Natsumi is a writer for Australian Geographic. She loves nothing better than digging up quirky stories in the veins of science, nature and history.
THE WEB IS abuzz this week, with reports out of France of a small, artisanal pasta-maker struggling to keep up with demand for her protein-rich pasta products, made with seven per cent insect flour – that is, pulverised crickets and grasshoppers.
We look back on our feature from AG124 on the implications of eating insects for global health, food security and sustainability.
"Prawns of the sky": In evolutionary terms, arthropods such as locusts are quite closely related to lobsters and other crustaceans.
ON MY PLATE whitebait sits next to a dollop of aioli. But there’s something odd about the meal being served up at Stanley Street Merchants, a pop-up in the sometimes gritty, sometimes posh inner-city suburb of Darlinghurst, Sydney.
Stuck at odd angles to the fish batter are little black bodies with tiny legs and wiry antennae – in other words, I'm looking at a quite deliberate seasoning of Australian tyrant ants.
As I crunch down on a fish and insect mouthful, head chef Matt Stone talks about Noma, the ground-breaking Copenhagen-based restaurant (often ranked one of the best in the world and currently in Australia) that provided the inspiration for the dish.
Because citrus trees aren't naturally found in Denmark Matt explains, Noma uses Scandinavian ants with a citrus flavour as a replacement for lemon in several dishes. I can taste the surprising citrus flavour of the Australian tyrant ant's natural folic acid sparkle across my tongue, mixing pleasantly with the oily flavour of the fish.
Matt says a brief stage (when chefs do short stints at leading restaurants to see how they work and learn new skills) at Noma was eye-opening, particularly about edible local critters.
BUT SPRINKLING ANTS through fancy dishes is about more than just saving food miles. There are growing concerns about food security globally and studies suggest eating insects could be part of the solution. By 2050 the Earth will be home to 9 billion people; and in developing countries, the desire for animal products is rising steeply as economies and incomes grow, meaning that demand for protein will increase 60 per cent by then.
Conventional sources of protein in the form of meat from livestock are already taking an enormous toll on the environment. Grazing land covers 26 per cent of the planet’s ice-free regions, and one-third of the land used for crops goes to feed these animals. Livestock also produce about 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than planes, trains and cars combined.
Tyrant ants, left with whitebait, and crickets and mealworms, right, were served at pop-up restaurant Stanley Street Merchants in Sydney.
According to a 2013 UN report – Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security – insects produce protein much, much more efficiently than traditional meats.
Matt's agrees. “Crickets of [1–2cm] can be bred in about six weeks, will take up no agricultural land and they eat waste like food scraps,” says Matt, who had a small cricket farm at Silo, his Melbourne restaurant (*which has closed since this story was published). High in vitamin B12, which helps the body absorb calcium, he adds they’re also very nutritious.
As well as needing little space, insects emit a fraction of the greenhouse gases of livestock and their ‘feed conversion rate’ is the stuff weathered cattle graziers dream of. A single kilogram of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein, and roughly six times more than fish. They also consume less than one-fifteenth of the water per kilo of protein compared with cattle, while also conserving habitats that would otherwise be damaged by livestock hooves.
‘ENTOMOPHAGY’, OR EATING insects, is also already practiced by 2 billion people. Aboriginal groups across Australia still eat bush tucker that includes larvae, honey ants, scale insects, lerps and Bogong moths, and New Zealand’s huhu grub reportedly tastes like peanut butter.
Indeed caterpillars are popular food across Africa, and in Kenya termites are crushed into a mixture fed to babies. In South America, wasps, spicy red agave worms and apple-flavoured stinkbugs are favoured. While in Japan, silkworm pupae turn up 10 to a skewer, and in Thailand you can find nutty crickets and palm weevils with a hint of bacon flavour in sold in supermarkets.
Yet, although insects – which are also low in saturated fats and rich in protein and micronutrients – have traditionally featured in the diets of people all over the world, they are missing from Western cuisine. This, the experts argue, might hark back to the development of large-scale agriculture in the west, when insects came to be seen as a pest to crops and symbols of disease.
Because of this one has to wonder if in relatively prosperous western countries entomophagy will ever take off. It's hard to say, but some Australian chefs are certianly doing their best to give the movement a boost, which we will return to in a second.
Brisbane lawyer Wayne Cochrane regularly orders the 'Can of Worms' mealworm dish at restaurant Public.
THE TASTE IS “like a dark honey, sweet but also sour, with a lingering flavour like wild strawberries, semi-dried in the sun”, mused Josh Evans in April 2014 from Central Australia on the blog of the Nordic Food Lab. All in the name of research, he travelled to Yuendumu, north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, to sit in the dirt and suck on honey ants with women from the Warlpiri Aboriginal community.
The Food Lab is a small research station usually based on a houseboat in Copenhagen, and set up in 2008 by Noma's head chef René Redzepi to study novel foods for his restaurant. In 2013 it was awarded A$700,000 to run a project, in partnership with the University of Copenhagen aimed at making insects more appealing to the Western palate by creating delicious new dishes.
Because insects have been a major component of Aboriginal diets, Australia is one of only 20 or so countries that boast 50 or more, known edible-insects – it’s also the only one of those nations with a predominantly Western diet today. This fact made it an obvious place for Food Lab researchers Josh and Ben Reade to head in search of new ingredients.
And yet, despite their abundance here, turning insects into commercially cultivated products may not be so easy says Dr Alan Yen, an expert on entomophagy at the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries and La Trobe University in Melbourne.
