometimes viewed as a form of cultural regression. Societies that had long eaten bugs begin to reject entomophagy as they move into the middle class, as if they have moved beyond that element of their diets. Another issue is that, as a region becomes more prosperous and begins raising more crops, farmers begin using pesticides, rendering traditional insect foods inedible. In western African places like Mali, parents are beginning to discourage their children from eating grasshoppers, and insect that has long been a part of their diets, because they are concerned about pesticide contamination. Gracer spoke of a Mexican scientist who reacted to this trend by asking, “Why do we douse crops with pesticide when the insects we’re killing are more nutritious than the crops we’re raising?”

“People who have access to a wider array of food are less likely to eat insects. We have tamed the food production chain. We’re used to technology giving us more of the foods we want. Eating bugs is viewed as going backwards in our evolutionary history. And then, of course, is the reaction most people have to the prospect of becoming insectivorous.

“Disgust kills curiosity; it kills inquiry.” Gracer says that the best way to combat this is not through the media, because the visuals and attitudes are too deeply ingrained to be undermined by ideas alone. He prefers firsthand experience. To that end, he spent a summer going around to 32 local libraries and holding both talks and tastings to challenge people’s ideas about entomophagy. What was interesting about that was that people were much more likely to try them under those circumstances. Another surprise was that in many cases parents would push their children forward to try the bugs that they themselves wouldn’t eat.

“In social space, people are much more likely to overcome their bias and try something new.” To that end, Gracer is pitching the idea of a sort of travelling show, teaming chefs with educators in an effort to get people to experiment. “That’s how we hope to carry the conversations forward.”

1 Comment

  • Fantastic article!! Makes the case!!

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