How then shall we eat? Insect-eating attitudes and sustainable foodways

Abstract

Negative attitudes toward invertebrates are a deep-seated, visceral response among Western peoples. These internalized aversions toward insects and other terrestrial arthropods, both in general and specifically as a food source, subtly and systemically contribute to unsustainable global foodways. Insect cuisine is, for Westerners, emblematic of the alien, a threat to our psychological and cultural identity. Yet failure to embrace entomophagy prevents us from seeing the full humanity of those of other classes, races, and cultures, and leads to agricultural and food policy decisions that fail in their objectives to improve nourishment for all people. Key to enabling the world’s peoples to live sustainably with the land are: (1) awareness of the psychological and cultural barriers to a more insect-positive perspective (2) embracing insects as a desirable food resource, (3) understanding the processes by which those barriers are constructed, their negative consequences, and (4) identifying strategies for transforming our attitudes.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although wild foods are a “significant portion of the total food basket for households from agricultural, hunter, gatherer and forager systems,” they are typically undervalued and often threatened by development processes (Bharucha and Pretty 2010, p. 2922). Such losses are not an isolated event, nor limited to less developed countries, as two other insect examples show. The decline of grasshopper species also occurred when unregulated insecticides were commonly applied to paddy fields in Japan (Mitsuhashi 2003) and South Korea (Pemberton and Lee 1996). Once regulations were established, a small commercial edible insect market returned.

  2. 2.

    We described this and other stories involving the complex dietary challenges that edible insects pose in greater detail in Wood and Looy 2000.

  3. 3.

    Most Western nations are societies consisting of a number of cultural groups. Our focus is on cultures of European derivation, what we call in this paper “Western.” We also use the words “we” and “our” in this paper to refer to Western people because the authors of this paper are all of Western society and are speaking to a primarily Western audience.

  4. 4.

    It is estimated that there are over 2,000 species of edible insects alone (van Huis 2013). To distinguish them from other edible invertebrates we use the term “insects” throughout this paper in its general sense to refer to groups of species such as true bugs, beetles, and termites as well as lifeforms such as grubs, caterpillars, and maggots.

  5. 5.

    We note, citing Morris (2004), that “as with other ‘cultures’ Western attitudes towards insects are diverse, complex and multifaceted.”.

  6. 6.

    Pasteur published theories about germs as the source of disease beginning only 25 years earlier, and Carlos Finlay first proposed mosquitoes as a carrier of yellow fever in 1881. Bilewicz et al. (2011) assert that anti-insect bias is located in the Enlightenment. Morris (2004) says that this reading of history is likely “simplistic” and the roots are more complex. The food histories we have consulted seldom mention edible insects, covering only their products such as honey (Wood and Looy 2000).

  7. 7.

    The use and regulation of pesticides, their continuing efficacy, and the desirability (or not) of alternative agricultural systems (multi-cropping, inter-cropping, etc.) are related issues. However, here we simply point to the need for maintaining knowledge of and capacity for the utilization of wild foods alongside the development of contemporary agriculture (e.g., Bharucha and Pretty 2010).

  8. 8.

    Apart from unpleasant tastes, there are no universal elicitors of disgust except perhaps feces, and even feces disgust is learned (Rozin and Fallon 1987). Learning which objects, events, and acts engender disgust is a complex process involving personal and cultural values, beliefs, norms, and practices (Bilewicz et al. 2011; Haidt 1997).

  9. 9.

    Interestingly, lobster was considered a “low-class food” up through the early 1800 s (Wallace 2007) fit for prisoners, and then only in limited quantities.

  10. 10.

    The ever popular science fiction and horror film genres have reinforced the idea of insects as either the enemy in nature or the agent of destruction, often at the tampering hand of some misguided scientist (Berenbaum 1995). Andrew Nikiforuk develops (and challenges) this theme in his chapter “The War Against the Insect Enemy” (2011).

  11. 11.

    Escamoles are a traditional dish of the Aztecs and are still considered a delicacy in Central Mexico, sometimes referred to as ‘insect caviar’ and served in fine restaurants in Mexico City. They are ant larvae, have a slightly nutty flavor, and are served alone or in omelets or tacos. Nsenene is the local name for a type of grasshopper known to North Americans as the katydid, and is a popular delicacy and economic resource in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. They are usually fried, sometimes with onions, and eaten warm or cold.

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Looy, H., Dunkel, F.V. & Wood, J.R. How then shall we eat? Insect-eating attitudes and sustainable foodways. Agric Hum Values 31, 131–141 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-013-9450-x

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Keywords

  • Entomophagy
  • Edible insects
  • Food
  • Attitude change
  • Culture
  • Sustainability
  • Disgust
  • Invertebrates