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book review

Eating insects, considered a good source of protein in Asia, Africa and Latin America, was trendy for a while in the West.Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a 200-page report promoting the practice of eating insects.

The purpose of the report was to tell those of us in the West what two billion others around the world have known for years: that insects are a healthy and environmentally sustainable source of protein. The more people converted to entomophagy (the consumption of insects), the argument went, the better our chances of feeding the ever-growing global population.

The UN report attracted global attention, and quickly, the idea of insect-eating became all the rage in the food world. At the two-Michelin-starred Noma, chef Rene Redzepi put on the menu everything from bee larvae and fermented grasshopper paste to live ants on shrimp. And one bakery in Toronto began selling doughnuts and pies stuffed with mealworms and crickets from Entomo Farms, an insect farm in nearby Norwood, Ont.

It's within this context that David Waltner-Toews, a veterinary epidemiologist from Kitchener, Ont., releases his latest book, Eat the Beetles! In it, Waltner-Toews criss-crosses the world, foraging in Japan, visiting insect farms across Canada and sampling insect-focused dishes in Australia and France – to make the case for greater insect consumption.

Waltner-Toews outlines many of the now-familiar arguments in favour of entomophagy and describes the large swaths of the globe – parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America – where insects are already commonly eaten. He writes of the lower greenhouse gas emissions of "micro livestock" and of the nutritional and health benefits of insects – especially in developing areas around the world, where other sources of protein are harder to come by.

And throughout his argument, Waltner-Toews keeps science at the forefront. As a veterinary epidemiologist, Waltner-Toews focuses much of his attention explaining evolution and diversity within the insect world, and the science behind the ecological relationship between insects and humans. He also raises compelling questions: What are the ethical issues surrounding eating bugs, and do bugs feel pain? How can governments regulate insect-eating to ensure food safety?

But to Waltner-Toews, the potential of entomophagy goes well beyond the traditional environmental and food-security arguments: He sees entomophagy as offering the possibility to completely rethink our food system.

"During the historic shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture our ancestors allowed the animals now entrenched in our food system – cattle, pigs, sheep, even fish – to creep in, almost without thinking," he writes.

"This is the first time in recent history that humanity is faced with the possibility of making some conscious decisions, based on the best available information we have, about what sorts of animals and practices might help provision us in a heavily populated world."

As such, he argues, the decisions we make moving forward – whether to hunt the insects or farm them, and the manner in which we do so – can help create a more sustainable, biodiverse world.

But this is assuming there's a demand for them. Among most Western cultures, the idea of eating insects is still viewed, at best, as avant-garde and, at worst, as creepy. Even the recent trendiness of entomophagy appears to be around the idea of it, rather than in practice – and in reality, mostly confined to adventure seekers or in ultrafine-dining environments.

Relatively early on in his book, Waltner-Toews recounts a trip through Southeast Asia in the late 1960s. As he travelled through the rice fields near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, he describes being offered snacks of beetle "shish-ke-bugs" and "walnut-sized water bugs."

"I found the very idea of biting into these cockroach-like bugs revolting," he writes. "It had never crossed my mind that caring for these bugs might be part of my veterinary job … or even that these insects might hold one of the diverse keys to local food security around the world."

But Waltner-Toews offers little in the way of solution for this problem, described in the original UN report as "the emotion of disgust."

Through a historical lens, he explains how our perception has been cast unfairly, framed by historical portrayals throughout religion, literature and popular culture of insects as creepy, crawly and dirty. He also describes at length the many benefits insects have provided to humans and the ecosystem throughout time.

But his case rests above all on the moral argument – that people should eat insects because they care about the environment, and biodiversity and food security.

But food choices are complicated, and just because people should doesn't mean they will. People make their decisions on what to eat based on everything from politics and the economy to culture and health. Further complicating this is the fact that what people say they care about – such as animal welfare or environmental sustainability – is often at odds with the choices they actually end up making.

All of this is to say that, in food, simply appealing to people's conscience has rarely been an effective marketing strategy – just ask the vegans.

Waltner-Toews, too, seems aware of this. He cites the example of Meeru Dhalwala, co-owner and chef at the critically acclaimed Vij's in Vancouver. After introducing a cricket-topped pizza at her restaurant in 2008, she later pulled the item off her menu.

"The media response in both Vancouver and Seattle was great," she told Waltner-Toews. "The hard part is getting customers to order the dish."

But even if he isn't changing many minds, Waltner-Toews seems content just helping to spark a larger conversation around food production and its effect on the greater environment.

"This, then, is my aspiration for the new entomophagy movement: not just that we will put yet another item on our plates, but that in looking at the insect world more closely, we will see the world, and imagine ourselves, in a new way," he writes.

"Perhaps, in exploring the possibilities of insects as food, we will discover a more complex understanding of ourselves."

Ann Hui is The Globe and Mail's national food reporter. She is currently at work on a book, to be published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2018, about Chinese restaurants across Canada.

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