Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beware of the "Facts"

"Beware of Facts"

After you read this, I eagerly solicit input that would encourage entomophagy.  I'd love to hear about economical sources of supply –even not-so economical.  I want to know of substantiated and clear nutritional data on insects.  I'd even love to hear about your entomophagous experiences.  I don't solicit data on global warming, carbon footprints of cattle, or rain forest destruction, or how we're all going to starve to death in ten years and so forth.  Although I mention stuff like that in this article, it's is not the point of my promotion of entomophagy.  I promote entomophagy because it's fun.

Some entomophagy promoters will throw out lots of convincing-sounding "facts" and data.  Insects are almost as high in protein, ounce for ounce, as other meats, with lots less fat.  They're jam packed with other nutrients you could never get in mainstream meats.  Entomophagy could go a long way to solve world hunger while greening up the environment and saving all kinds of money on feed/fuel costs compared to beef.  Don't just accept the data and "facts" without thinking for yourself.  I'm not an expert, nor do I have much research to support my claims here, but I've given what I'm about to say a fair deal of thought.

There's lots of nutrition in insects.  I won't argue that at all.  I do have to wonder about the compared-to-other-meat, and so-high-in-protein claims.  A few years back, I heard of pet food manufacturers catching flack about their protein claims.  They bragged on their packaging about how high in protein their food was, until some folks fussed about false-advertising in that too much of their wonderful protein was not digestible protein.  They included fur, claws, beaks, and yes, insect exoskeletons, which may be protein, but very likely nutritionally useless protein.  I asked a couple of my ento-expert friends about those protein claims, as they apply to insects, and they didn't know if the protein data included the indigestible or not.  About alternate protein: yes, beans, nuts, chickens, fish, grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas are all good, and should be considered, but we must get over our fear of bugs first.  Just accept that insects are good stuff, but don't go on about how much better they are, at least until the data is clarified. 

One of my favorite outdoor survival and wild edibles authors, Bradford Angier, quotes George Leopard [sic] Herter as saying, "Insects are wonderful food, being mostly fat, and far more strengthening than either fish or meat.  It does not take many insects to keep you fit…  Moths, mayflies, in fact about all the insects found in the woods, are very palatable... kick open some rotten logs and get some grubs.  They keep bears fat and healthy and will do the same for you."  He speaks from a survivalist/outdoorsman's perspective, and makes a claim without shock data or belittling benefits of traditional "meat" and fish.

Other shock sources include books like "The Population Bomb" and "Famine 1975!"  They predicted we'd be starved out by now.  In 1960, a prominent professor in the environmental/agriculture fields predicted, "We have about 50 more years of steaks".   Shock data inspires suspicion in me like those "Act Now!" ads that want you to send money without thinking things through.  "Overpopulation" is the inability for a people to sustain itself on its land.  We, at least in most of the West, do not have an overpopulation problem.  Most of the hunger we have is based on wrong behaviors, and not a lack of food  Sure, there is lots of hunger and even starvation in the world.  For the most part, it's in areas that already embrace entomophagy. 

I suggested to my sister, who works in the anthropology field in Papua New Guinea, that "her" villagers might be able to make some money by collecting and selling some of their world-famous grubs to the West.  She replied that they see it as an event worth great rejoicing when they turn over a log to find those grubs.  They celebrate that they have more to eat!  She also says the meager money they sometimes get is way too often misspent.   Even though I'd like to get more entomophagy going here, I can't justify commercializing someone else's prize food-finds.  Our answer to entomophagy in the West doesn't lie in taking advantage of the food supply of an already-hungry people.  We must come up with our own insect resources.

I've seen some figures on insect prices, and you can look them up on the Internet.  If you find sources of supply to prove my cost-theories wrong, please let me know.  The cost (pound for pound at retail) for serious entomophagy, according to my figures, is prohibitive as a replacement for mainstream sources of protein.  One place I read about recently, buys their crickets for $13 a pound.  I bought a 1.2oz can of crickets at a pet store, and it cost $7.99!  That's not going to save the world from starvation.  Buying insects from commercial breeders, after entomophagy gets more popular here, and initial overhead is paid for, might someday be affordable.  Pound for pound, insects might be competitors with beef in protein, but certainly not in cost - yet. 

I can't help but wonder what would commercial bug ranches look like.  We'd have to go commercial to feed the people.  We can't build fences for grasshoppers or crickets, so we'd have to have specialized buildings in which to raise them.  How much grasshopper building would be required to match the protein potential of a herd of cattle?  And a big Cadillac with a set of long-horned grasshopper antennae just wouldn't look as impressive as one with cattle horns (OK, I'm off track there).

Other things to consider in going commercial with insect production for human consumption are what we naturally do when creating a product for sale.  We've got bigger, fatter, tastier meats on the market than the first farmers could have dreamed of producing.  That's because we have more high-tech foods, chemical additives, and genetically altered biomass than ever.  We can't reasonably think we won't seek to create a bigger, fatter, tastier, softer-bodied grasshopper or mealworm or cricket.  If we're going commercial, we're going to have to out-compete our competition.  Going commercial isn't likely to be as environmentally or organically friendly as many would like to claim.  Big commercializing will get insects just as chemicalled up and genetically altered as mainstream meats.

