Sunday 18 February 2018

Anyone for cricket. . . or perhaps a locust?

Forget lab-grown burgers, the future of protein consumption lies in creepy, crawly, crunchy insects

Some of the tasty creepy crawlies available at a stall in Thailand - insect production could be the answer to world hunger.
Some of the tasty creepy crawlies available at a stall in Thailand - insect production could be the answer to world hunger.
Derry Clarke - ' I wouldn't rule out putting an insect dish on our menu in the future'
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Comedian Eric Lalor was hired last year to hand out honey-roasted scorpions on Dublin's Grafton Street.

"It was a sort of an 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here' type of stunt designed to promote the company Bigdeal.ie. If you ate a scorpion you'd be entered for a limited draw for €300. I had twenty on a tray and I thought, 'There's absolutely no way anyone's going to eat any of these things. I'm going to be standing around here all day.' But there's an unexpected sting in his tale.

"Within a half hour, the whole lot were gone!

"Some people even came back for seconds. I just couldn't believe it," says the man voted Ireland's best stand-up for the second time this year. "The scorpions had their stings removed and were done in a crystalised honey shell. Young and old, guys and girls ate them and were surprised how good they tasted."

The reaction from the Irish street flies in the face of the widely held view that we in the western world can't be persuaded to eat insects – this year's most controversial recommendation from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Authority.

Because even as scientists funded by Google supremo Sergei Brin unveil their €250,000 laboratory-grown stem-cell burger to global fanfare, EU scientists are already spending €3m in a top level project aimed at getting creepy crawlies into the European food chain.

The reality is that the world's scientific community believes that insects, not petri-dish grown Google gristle, present the most practical solution to the global meat and protein crisis facing us.

Insects are a more natural food source than lab-grown muscle fibres, they're readily available, they're a far healthier source of protein and they're already being eaten daily by people on three continents.

The UN's report, 'Edible Insects – Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security', launched this summer amidst a storm of publicity, says we westerners are going to have to bite the bullet ant and swallow our cultural aversions to chewing on bugs to avoid a global food catastrophe.

The world population is set to hit eight billion by 2050 and we'll need 50pc more food. Demand for meat is expected to double in the next forty years but we're already using 70pc of our agricultural land worldwide to produce it.

The UN says Europeans have no choice but to join the two billion people who already make maggots and crawlies a mainstay of their daily diets.

The health food credentials are impressive. The report reads: "The composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids in mealworms is comparable with that in fish and higher than in cattle and pigs.

The protein, vitamin and mineral content is similar to that in fish and meat. Many insects are rich in protein and good fats and high in calcium, iron and zinc."

It's why 1,900 species are eaten today in Africa, Asia and South America. They eat beetles (31pc of the world's population), caterpillars (18pc), bees, wasps and ants (14pc) crickets and grasshoppers and locusts (13pc).

Because they're cold blooded and use far less energy, the human food conversion ratio of insects is twelve times more efficient than beef cattle – that's twelve times more protein for the same feed. And they grow to maturity in a fraction of the timescale.

Had Ireland's favourite funnyman been handing out scorpions in China, he would have been mobbed – chocolate coated scorpions on a stick are a favourite treat there for children.

Many believe gourmet diners will kick off insect eating in earnest in Ireland on the basis of what's already happened in the UK and Denmark. In April London was buzzing with 'Pestival 2013' when leading restaurants featured bugs on the menu.

Trendy eateries like Wahaca still carry grasshoppers as a popular signature dish. Selfridges sold Cambodian tarantulas for £15.99. Claridges served live ants flown in from Denmark courtesy of the owner of the world's finest restaurant, Rene Redzepi of Noma. He regularly has them on the menu at his Copenhagen restaurant, judged to be the world's best.

One of the UK's best known foodies, Stefan Gates, says bug eating will be the norm there within 15 years.

But so far Ireland's trendiest restaurants are not exactly hopping about the idea.

Oliver Dunne of Bon Appetit says: "There's a lot of pretension going on over the insect thing in London. If you offered Rene the choice of a bowl of his live ants or a bowl of curry when he's at home, I bet I know what he'd opt for. I would never put them on the menu. However, I don't see a problem eating them as ingredients say as colouring in cake or flour in burgers."

But not everyone thinks bug munching has no legs here in Ireland.

Derry Clarke of L'Ecrivain says he eats bugs all the time. "It happens when I'm on my motorbike travelling around the city (laughs). No I haven't sampled insects (on purpose that is) and if there's a choice between a nice ribeye steak and some grubs, I know what I'll be going for.

"That said, I wouldn't rule out putting an insect dish on our menu at some time in the future. I do know that they're very healthy, full of proteins and that protein is becoming hugely expensive. So I wouldn't at all be surprised if we Irish ended up eating them at some point in the future."

Dr Elaine Fitches of the UK's Food and Environment Research Agency works on the aforementioned €3m EU programme called PROteINECT and she is responsible for turning insects into edible protein for EU citizens.

"We're currently focused on replacing increasingly expensive feeds for pigs, chickens and farmed fish with insect protein. High priced feeds made from soy are a contributing factor to the increased price of meat. Animal feed is the field in which insect-based protein will establish itself first in Europe. The animals eat the insects and we eat the animals.

'Ibelieve that here in temperate Europe it's not going to be an option to farm the sort of bigger insects we seen farmed and eaten in African or Asian countries – given the risk of escapes. So we're going to have to rely on bugs which are native. We believe the house fly larvae is currently the most practical option.

"From a personal point of view I think we'll see the first insects to be eaten directly by humans as processed and homogenous ingredients, perhaps a high protein ground down flour additive for supermarket burgers. I just can't see people opting for a bag of mealy worms to fry up for their dinner just yet. I think the cultural barrier is still just too great."

So unlike Thailand where pub grubs are the norm with your beer, Ireland's insects can relax. Humans are not about to bite back. . . yet.

Irish Independent

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