The Western Aversion To Insects As Food May Not Be Unshakable

A news release (written by University of Wisconsin staff writer Margaret Pelzmann) through the UW News Service last June was picked up by the Associated Press and carried far and wide. Feedback was received from Asia (China and the Philippines), Africa (Zimbabwe), The London Daily Mirror, and from radio stations, newspapers and magazines all across the United States and Canada. As a result of the original release and a subsequent “ripple effect,” there have been more than 75 followup interviews from such sources, including BBC, Irish Radio, Canadian CBS, Public Radio, Chronicle of Higher Education, Christian Science Monitor, and a variety of other news and educational outlets. It wasn’t surprising that the story was carried far and wide. It’s easy to get the attention of the public if you want to talk about eating insects. What was surprising was that, despite the great potential for editorial license out there, the message in this press release managed to retain its intended focus. The message was that Americans should be more aware that insects are palatable, and that they are traditionally used and nutritionally important in many Third World rural populations that are increasingly vulnerable to protein-energy malnutrition.

It was pleasing to learn, both from the print media feedback and as a guest on more than 20 live call-in radio programs, that this idea makes sense to Americans. The attitude of callers was invariably positive, suggesting that our aversion may not be as unshakable as has been presumed. With surprising frequency, in fact, people expressed the opinion that there is no reason why we Americans shouldn’t include insects in our diet, instead of dousing the world with insecticides.

In the followup contacts, a few media people, but only a few, were disappointed to learn that I was not going to be so eccentric as to pop a couple for the camera. People magazine aborted an article when they were informed that, no, I would not pose “in action” for their photographer. Our rationale was that such “showmanship” distracts from the real message and becomes merely entertainment, not education.

In conclusion, I can say that this type of activity is not without honor and remuneration. I was awarded tickets for dinner for two at the local Pizza Hut by a Milwaukee radio station and honored by a Ponca City, Oklahoma, radio station with their Breakfast Club Award, which is given only 52 times per year to the individual who has created the most interesting headline of the week.

Pesticides in Food – New Twist to an Old Problem
(Reprinted from theSanFrancisco Chronicle, September22, 1988. Thanks to Dr. Chris Merritt, UW Entomology)

Swarms of locusts attacked the western coast of Saudi Arabia after flying across the Red Sea from Sudan and Ethiopia. Strong winds may carry the locusts from the 600-mile-long strip near Jiddah north to Jordan, where the military has been placed on alert to combat the invasion.
The worst locust plague in 25 years has provided a gastronomical delight for some Saudi Arabians who have taken to grilling them like shrimp. Health officials, however, warned them to stop eating the insects because they may be tainted with lethal insecticides.

Ecologically Speaking …

Professor David Pimentel, Cornell University, points out that the estimated average biomass weight of arthropods in the United States is about 1000 kg/ha compared to less than 100 kg/ha for livestock (Pimentel et al. Energy and Land Constraints in Food Protein Production, Science 190:754-761, 1975; Environmental Quality and NaturalBiota, Bioscience, 30:750-755, 1980). These numbers are averages, of course, and biomass of different groups varies considerably with habitat type, but the discerning reader will have no trouble relating the implications of these estimates to Brian Hocking’s 1960 prediction that “We have about 50 more years of steaks….”
All that is needed is to find more efficient ways of harvesting some of these insects. Chickens and fish will gladly accept any that we don’t want.

Before leaving this subject, it should be added that, although insects aren’t the only form of animal life that averages far greater biomasses than vertebrates, a strong point in their favor is that tens of millions and probably hundreds of millions of people are already accustomed to the idea of utilizing insects and, furthermore, they like them. And the processing is simple. The same two points cannot be made for other ecologically efficient groups that are, or might be, candidates for expanded food use.

Research Request Department: I am seeking information and would welcome correspondence on the following: 1) The utilization of plastic bags as substrate containers for insect larvae culture; 2) Use of insects in pisciculture; 3) Pesticide residues in insect larvae.

Gerardo Lardé
Instituto Salvadoreno de Investigaciones
del Café
Nueve San Salvador
El Salvador, C. A.