After watching Marcel Dicke’s 2010 TED Talk “Why Not Eat Insects?” I started a mealworm farm in the laundry room of my one-bedroom apartment, inspired by his argument that insects are a more ecological protein source than the cattle my grandfather raised. I was not alone. Among a number of other entrepreneurs inspired by Dicke’s talk, former river guide Pat Crowley founded Chapul, a company that produces cricket energy bars to make this freshwater-friendly protein widely available.
In addition to being a compelling speaker, Dicke is an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and has received numerous awards, including the NWO-Spinoza Award, or Dutch Nobel Prize, for his discoveries in plant-insect communication, the Eureka Prize for science innovation, and the Rank Prize for nutrition. Dicke was appointed Rhodes Visiting Professor at Cornell in 2013; he is also co-author of The Insect Cookbook (Columbia University Press, 2014).
I recently spoke with Dicke about whether eating insects will ever catch on in the West.
—Amy Wright for Guernica
Guernica: You say it is “inevitable” that more Westerners will add insects to their diets. Why?
Marcel Dicke: The world population is now at over seven billion and we’re headed toward nine billion, many of whom are going to get wealthier. Wealthier people tend to eat more and more meat in particular, so we need to increase food production tremendously to meet this demand. The FAO predicts a 70 percent increase in food consumption by 2050, but the current rate of meat production already requires a tremendous percentage of available agricultural land. We won’t be able to manage this increase unless we come up with much more efficient sources, which is where insects come in, because they need about twelve times less agricultural land than beef per kilogram of protein.
Guernica: Why do insects have a higher conversion of feed into meat?
Marcel Dicke: To a large extent, that’s because they are cold-blooded. Heating a mammal’s body requires a lot of energy. A cow and a locust both feed on grass, but a locust needs only 2 kilograms of food to produce one kilogram of protein, whereas a cow needs about four times as much food.
Guernica: The beef industry points out that US farmers are able to pack about 23 percent more meat on cattle’s frames than they could in 1976. Can they not engineer herds that can meet the increased demand using the same land and freshwater resources?
Marcel Dicke: Cattle have been under selection already for such a long time to increase production, and generally what comes with that weight gain is that the animals get less freedom to move and are subjected to intense feedings. A small increase may be possible but certainly not to the extent that we need. I’m also not here to say we should stop eating beef altogether but that we should make increases possible that beef alone cannot meet.
Guernica: How important is meat consumption to the global climate conversation?
Marcel Dicke: It’s tremendously important. Eighteen percent of all greenhouse gases emitted come from livestock production. Calculations predict that if we were to reduce meat consumption, it would be a major contributor to a reduction in climate change.
Guernica: The 2015–2024 Agricultural Outlook, published by the United Nations, says there is a “high probability of at least one severe shock to international markets within the next ten years.” The nature of shocks is that we don’t see them coming, but might diversifying protein sources mitigate their impact?
Marcel Dicke: Well, if you depend on one protein source and there is a major shock, everyone will be affected. Whereas if you diversify your sources, you spread the risk. This answer is easy to give, but these kinds of shocks often come with warning signs that humans don’t want to see. We stick our heads in the sand until the real shock comes. In the meat-production sector, at the moment you can see major changes. We can talk about China becoming richer and see that they’re eating more meat. We should consider what that implies in terms of food requirements internationally, even though we don’t see anything yet. In grocery stores in America and Europe, no one has any idea that there’s a food shortage, but if you look at the macro level you can see that things are changing. We can wait for a disaster to happen, but we can also diversify and move toward options that might alleviate a major shock or prevent it. Time is short, though, so we need to start taking action now.
Guernica: Startup companies face the same competition as alternative energy sources with corporatized industry. What might give them a chance against Big Ag?
Marcel Dicke: They are a niche market currently, which should appeal to people’s environmental concerns and desire for more options. When companies are small there are more opportunities for people to get involved. With Big Ag, people have become quite disconnected from their food sources. What I see instead with companies like Chapul, Expo, and Aspire is that one dollar from the price of a chocolate bar might go to set up insect farms in Africa. The companies encourage more connection, which is good because we’ve been so disconnected from anyone who produces our food.
Guernica: Are insects an acquired taste?