Then there's private insect farming.  I've kept a batch of mealworms going for a couple years now.   Granted, they take lots less care and overhead than a small herd of goats.  But it still takes space and time.  I'm too short on facilities to get this micro-herd of mine to large scale.  My basement's too cool for optimum breeding.  It'd cost a fair amount to get heat down there and keep the temps right.  They do eat a little of our otherwise disposed-of kitchen waste.  I could probably expand the operation if my wife embraced the practice.  So far, she rolls her eyes at entomophagy and wishes I'd not mention it in public, but she still tolerates my hobby.   I'm working on her, but not pushing. 

My mealworms don't stink (if I keep their pans regularly cleaned).  They're fairly cheap to sustain, but it's not enough to replace our "regular" meat.  Besides, I don't particularly care for the taste of mealworms, and anyone who's eaten them knows the taste is distinctive.  I have eaten some individuals that are almost sweet and pleasant-tasting –but haven't figured out how to make that consistent.  I'd like to try Madagascar hissing cockroaches, but my wife barely tolerates the mealworms, and mealworms don't attract attention on their own.  Crickets are supposed to be easy, but again, they take a different set-up than mealworms.  They like aquariums with dirt in 'em –but they have to be made escape proof.  Mealworms don't jump.  The adult beetles hardly ever fly (I've not seen it yet –they DO have wings).  They can't climb the plastic sides of my shallow storage tubs, so I guess I'll keep on with them until I come up with a better alternative. 

If insects can't be inexpensively bought or raised in fairly large quantities, we must catch them ourselves.  After all, insects are all over the place, so that shouldn't pose a problem, right?  During the summer and autumn of 2010, I had the fun of collecting insects to present entomophagy at a public library teen fear factor program, and a Missouri Department of Conservation "Insect-O-Rama".  I spent lots of time at night at our window-screens, picking June bugs.  I also went out at night and picked grasshoppers by flashlight: the cooler the night, the easier the picking.  I figured it would take me around 15 hours of picking to produce a pound of grasshoppers.  What, then, would a pound of grasshoppers cost at minimum wage (excluding packaging, shipment, marketing, and so on)?  It was fun, but I'd be no provider for my family that way.  I doubt if I quit my job and devoted my life to catching bugs, I could feed my family.  They'd wither away, and I'd lose my house too.   

I'm by no means an expert fisherman or hunter, but it would be far more practical for me to provide for my family by fishing, hunting or trapping than to catch bugs.  But statistics and facts try to support entomophagy as the solution to our ills.  If entomophagy isn't a solution, it's argued we've at least got to get away from commercial mammal meat like beef and pork.  There's lots of scary data to support that.  I'm not even going to get into anthropomorphic climate-change.  We should have nipped that global warming crisis in the bud back when the glaciers started receding from the northern states of the USA, and the mastodon population went into decline.

Here is some evidence for the ills of beef I got from a well-intentioned friend: 
"…Beef is the most inefficient food on the menu, and Americans eat entirely too much of it. For example: it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 1 gallon of gasoline, 55 acres of rainforest (provided that the cattle was exported from South America), and 8 pounds of grain just to generate one pound of beef. Food and water scarcity is a serious problem in our world, think of how many of those people could be nourished with what it takes to generate just one pound of beef. Beef is not a necessity, there are other ways for people to get ample protein in their diets…"

I wondered how this data was gathered and how the results were organized. Do the math!  A 300 pound beef costs 750,000 gallons of water, burns 300 gallons of gas, wipes out 16,500 acres of rain forest and eats 2,400 pounds of grain? How many pounds of beef have been produced in SA? I don't think those panic-figures will add up. How big is a herd of cattle? For example, we'll consider a tiny herd of 150 scrawny 300 pound cattle. That's 2,475,000 acres of rain forest wiped out.  Add all the per-pound gas, water and grain wasted by that one tiny herd, but we can still buy a pound of beef for under $3?  No wonder our farmers are having such a tough time.  And taxing US beef (which was a suggestion to discourage beef production) would only increase rain forest destruction by driving beef production out of the US.

Don't think I'm advocating raising cattle on cleared rain forest pastures.  If a pound of beef costs a gallon of gas, 2,500 gallons of water, and 8 pounds of grain, we'd be paying AT LEAST that much per pound for hamburger.  And government subsidies don't explain away the claimed water/land/feed costs either.  Government subsidies didn't cause mankind to adopt farming instead of entomophagy to begin with.  It was simply more efficient.  The "data" sounds scary, but they don't consider how much of that 2,500 gallons of water goes back into the environment.  They don't consider all the fine fertilizer left by the cattle, and they don't consider that the "destroyed" rain forest can be re-used to raise more inefficient cattle.  Of course, we could build a cricket or roach ranch on that cleared rain forest. 

I won't argue the claim that we eat too much beef or that there are other sources of protein besides mainstream meats.  Much of the data or at least the conclusions based on that data, for example: to support the anti-beef rant, has too many holes in it.  Don't get into entomophagy or go on a crusade for it based on shock-data.  Do it because it's a fun and could someday draw enough attention to provide a reasonable alternative to beef or pork.  If you have enough fun with it, others will catch on, and maybe someday entomophagy will replace the other so-called environmentally unfriendly and less healthy mainstream meats.  Get buggy! 

1 comment:

Paul said...

I recently saw a post by an activist entomophage that said the Western world needed to embrace entomophagy like Africa and Asia, or face starvation. Look at world hunger maps. Those areas that embrace entomophagy are the areas with the worst starvation. Something doesn't add up here. Also, if the West embraced entomophagy, we'd surely be buying lots from the lesser developed countries, reducing their food supplies even more.