Editor’s note: This opinion piece by Jon Sanders first appeared at American Institute for Economic Research.
As the Decade of Forgetting lurches on, our self-appointed elites now no longer seem to know about food. For example, a July 20, 2022 headline from the BBC asked “Could grasshoppers really replace beef?”
The correct answer — “No” — was of course not up for consideration. For years some environmentalists have insisted that people must subsist on a diet of bugs in order to save the planet. It seems that, as with almost everything that people enjoy for life (including exhaling), meat production and consumption involve greenhouse gas emissions. Bugs and worms, however, are plentiful and full of protein. The bug diet is such an obvious solution to their imagined problem, only the food preferences of people in the wealthy West stand in the way. Here’s a representative paragraph from the BBC:
Around 2,000 insect species are eaten worldwide in countries across Africa, South America and Asia. Thailand has a particularly thriving insect industry, with 20,000 farms producing 7,500 tonnes of bugs per year. But many people in Europe and the US are still hesitant to eat insects despite their excellent taste and environmental and nutritional benefits, missing an opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of their diets.
The Economist also wants to fix the West’s weird hang-up about wanting to enjoy food. “Although two billion people around the world regularly eat insects, consumers in the West have historically shunned them as a food source,” opened a 2020 story titled “Edible insects and lab-grown meat are on the menu: Coming to a table near you.” It continued: “But concerns about the environmental impact of food production are putting insects on the menu: they are rich in protein and more sustainable to produce than meats such as beef or pork.”
The appeal, you’ll notice, is threefold: environmental guilt (“you don’t want your meal to have a carbon footprint, do you?”), nagging (“eat your buggies; they’re good for you”), and international peer pressure (“Well, Africa and Asia think they’re cool”). Suffice it to say the argument pro dining on bugs isn’t exactly leading with taste.
In fact, academic research in 2019 investigated the extent to which the “yuck factor” causes people not to want to consume food made of insects or drink beverages and take medicines with ingredients reclaimed from sewage (or eat misshapen fruits and vegetables). The introduction leads with question-begging that “we are facing a crisis of resource sustainability,” a “predicament” exacerbated by the fact that “Western consumers want their protein from creatures with four legs, not six [and] their foods and medicines to be natural, not manufactured.” That being given, the research sought to see how well providing “cognitive evaluations” of the products and using “reappraisal and suppression” techniques could influence people’s willingness to accept bug-based food as well as drinks and meds based on ingredients found in sewage.
That same year the Washington Post published a business column by Christopher Ingraham titled “Maggots: A taste of food’s future.” The column opened with a look at an entrepreneur who sells black soldier fly larvae as food for exotic pets that eat insects. It quickly moved on to find a university professor to wonder why we all can’t eat them, too.
A lame reappraisal technique was employed. “The practice [of eating insects] hasn’t caught on in Europe or the United States, in part, because of long-standing cultural attitudes toward insects,” opined Ingraham. It never seems to occur to these anti-foodies that being able to choose not to eat bugs or drink sewage is a wealth effect. Ingraham continued: “This is somewhat puzzling, considering many Westerners happily consume foods such as crab and lobster, which are really just giant sea bugs.”
Feeling better about maggots yet? If you think about it, your lobster beurre blanc is really just larvae beurre blanc.
In 2021 the European Commission approved dried yellow mealworms for human consumption. Bloomberg published an opinion piece by Amanda Little praising the decision, for “confer[ring] a kind of dignity to the lowly, protein-rich microbeasts that we foolishly dismiss as pests.” I wonder if Little ever spent a second’s worry prior to that article (or since) about mealworms’ supposed lack of dignity. I don’t care if you put them in a tux, that’s not people food.
Amanda Little did address that aspect of the problem, however. If we can’t get people to eat worms and maggots directly, we can still do so indirectly by making them a “feedstock for poultry, farmed fish, pork and beef which are currently fattened on environmentally costly soy and corn feeds.” Perhaps so. The problem there is the disparity between what’s “environmentally costly” and what’s monetarily costly. Little points out that insect feed costs twice as much as fish feed and many times over the cost of poultry feed. The proffered solution to that problem was nigh on unheard-of in the annals of environmental advocacy: deregulation. Specifically, easing federal restrictions against which insects can be farmed, limitations on how their proteins can be used, and prohibitions against using food waste to raise them.
But Little also looked forward to filling people’s bellies with maggots and their heads with presumed eco-virtue. “The environmental benefits of insect proteins both for human and animal consumption are astounding. Black soldier fly larvae, in particular, hold promise.”
Hold promise for whom? People who despise humanity so much they would rather have us fed processed soy, cricket, and maggot kibbles like dogs for the “environmental benefits”? What about our benefits? How many elitists prating about black soldier fly larvae protein would actually crave it for themselves, meal after dreary meal?
It’s tempting to dismiss all the you-will-eat-bugs talk as speculative nonsense, which it may well be. Nevertheless, our media have developed an increasing tendency of trying to normalize abnormal things by suddenly talking them up — either to condition us for their preferred policy outcomes (e.g., by 2030 you’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy) or to obfuscate their manifest bad effects (e.g., Paul Krugman telling us we’re “not currently in a recession” and we’re winning the war on inflation “faster and more easily than most observers expected”). If the goal indeed is normalization, then maybe their thinking is that wealthy Westerners wouldn’t mind privation if we’d already developed a taste for worms.
Should we start seeing stories about how not eating bugs could lead to myocarditis and “Sudden Adult Death Syndrome,” however, look out.
The Decade of Forgetting has also lost touch with the critical reality that people enjoy food in many ways. Taste is one of the five senses. Breaking bread together is a foundation of family and friendship, and the kitchen is well-known to be the gathering place of the home. Eating together is a deep, meaningful act of conviviality. We share the foods we enjoy with the people we enjoy.
People delight in cooking, eating, hosting dinner parties, having cookouts and attending them, going to restaurants, and so forth. Cookbooks are a big part of the publishing industry. Kitchen stores are packed with a bewildering array of gadgets. There is a range in price and capabilities of backyard grills that is (in a word) astounding. The Food Network is a highly popular cable channel. People like to watch cooking competitions. We even have celebrity chefs.
It is human nature to crave variety in our diet as with other things. Tellingly, we like variety so much we describe it using a culinary metaphor: it’s the spice of life. To reduce food to the mere ingestion of nourishment is a dismal view of food and humanity, the stuff of prisoner meal trays or on-screen video game rations.
Human nature also contains a boundless, restless spirit for innovation. When left free to strive and pursue, it yields byproducts of great economic growth and wealth creation. This same unquenchable spirit doesn’t rest at home, and it quite enjoys the kitchen. Who doesn’t have their own personal recipe, their own unique take on an old classic, a secret formula, a one-of-a-kind creation, a family-famous dessert, a cocktail all their own, or a special little kitchen trick?
The problem isn’t us having a “yuck factor” to dignified mealworms and astounding fly larvae. The problem is them declaring such things “the future of food” and telling us that our disgust is a threat to the world. If they want to persuade us that bugs and worms are desirable foodstuffs, then they should make them actually delectable.
They’d need to trust the market process and people’s ability to choose for themselves, which are very unappetizing propositions to doctrinaire environmentalists and their allied politicians, academics, and media. But first they’d have to produce grasshopper, maggot, or mealworm “meat” capable of outcompeting beef. Could they really do that? No.
Jon Sanders is director of the Center for Food, Power, and Life and also Research Editor at the John Locke Foundation.