In the 1990s he studied perhaps Australia most well known edible insect, the fat, white wittjuti [witchetty] grub. “We don’t even know what witjuti grubs really are,” Alan tells me. “We can’t even tell which grub belongs to which insect a lot of the time.” Moves to commercialise grub breeding during the rise of the bush-tucker movement in the 1980s–2000s were stopped short by their slow growth and the fact that the grubs are, in fact, the larvae of many different insects, depending on which part of Australia they are from. Basically, says Alan, a lot more research is needed on the insects commonly eaten as bush tucker.
Another unknown risk of cultivating insects is that they could carry diseases that we don’t yet know anything about, so this is something researchers need to explore before insects start to be consumed on a large scale in the west.
Reassuringly our neighbours in Asia are world leaders in small- to medium-scale cultivation. Thailand, for example, has 20,000 registered insect farmers, most running home set-ups. They farm crickets in egg cartons and palm weevils in segments of palm-tree trunks, and over there these command higher prices at market than beef, chicken or poultry.
But in Australia, where food security is less of an issue, Alan believes the biggest application could be as a fishmeal replacement. Fishmeal, made from ground-up schooling fish such as anchovies and sardines, is used to feed larger farmed fish such as salmon and tuna. In the past 30 years fishmeal prices have skyrocketed as fish consumption has increased Alan says. The fishmeal industry in Australia is currently worth more than $38 million a year.
Recognising that demand is quickly outstripping supply, aquaculturalists have been experimenting with other sources of protein, such as algae, but algae lacks many of the nutrients of fish, including omega-3 fatty acids. Insects, however, have the protein and some of the missing nutrients, making them a better potential substitute for fishmeal.
Alan says many farmed fish, such as salmon, eat insects and other invertebrates in their natural environments. “So we’re not trying to get them to eat things they’re not genetically used to eating,” he says.
And indeed, i
ndustrial production of insect meal is already being adopted overseas. A South African plant being built by multinational company AgriProtein is scheduled to open next year. It plans to produce 24 tonnes of fly larvae and 7t of maggot meal daily for agriculture, aquaculture feed and soil enrichment.
Other commercial insect production facilities include EnviroFlight in the USA, Ynsect in France, Enterra in Canada and Protix in the Netherlands. There is nothing on this scale yet planned for Australia, but there is interest from industry, Alan says.
A staple on Public's menu for two years, the Can of Worms starter of chili, deep-fried mealworms (which taste like crunchy Asian noodles) and bean sprouts has a spicy, salty flavour.
BUT SOME AUSSIES are still convinced there’s a future for large-scale human consumption of insects Down Under – even if this means finding ways to ease consumers into it. In a commercial kitchen in western Sydney, Skye Blackburn and her team of five turn the crickets they farm into protein balls or flour.
“At the moment we’re farming approximately 200kg of edible crickets per week,” Skye says. “About 50kg of that goes straight out and the rest of it is turned into our retail products like the flour.” The dense balls are a “natural form of protein" she says, and a lot more digestible than the supplements people normally add to their diets – things like soy isolate powder or whey protein.
Skye, both a food scientist and entomologist, was uniquely qualified to become Australia’s first breeder of edible insects. Her food science background helped her jump food regulation hurdles and general skepticism when she set up shop five years ago.
“We used to have to print out regulations and take them along with us to festivals so we could pull them out whenever we were asked,” she says, but that's slowed down now.
Insects are now so common in commercial kitchens that in 2013 they were taken off a list of ‘novel’ foods by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Last spring, Skye was even asked to speak at a national environmental health symposium, where 100 food inspectors grilled her on the regulations needed for insect use in commercial kitchens.
It’s just a matter of exposure she argues. “Look at sushi – 20 years ago everyone thought raw fish was disgusting; now it’s in every shopping centre.”
In fact eating crustaceans such as crabs, prawns and lobsters (that are in fact related to insectss) was once seen as strange by Westerners, in the same way that eating insects is today. So there is much hope riding on a cultural shift.
However, research by Professor Paul Rosin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA, revealed that Americans found insects to be on par with Hitler in terms of disgust responses. A 2006 survey in Australia by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation found the idea of consuming witjuti grubs was a challenge to about half the 1273 people interviewed.
Nevertheless, in recent years, a dozen or so Aussie chefs, such as Matt Stone, have set out to make insects more appealing. Celebrity chef Kylie Kwong has been serving green-tree ants, mealworms, cockroaches and crickets at her Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong since 2013. Also in Sydney, Matt Fitzgerald serves ‘candied chilli, salt and lime seasoned crickets’ at Bondi Junction taquería, El Topo. In Adelaide, Duncan Welgemoed has served crickets, bees, mealworms and grasshoppers at Bistro Dom.
Similarly in Brisbane, Damon Amos at Public – a popular haunt for judges and lawyers – has a mealworm dish called ‘Can of Worms’. Damon also occasionally cooks with ants. “Dehydrated black ants are high in formic acid, which I reckon tastes a bit like citrus crossed with Vegemite,” he says. Although the flavour is not the sole reason he adds insects to his dishes. “It is confronting,” he says. “That is part of the appeal.”
Insects have also become popular at commercial events. ‘The Great Australian Dinner’, part of Sydney’s Good Food Month in 2013, served Australian green-tree ants in a dish devised by Noma's René Redzepi. Organisations such as the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania, and the Climate Institute in Sydney have since served them in environmentally friendly canapés at functions.
Entomophagy has clearly become a trend, albeit a small one. But what happens next is anyone’s guess.