Marcel Dicke: At least in our part of the world, because we do not regularly eat them. You need to learn to enjoy so many things, like your first cup of coffee or your first brussels sprout. There are a range of foods which either our taste buds or our psychology might prevent us from trying. Just think back to how as kids playing in the backyard, we would put everything in our mouths, including bugs. We had no problem with it, but our Mum did, so that is what kept us from doing it again.
Guernica: What do you say to people like my father who is “waiting until he gets hungry enough” to try bugs?
Marcel Dicke: I would say that people who eat insects aren’t waiting until they get hungry enough; they see them as a delicacy! I seek out restaurants that serve them and prefer them to the others. It is simply a matter of changing your mind. In North America and in Europe, people have really been taught to think of insects as disgusting and as something we should avoid, but nothing could be less true!
Guernica: What are some of the most unusual insects you’ve eaten?
Marcel Dicke: I’ve eaten termites. I’ve eaten bee larvae and wasp larvae…
Guernica: Were the bee larvae from honeybees, which we know struggle currently with colony collapse disorder?
Marcel Dicke: Yes, but the honeybee larvae being eaten are usually the drones, which are not beneficial to the hive after the mating flight. You wouldn’t want to harvest the workers or certainly the queen, but it’s a common practice in beekeeping to harvest drones.
Guernica: Are they sweet, like honey?
Marcel Dicke: Yes, they’re very sweet.
Guernica: As a former vegetarian, why don’t you promote plant-based diets as the most ecological source of nutrition?
Marcel Dicke: Vegetarianism is a great choice. I am trying instead to reach out to people who eat meat and who might see how they can change some of their habits and still get animal proteins. I was a vegetarian for twenty-five years, but for me, no one has to become a vegetarian. If the average American, though, were to eat say sixty kg (132 lbs.) of meat a year instead of 120 kg, it would be very beneficial for the individual’s health as well as for the environment. But the opposite is happening. The Chinese have increased their meat consumption in the last thirty years from twenty-five to fifty kilograms per year, and predictions are that in the next thirty years they’re going to double again to one hundred. If 1.3 billion Chinese increase their meat consumption, there will be a big change in where the meat is going. Since we can’t really produce much more, there’s going to be redistribution anyway, so we need to reexamine our habits of thought.
Guernica: Will you talk about the range of attitudes toward eating insects in specific parts of the world?
Marcel Dicke: A wide variety of insects are eaten in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the southern part of China. The same is true for Central America, and more than three hundred species of insects are eaten in Mexico. But what I see is that with modernization comes a loss of insect eating. I spent four months in China close to Shanghai. Many of the students I was teaching were unfamiliar with eating insects. When they came back from their hometowns after the Spring Festival, which is similar to Thanksgiving in the United States, they confirmed that yes, their parents and grandparents used to eat insects, but that is not something they do any more. The younger generations are losing that part of their culture.
Guernica: How do the protein, vitamin, and mineral contents of insects compare with other animals?
Marcel Dicke: It’s difficult to give a general answer to that question, because there are so many insect species being eaten. Plus, we only have information on a few species, but for those few, their protein content tend to be comparable to that of traditional livestock. Fat levels are similar as well, but insects are higher in the polyunsaturated variety, or the omega-3 fatty acids. In terms of minerals, like iron and zinc—in some cases insects contain more than traditional livestock. If someone has anemia, you might tell him to go eat steak, but you might also suggest crickets. We’re starting a research program on the value of insects not only as a protein source but also as a source of iron and zinc, which are major minerals many people suffer deficiencies of.
Guernica: Silkworm pupae have likely been eaten in Asia since, as the legend goes, the first cocoon fell into the teacup of fourteen-year-old Empress Leizu in the twenty-seventh century BCE. What other cultures have a long history of eating insects?
Marcel Dicke: It’s basically embedded in human history, but we’ve lost that history in North America and Europe. If you look at the evolution of our species, insects are a common part of the diet in monkeys and in primates. There are archeological records that show that our ancestors were not necessarily hunters going after the leopards and large mammals. They had a much more varied diet, including many kinds of insects.
Guernica: Why did some cultures leave this food behind?
Marcel Dicke: Some suggest that it’s because in the cooler climates insects were less available. But, if you look at some paintings from the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, for example, insects seem to have been commonly perceived to be part of daily life. When I look at my own life though, my Mum tried to eliminate every single insect from the house. She thought if they were present it’s a dirty house. There’s a misperception that cleanliness means being without anything that has more than four legs and is tiny.
