Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bug and chips twice, please

How about that for a book title?

I've had this little book for a number of years now, ever since I attended an evening lecture run by the London Natural History Museum in the late 1980s. It was written by Vincent M Holt and first published in 1885 by the Museum itself.

The lecturer, whose name I've forgotten I'm afraid, made the very valid point that insects and other invertebrates outnumber us backboners by millions to one. And yet, on the whole, this vast source of protein is almost entirely unused. I say almost ... because we do eat some. In the UK, we eat crabs and prawns and lobsters, cockles, scallops and oysters. But if it hasn't come out of the sea we go all weird and wobbly. Why? Why this prejudice against land-based arthropods? The lecturer (and I'll have to paraphrase here) made this very point.

Prawns and locusts share a common ancestry. They are both arthropods with external skeletons and almost identical internal arrangements. However, one evolved to live on land and in the air; the other to live in the sea. Locusts eat grain and corn and green leaves and fruit. Prawns eat fish crap, bacteria and micro-organisms and quite frequently hang around near sewage outfalls. So which would you rather eat? Most would still go for the prawn.

And yet, they taste pretty much the same. I can vouch for that. This wasn't just a lecture, you see ... it was a tasting. And during the evening I munched my way through deep fried honey ants, a barbecued witchety grub, a kind of black pudding made from flies and a locust cocktail. And they were all delicious. They really were.

He also explained that there would be less famine in some areas of Africa if people started eating insects again. Unfortunately, this source of valuable protein has been lost ever since Christian Missionaries managed to persuade the vast majority of tribes that eating bugs was dirty and disgusting. A prejudice, incidentally, that was foisted onto most of you too.

Food prejudices are not a uniquely British phenomenon, but we are oddly particular. We'll eat a lamb or a calf or a cow or a pig. But we won't eat a horse or a dog or a squirrel. Most people will no longer eat rabbit (delicious) and the fishmongers get asked for almost nothing but cod. Try some John Dory, or gurnard, or pollock or hake - they're fantastic fish. And what's with the idea of 'dolphin-friendly tuna'? What's so special about dolphins? Is it because they look like they're smiling? Or is it their supposed intelligence? Let's face it, if whales were that intelligent, they wouldn't keep swimming near Japan would they? No one seems to give a toss about the tuna, though. All tinned tuna is tuna-unfriendly.

This is a perfect example of what some call species-ism but what I call Mammal-nepotism; the idea being that the closer something is related to us, the more we like it; the further away it is, the ickier it is. It's no great surprise that the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose a charismatic warm-blooded mammal - the giant panda - for its logo is it? Yet if you look at the list of critically endangered species (as opposed to just endangered) what do we find? The Antiguan Racer Snake, the Spotted Handfish, the Australian Ant, and the Southern Blue Fin Tuna (I hope you're listening to this, Flipper).

But as Douglas Adams pointed out in his book Last Chance to See (co-written with Mark Carwardine), the best way to save an animal from extinction is to eat it. As soon as an animal or plant has commercial value, resources will be found to make lots of them. Chickens will never be extinct. However, let's return to the subject of eating insects. Here are a few facts for you.

There are 1,462 recorded species of edible insect. Mealworms are an incredibly rich source of nutrition, having more complete protein than soy, meat, or fish and are concentrated sources of calcium, niacin, magnesium, potassium, the B-vitamins, and many other nutrients. Wouldn't they go some way to alleviating world hunger? And they're beetle larvae - beetles are the most numerous species on the planet. 100g of crickets or grasshoppers contain 121 calories, 12.9g of protein, 5.5g of fat, 5.1g of carbohydrates, 75.8 mg of calcium, 185.3mg of phosphorous, 9.5mg of iron, 0.36mg of thiamin, 1.09mg of riboflavin and 3.10mg of niacin.

Fully 95% of all living creatures on Earth are insects – that’s approximately 10 quintillion (10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000) individual insects alive on this planet at this exact moment. 10% of the total biomass of life on Earth is made up just of ants (some scientists claim the figure may even be as high as 15-20%). And that’s not counting the other arthropods – spiders, scorpions, crabs, lobsters, woodlice, etc. many of which are also edible. By comparison, we humans make up just 0.33% - and there are six billion of us.

So, if we embraced the bug as a foodstuff, we'd not only ensure the bugs' and our survival; we'd also have an exciting new range of meals to choose from. Anticipating this, the excellent Mr Holt included recipes and suggested menus in his little book. Who could not resist the lure of Boeuf aux chenilles (Braised beef with caterpillars), Larves de guepes frites au rayon (Wasp grubs fried in the comb) or the ultimate supper dish of Phalenes au parmesan (Moths on toast)?

There is absolutely no difference between a snail and an oyster - they are both gastropods. And the snails you pay so much for in France are the same as the ones in your back garden. Exactly the same. So get out the garlic butter and tuck in.

You have nothing to lose but your prejudices.
Grow-a-Brain has some great insect-eating links on his site here.


Me said...

Great post - but not tempted to snack on the insect suggestion.
This is a first for an overeating obese woman like myself!

Mark said...

I'm going to link to you for this post, btw.