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A pleasure known as Entomophagy

Text by Jorge Comensal

Photographs by Mateo Pizarro

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1. Insects: a continent of flavor

I’ve never been picky about food. As a kid, I remember nibbling on my grandmother’s lap dog’s kibbles as if they were peanuts. I broke all stereotypes of childhood aversion to vegetables (I loved broccoli and chayote), entrails (cow belly, liver with onions, kidneys…) and strong seasonings (I like to eat mustard by the spoonful). On the other hand, I’ve always liked bugs, breeding beetles, analyzing grasshoppers, following ants’ movement, and when my relatives from Chiapas gave me these huge ants called nucú (females of the Atta Mexicana species) for lunch, I did not hesitate to try them. It was an epiphany: insects became my passion.

The rich cuisine of Mexico’s indigenous peoples offers an exciting range of flavors that come in tiny sizes and with six legs: the herbal acidity of grasshoppers, the caterpillars’ almond meat, the metallic spice of jumiles (stink bugs), the earthy sweetness of ants… Besides being a pleasant experience, eating insects (the joy of entomophagy) is a custom worthy of being promoted due to its various nutritional, social, bioethics and ecological benefits.

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Crayfish are not insects but freshwater crustaceans. They look alike because they’re relatives of the arthropod phylum, plus they’re small, tasty and nutritious. If you like to eat crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, lobsters), you’re one step away from being entomophagous.

2.  The revolution begins in the mouth

The decisions of greater ecological impact that we make as humans are food-related. Choosing between processed or fresh foods, local or imported, organic or transgenic, helps shape the society as well as the environment we live in. Currently, we are more than seven billion people in the world. In a few years, we’ll be more than ten. The current weather events (harsh winters in North America, unprecedented floods in Eastern Europe, major draughts and forest fires in Mexico, Russia, and California, accelerated melting at the Poles…) threaten food production.

If we all eat burgers, steaks and shrimp today, we won’t have anything to eat tomorrow. An unsustainable diet: farm animals consume huge amounts of drinking water, cereals, agricultural space, and produce greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming. The industrial agricultural strategies worsen the situation: the use of fossil fertilizers, toxic pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, deforested lands; it all has a negative impact on our lives.

Because a radical change is urgently needed in our diet, the FAO recently supported the entomophagy movement. In the report “Edible insects: future perspectives for food and food security” (available here), you will find the necessary data (graphs, statistics, etc.) to convince yourself that eating insects can save us from malnutrition: many insect species contain more protein than beef, chicken and pork. In addition, breeding them requires less water, food and space. If we aspire to a world where all humans eat an diet rich in animal protein, insects are the only option.

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3. The humanitarian reason

Thanks to a growing number of campaigns in favor of animal rights, we’ve seen atrocious scenes of chickens crammed into large warehouses where light never goes out, squealing pigs thrown into huge pots of boiling water alive, cows whose hypertrophied udders crawl, bloody, on the floor of dairy farms. These scenes are not a result of gratuitous cruelty: to provide meat and milk at affordable prices, producers have to reduce their expenses, which leads to industrial practices that cause animal suffering.

A response to this situation is vegetarianism: there are vegetarians forced by poverty and vegetarians by conviction. Despite the fact that vegetarianism is an admirable custom, it does not appeal to many, as the nutrient density and the pleasure of an omnivorous diet is an indispensable source of satisfaction.

Which is why eating insects is convenient: the austerity of their nervous system and their adaptation to reduced living spaces ensures that the industrial breeding of these animals, in addition of being ecologically sustainable, does not imply subjecting them to destructive conditions. While a pig is as intelligent as a dog (it has an emotionally rich life in affections, memories and moods), the psychology of an insect depends on such a rudimentary brain that there is no room for conscious suffering.

Which is why I recommend the entomophagy-vegetarian option for aspiring vegetarians: the variety of delicious flavors on your table as well as the amount of animal nutrients without your diet involving the suffering of sentient beings and the destruction of ecosystems will remain very broad.

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4. A personal adventure

When I decided to undertake entomophagy proselytism, I came up with the idea of breeding maguey worms, which are delicious and very popular caterpillars in Mexico. I thought I would only have to lower the price of this exquisite dish (which is sold at exorbitant prices in places like the San Juan market) to make this gastronomic option popular. I interviewed Julieta Ramos Elorduy, a UNAM researcher and world expert on edible insects, who confronted me with an uncomfortable reality: the delicate lovemaking habits of the butterflies that give maguey worms (they mate in the air, in moonlight, on mountains), prevent their domestication. Therefore, the daily consumption of these dishes is unsustainable because they all have to be collected from the wild.

Disappointed by this, I started breeding yellow worms, the caterpillars of a black beetle that are usually used as food for pet reptiles. These aren’t as nutritious and tasty as maguey worms, but they serve as a basic substrate for many stews. Another option I’ve explored are bee larvae, tiny and truly delicious (but so difficutl to extract from the honeycomb that they too cannot be consumed on a daily basis).

Although there’s still a long way to go, the international entomophagy movement has more and more followers: in addition to the many cultures that have eaten insects for centuries, in Western countries like the Netherlands and the U.S., there are farms dedicated to breeding edible insects for humans. In Mexico, a country where the tradition of eating more than ninety species of insect (escamoles, various caterpillars of butterfly and beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, ants…), conditions are ideal for developing edible insect farms and thus prevent the food crises that lie ahead due to climate change.

Dear reader, if the appearance of insects causes you aversion, think of their exquisite flavor, their nutritional value, their ecologically sustainable properties, and dare to try them. Let your tongue know no prejudice, your body to digest them and enjoy them, and the environment be thankful for them. Do it for adventure’s sake, just try them.

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