Guernica: What insect species are being eaten around the world?
Marcel Dicke: It ranges from palm weevil larvae bigger than my thumb that live in palm trees to termites that are collected in several parts of Africa. Caterpillars, locusts and grasshoppers, a lot of beetles, and crickets are all very common. Ants are very popular, as are beetles and adult dragonflies. There is tremendous variety. In some of the lakes in Africa, there are lake flies that pupate at the same time and come like black clouds out of the water. It looks like there’s a fire. Locals wet their pans and catch them from the air in baskets and bake cakes with them.
Guernica: Are there any cultures in the US that eat insects?
Marcel Dicke: Native Americans did eat insects, and now portions of the Asian population still do. I am not sure whether Mexicans in the US do or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if so. I know in California’s Chinatown you can find canned insects imported from East Asia.
Guernica: Gala and Cameo apples have come a long way from Malus domestica. Can cultivation breed tastier or more nutritious insects?
Marcel Dicke: Yes, that’s possible. Domestication definitely will take place, and yes, insects can be bred for specific qualities like apples.
Guernica: You co-authored The Insect Cookbook with tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis and chef Henk van Gurp. What inspired you to write it?
Marcel Dicke: It’s the product of a long wish my colleague Arnold and I had, beginning in, I think, 1997, to explain why insects are a good food source for people anywhere on the globe, and not only for the two billion who are already incorporating them into their diets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In the 1990s, we established a lecture series for the general public. We chose topics that were connected to everyday life, and one of them was “Insects as Food.” Arnold gave that lecture, which got a tremendous response from the media. Meanwhile, companies in the Netherlands started to make insects available for purchase in supermarkets, so more and more people began to ask, “How do we prepare a good insect meal?” We wanted to provide them with a cookbook that contains recipes as well as background information.
Guernica: The cookbook’s preface suggests that eating insects can increase awareness of our eating habits by linking us with foods farther down the food chain, like algae or snails, as well as “the entire ecological cycle of life on earth.” How?
Marcel Dicke: My motto is “There is no life on Earth without insects.” When we’re eating them, we’re engaging in so much more than just bringing some energy in. We have to think about what we’re eating and why we’re eating it. It’s important to consider how and why we are producing our food. A third of all agricultural production depends on insect pollination. Without them, we would not have tomatoes, apples, or strawberries. It would be a very barren world. Insects were here before the dinosaurs, and they survived everything that wiped out dinosaurs. They are still with us, and if we would be so foolish as to destroy ourselves on this planet, insects would not be destroyed with us, so they give us perspective on the wider environmental situation. We are guests here as well, and we are not the ones that are dominating this planet, although in some senses it seems like we are.
Guernica: What is your, and your wife Alida’s, favorite insect dish?
Marcel Dicke: My favorite dish I can’t get at home, but it’s deep-fried dragonfly larvae. We ate that in Dali, in China’s Yunnan Province, at a place on a lake. At several restaurants there, they had insects on display that you could point to and say, “I want to have those.” They were deep fried with peppermint leaves and served with rice. That was the most wonderful dish I have ever had, but at home my wife prepares a delicious dish with locusts that are slightly fried and served over rice with stir-fried vegetables.
Guernica: Wageningen University, where you teach, hosted the first international conference on using insects to feed the world. Why is the Netherlands well positioned to lead this initiative?
Marcel Dicke: It’s pure chance. It could have been the United States. Gene DeFoliart was promoting entomophagy in the 1970s and ’80s in the US, but his initiative didn’t gain wider public appeal at that time, which is very unfortunate.
In 2006, Arnold and I won one hundred thousand euros in a national competition to promote science to the general public. We used the money to host an insect-eating festival, which was a huge success. Reuters came to film, and they broadcast it in more than forty countries worldwide. The attention was nice, but it came from connecting to people. Everyone has an opinion about edible insects. Even if it’s to be disgusted, their opinion allows me to discuss it. If at the end someone says, “But I’m never going to eat insects,” that’s your choice, no problem. But maybe in twenty years, when we meet again, you may think differently, and the way things are developing at the moment, I’m reassured they are going the right way.