The creepy (crawly) plans to make you eat insects.
Have you noticed the concerted campaign to make you consume creepy crawly critters?
These days it seems that everyone from scientists to psychologists, and celebrities to supranational organisations are trying to make us dine on bugs. Why?
According to Time’s 2030 project, insects are healthy, sustainable and they present a solution to world hunger. Naturally, different countries should have different solutions to food security plans, but according to the UK Government Food Strategy, for the foods that we can produce in the UK, we produce around 75% of what we consume. In terms of meat, milk and eggs we produce roughly the volume we consume, although we are a net importer of dairy and beef, due to the quality of products and cuts of meat we prefer. We’re self-sufficient in grains, 70% of potatoes and 50% vegetables. In terms of food security there isn’t a glaring need to develop an insect farming industry in the UK.
The United Nations has an Edible Insect Program and has put forward that one benefit of eating insects is that they feed on human waste, compost and animal slurry. (OK, so the insects eat the waste, but do we have to eat the insects? That’s even less appetising!) It is even investigating the potential of spiders and scorpions as a food stuff.
The World Economic Forum is a particularly keen advocate of devouring beasties and has unleashed a swarm of articles and videos to persuade us of the benefits. The underlying message is the environmental benefit. Apparently, insect farming has a lower carbon footprint than livestock.
Given all these reasons, why aren’t we embracing insects as part of our diets? While some cultures may traditionally eat insects (or at least resort to them in times of hardship, or in the absence of other protein sources) we consider them revolting.
Food is part of our social and cultural identity and, short of starvation, we’re not likely to change overnight. Hotdogs and hamburgers remind us of the USA. Fish and chips and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are English. Mealworms and crickets don’t yet fit into our cultural nutritional lexicon.
Humans have a natural revulsion to insects. This dictat has a biological basis: we’re supposed to be put off foods which can be harmful. Insects can sting you. They can be poisonous. Some carry diseases. Some insects eat dung. (Although this is a benefit according to the United Nations.) Some swarm around rubbish, rotting carcasses and food. Insects remind us of decay and filth. Insects can ruin crops, infest animals, and infest us. We normally think of them as uninvited guests on our bodies and in our homes. We have set up industries to control and exterminate them. They have lots of legs, a strange appearance and jerky, unpredictable movements.
For westerners, insects might also evoke primitive lifestyles and poverty, making the cultural foodie switch that’s been attempted even more artificial and ambitious.
Yet the EU has already deemed mealworms safe for human consumption. They are now used in pet food and can be added as an ingredient in foods from biscuits to sausages. The UK’s Food Standard’s Agency is currently consulting on edible insects.
A trial in Wales will invite children from several schools (to start with) to participate in workshops and discussions about “the environmental and nutritional benefits of alternative proteins”. This project is all about influencing children. A spokesperson for a business called Bug Farm in Wales said,
"Children, in particular, are very open minded, so we believe that working with them is how we can change attitudes in the long term: they are the shoppers of the future”.
While he may not have been specifically referring to eating insects Nadhim Zahawi made the astonishing claim that,
“education is one of our key weapons in the fight against climate change.”
Once children are influenced it can create a multi-generational spillover. As a rapidly published and then unpublished report from the UK government’s Nudge Unit said,
“Education also plays a key role in establishing new norms. Indeed, schools have often been a vector for building national identity. Children can then in turn have profound impacts on their parents, or through other means by making new behaviours observable.
How might this apply to Net Zero? School canteens should lead the way in being net zero. The UK government spends £2.4bn buying food for public hospitals, schools, prisons, courts, offices, military facilities and more. This is a powerful lever through which the government can begin to normalise plant-based food, and signal the legitimacy of a healthy and sustainable food system.”1
Aside from turning children into bug-munching climate foot soldiers, how else will they make you eat insects?
The nudgers gave us one clue in the unpublished report: watch out for more studies and trials potentially in prisons, military facilities and other government buildings. Although probably not in the Houses of Parliament.
The media will play an important role. Journalists are hungry for content, even if they’re not hungry for insects yet, and they’ll be fed research reports and press releases. Repetition leads to acceptance and belief. Psychologists call this the ‘illusory truth effect’. Even if something is completely fabricated, multiple exposures make it believable. I’m aware of many articles about the benefits of eating insects, I'm just not swallowing it yet. But give it time?
If you ask Google, “Should we eat insects?” there are about 71,900,000 results. Crucially, the first page of results are all positive. If you ask the same question about any meat you will find negative results on the top page and top position in some cases. That’s a strange inversion of what you would expect, and implies that ‘reputational management’ has been employed on behalf of edible insects.
From exhortations to drink up your cockroach milk and save the planet, I predict many more articles in the coming months citing dubious research about the negative health effects of eating meat and positive nutritional benefits of eating insects.
In a recent BBC article entitled “Could grasshoppers really replace beef?” the author claimed grasshoppers are like popcorn, a snack that they never want to stop eating, are protein rich, and sustainable. My favourite line was, “The smell of the grasshoppers always reminds me of Christmas.” That may be true in Uganda - the author’s home country - but in the UK we associate the smell of turkey and pigs in blankets with Christmas.
We are strongly influenced by what other people do. Social norms exert an important power. We like to herd together. Numerous articles about munching critters mention that two billion people worldwide eat insects. It’s normal - got it?
Although there are biological and historical reasons to be revolted by eating insects, we also learn disgust. That means we can unlearn it. This is one reason you might have spotted celebrities eating insects. In 2018 Nicole Kidman appeared in a video for Vanity Fair to showcase her secret talent. Rather oddly, this talent turned out to be eating insects. While dressed in a designer gown and dining silver service-style on stage, she praised the taste multiple times (a little too hard perhaps) and cracked salty jokes.
Before Kidman, Angelina Jolie was filmed eating tarantulas and scorpions with her children. Somehow the poor kids produced smiles. See? It’s normal and a fun family activity! Robert Downey Junior pimped “Ynsect”, an insect protein power on the Stephen Colbert show. And Justin Timberlake, Zac Efron, Gordon Ramsey and Salma Hayek have all famously tried insects.
Celebrities and influencers are bound to be seen as serving an important role in making insects acceptable. Expect to see them dining in glamorous restaurants on wildly expensive and aspirational dishes. Male influencers might turn their manly jaws to hard-shelled bugs, proving their strength and courage. Chefs with climate concerns will show us how to whizz up a mealworm omlette (like normal food) or chocolate ant fountains (different and salient).
As the report “Celebrity insects: Exploring the effect of celebrity endorsement on people’s willingness to eat insect-based foods” concludes, celebrity endorsement is powerful strategy for promoting insects as food.
A more subtle approach doesn’t so much slide a foot in the door, as a mandible in the door. A Finnish baker has launched the world’s first insect-based bread. If it’s something you normally eat, and it only contains a small percentage of insects, well, does it even matter? One loaf contains about 70 crickets - who’s counting? If you try a product you are used to and can’t see the bugs, this is one way to gently acclimatise people to the new ingredient. Will you notice when the the flour is more cricket than wheat? How will you next feel about eating a bag of crickets, rather than a ham and cheese sandwich? Watch that plague of locusts flying through the Overton window.
Once insects are more readily available it’s also possible we’ll see price used as a lever: high prices for meat and incentives for insects.
There’s a battle for your dinner plate. The problem is, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” calls it a bush tucker trial for a reason. If you don’t want to eat insects, do tell them to Bug Off.
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“Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives. Key principles from past government-led behaviour change and public engagement initiatives.” October 2021.