UN wants you to eat more bugs

Some say it's a bug; others call it delicious.
Washington Post
Some say it's a bug; others call it delicious.
Posted May 14, 2013, at 4:39 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Over the weekend I read a bit about Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s efforts to fundraise off an alleged United Nations plot to confiscate your guns, but it turns out to be up to something considerably more insidious — the U.N. wants us all to eat more insects.

Now, on the merits, the case for insect eating is pretty strong. Bugs are high in protein, much like proper animals, but compared to — say — a cow “they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint.” Which is to say insects reproduce quickly, they grow quickly, and, since they’re really low on the food chain, the plant-to-insect-to-food path is one of the least resource-intensive ways of converting solar power into fuel for humans.

Of course the problem with eating insects is that it’s kind of gross and they don’t taste very good. Eating insects as a regular part of the human diet is by no means rare, as insect-mongers like to point out, but that’s because living in intense poverty is also by no means rare. You see a lot of bug-eating primarily in places where people are poor and obtaining pork and chicken is a financial burden.

Alternatively, when I visited Oaxaca, Mexico, I saw a lot of western tourists trying out some of the famous local bug-based dishes and naturally I joined the party. It’s definitely the hip foodie thing to do and I by no means regret it, but nobody seems to actually return from these adventures deciding to become regular a bug-eater. By the same token, as countries get richer, their populations seem to invariably eat fewer bugs and more meat. The main domesticated animals, after all, have been bred for centuries to make delicious and practical meals while insects are busy evolving for other purposes.

Ultimately, I think we’re more likely to meet the U.N.’s goals by going in the opposite direction. Lab-grown meat is too expensive to be practical right now, but the technology will improve and the world will get richer. A downscale shift to bug-eating seems unlikely.

The full bug report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is here.

Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) is Slate’s business and economics correspondent.

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