Aside from the occasional gnat that's drowned in my bedside water glass and a few mezcal worms during college, I'm not in the habit of ingesting bugs. I'm more of a meat-and-three guy. When I think of eating insects, I imagine some wild-eyed survivalist lost in the woods, forced to choke down grubs and beetles for sustenance while waiting to get choppered out. And yet here I sit at Burns St. Bistro, fork in hand, staring down at a steaming taco piled high with a tangled heap of Mexican grasshoppers.
At least I'm not alone. All over the world today, 2 billion people will sit down to a meal of insects.
Entomophagy—eating insects—is gaining ground in the United States, largely sparked by a 2013 report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The 200-page document includes an exhaustive investigation into entomophagy's worldwide history, the nutritional benefits of insect consumption, and the feasibility of large-scale bug farming. As the world's population inches toward the 9 billion mark, which it's expected to hit in 2050, our food production will have to double in order to keep up. And we're struggling now. The FAO defines undernourishment as the inability to acquire enough food to meet daily dietary energy requirements over a period of one year, and nearly 1 billion people already fail to meet that threshold. How can we ramp up the resources to battle the food insecurity that grips so much of Africa, South America, Asia and even here in the U.S.?
A quarter of the world's people already have one answer, having eaten beetles, crickets, ants and hundreds of other insect species for centuries. In 2012, Yde Jongema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands released a study that identified 1,900 species of insects consumed as food worldwide. As a source of nutrition, insects bring a lot to the table. They're loaded with protein, packed with energy-providing fat, and provide a spectrum of minerals, vitamins and other nutrients typically lacking in regions plagued with chronic food insecurity. Bugs, especially when compared to other animal-based sources of protein, are good for you.
- cover photo by Cathrine L. Walters
But they're also good for the environment. Worldwide meat production has doubled in the last 30 years, thanks in part to advancing technology and the advance of factory farming. But this increased production comes with a price. With nearly one-third of the earth's dry land being used to grow food for humans and feed for livestock, the environmental fallout is staggering and, some say, unsustainable. In an FAO report entitled "Livestock's Long Shadow," Henning Steinfeld attributes 18 percent of greenhouse gases to agriculture, a larger percentage than the entire transportation sector. Seventy percent of the rainforests in Latin America have been cleared to create grazing lands for cattle. We're consuming the earth for the sake of steak.
Insects, on the other hand, can be raised as food using a tiny fraction of the water, land, energy and other resources required for producing livestock, and it can be done with a much smaller environmental footprint.
Which all sounds good on paper, but in the Western world, insect diets aren't an easy sell. When we can drive down the street and choose between three sizes of Big Mac, why would we eat a bug?
"By far the largest thing is mental stigma," says James Rolin, the marketing manager for Cowboy Cricket Farms in Belgrade, which is owned by his wife, Kathy. The farm, one of a half dozen such operations in the country, has been ramping up its operation and plans to open officially in mid-May and be fully operational by September, Rolin says. It's already received queries from as far away as Australia. The 1,100-square-foot facility has been designed to raise the animals (acheta domestica, aka house crickets), which will be ground into protein-rich flour or frozen whole for sale in bulk to restaurants and food manufacturers. Consumers will be able to buy one-pound bags of flour online. The flour is also used in the farm's "chocolate chirp" cookies, which are baked by Big Sky Bakery in Bozeman. Rolin says the cookies are an outreach tool designed to ease people into the idea of eating bugs.
"We have not traditionally eaten insects, and as such they're thought to be dirty and disgusting and dangerous and harmful and poisonous and all these other things," Rolin says. "Yes, there are insects out there that are those things, but the vast majority are not. So really, just the mental roadblock is the biggest thing."
Kathy dreamed up the idea of Cowboy Cricket Farms while studying nutrition at Montana State University. "The more we got into it, the more it just made sense," James says, "not just from a business standpoint, but from an environmental and social standpoint as well. We're the first ones [in Montana], but if someone else does come up with something, at least there will be a bit of a path blazed for them."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
If getting people past the ick factor is the first hurdle to acceptance of bugs as food, government regulation—or lack thereof—is a hurdle to farming them.
"There are no real regulations right now," Rolin says, "but the general consensus is, as long as they're fed like any other food-grade animal would be—say, chickens—and they're treated as food throughout the whole process, they're human food grade. We've spent a lot of time educating the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, both of which have been surprisingly helpful and really have given us a lot of support."
How, exactly, does one fit a fully functioning farm, complete with hatchery and food processing area, on a footprint the size of a Taco Bell? With crickets, you go up, not out. The main barn has a 17-foot ceiling, and Rolin says the plastic bins housing some 20 million crickets will take up every foot of it. "You can grow them in a really small area. We can grow the [protein] equivalent of 20 cows a year in our facility, and you cannot fit 20 cows in our facility. It takes just a small fraction of the land."