BY: JESSICA BEUKER
By the year 2050, the human population is expected to reach 9.7 billion. This means that the demand for food will rise substantially over the next few decades. At a time where climate issues are pressing, the farming population is dwindling and we are investing less and less in agricultural research, the issue of food insecurity becomes a very real and urgent threat.
To sustain the projected population, the world would need to increase its food production by a whopping 70 per cent in the next three decades. Since this is unlikely to happen, researchers, scientists, governments, farmers, and food labs alike have begun to think outside of the box in terms of remedying our food shortage problem. In particular, Nordic Food Lab, a non-profit, open-source organization that investigates food diversity, has come up with a potential solution: bugs.
“I’m adventurous and I want to try everything. If people eat it, then I believe there is a reason for them to be eating it. And people usually eat something because it tastes good.”
Andreas Johnsen is not just a director, but also a food enthusiast. Hailing from Copenhagen, Johnsen had his first job in a restaurant when he was only 12 years old. Currently he co-owns a restaurant, which he’s been running for the last decade. “I’ve always been into food and when I first heard about this very adventurous project that the Nordic Food Lab was doing it was actually because I was really curious and interested in the culinary aspect of it,” recalls Johnsen, who joined Ben Reade and Josh Evans of the Nordic Food Lab on their 3-year project to discover what the billions of people who already eat insects have to tell us.
Together they’ve encountered everything from revered termite queens, dessert-delicacy honey ants and venomous giant hornets, to long-horned grasshoppers and maggot cheese.
“When we went to places where it was completely normalized and we asked them, “what kind of insects do you eat around here?” they would say, “No, we don’t eat insects. Why would we eat that?” says Johnsen. “Because they have the same kind of perception of insects as being something annoying – there’s a negative connotation attached to it – so they would not consider what they were actually eating as insects. It was just part of their food.”
Johnsen admits that when it comes to bugs as a food source, Westerners are by far the most turned off of the idea. “Of course that’s because of the cultural traditions that North America has, compared to the cultural traditions of other countries where they traditionally eat insects.” There’s also a psychological barrier when it comes to eating bugs, however, Johnsen thinks that it’s really no different than sushi. “In the 80s and early 90s people were terrified of eating raw fish and now it’s considered the most delicious thing. You can get it anywhere.”
The Japanese cuisine is one of the most developed in Johnsen’s opinion. “It’s very defined and pays attention to details and they have an extremely broad palate of flavours and tastes,” he says. “I think that’s a nice example of a place where they actually use insects in a very sophisticated way. Very few people know that there’s actually a huge region in Japan where insects are eaten commonly. I think we can definitely learn something from that – it doesn’t have to be gross.”
Unfortunately, “gross” is a popular opinion when it comes to insects in North America. Besides the odd cricket in a lollipop that you find in candy stores, which is really more of a gimmick than a serious introduction to edible insects, bugs are considered gross, dirty, and in many cases, downright scary.
So how are we going to get westerners on board with eating insects?
” I think that the industry will make hamburgers made out of mealworms and make it taste like meat or something,” says Johnsen. Even though he’s not totally on board with the idea.
“It’s a shame to have to hide bugs in food. I think we should be aware of what we’re eating and not try to camouflage it, and just grind it and put it in a patty or into a sauce or whatever. We should actually learn to take a stance, and if we feel it’s necessary to change our eating habits and our diets, then we should be aware of what we’re eating and accept that.”
Unfortunately, North America likely isn’t ready to adopt bugs as food source quite so easily.
“I understand that there is this psychological barrier that people have to overcome,” continues Johnsen. “So I think it will be implemented in that way and maybe they will use the sustainability aspect of insects to convince people that it’s good and they have to eat it.”
But Johnsen found that there aren’t just environmental and cost benefits to eating insects – but health benefits as well.
“We met a professor in Kenya who was telling us she had been developing this method where you could actually grow crickets yourself in a small hut, just with a few buckets and by feeding them the waste – like vegetable waste – from your kitchen,” says Johnsen. “There was a lot of diseases and she was saying that especially for young kids under five years old, the death rate was quite high in East Africa. But it was because of a lack of zinc, and those crickets that she was growing, and teaching the community how to grow, they were full of zinc and other vitamins and minerals. So, the Westerners had come there and taught them not to eat these things and brought them terrible fast food and highly processed food, but if they would continue to eat what they traditionally ate, they wouldn’t have all these diseases. I think that’s a perfect example of why you should eat them – and they are extremely delicious as well.”
With the obvious environmental, cost and health benefits of adopting insects as a food source, it makes sense why researchers have started the push towards a bug-fueled diet. Insects already form part of the traditional diets of 2 billion people globally, and more than 1,900 insect species are considered edible for humans. Johnsen thinks it is also one of the best ways to expand our culinary boundaries and bring us closer together as humans.
“Meeting other cultures and embracing other traditions, that’s part of globalization and all of us being able to live together on this planet. So I definitely think that that creates some kind of togetherness, if we are sharing the food that is traditionally eaten in other places. Not saying that we can cook anything that they can cook in Mexico or Scandinavia or anything that is cooked in East Africa you can cook in Canada, because that’s ridiculous, but you can still learn from the different techniques and maybe you can find something that is similar and adapt it to where you are.”
Johnsen’s documentary film BUGS, premiered at Toronto’s Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinemas on January 13, 2017, and will be available on iTunes in March. In addition to the film, an 8-part, half-hour television series will be released on Netflix sometime this fall. The Netflix series will include footage from all of the countries that were not included in the film because of time constraints.
The film provides an eye-opening venture into a topic that is often overlooked or dismissed. It will change the way you look at insects, and may even make you want to adopt them into your diet. At the very least, it provides some thought provoking ideas about the world and the state of our food security.
“I’m very happy that it took this political angle because it made the film so much more important,” says Johnsen, before adding, “It would probably be much easier if we all just ate more vegetables.”