'Bugs' On Film: Digging Into Insect Cuisine

Apr 7, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 1:35 pm

From New York City's Toloache to London's Grub Kitchen as dining out options, and from cricket pasta to cricket protein bars for cooking in or eating on the run, insect cuisine is all the rage these days.

Entomophagy (eating insects) isn't only a trend for "foodies" in the West, it's often also framed as a saving strategy for the world's hungry. The statistic I hear over and over in entomophagy-based conversations comes from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): By 2050, the world will need to increase its food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of 9 billion people. With insects, the argument goes, protein needs can be met without the need for large tracts of land or the huge cost of greenhouse gases that accompany intense livestock farming.

This same FAO statistic is mentioned more than once in the upcoming documentary BUGS, directed by Andreas Johnsen. The film is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan on April 16.

But in the movie, it's mentioned with a difference. Chef Ben Reade and food researcher Josh Evans of the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen travel the world, from Uganda to Italy and Japan to Australia, sampling local insects. They become excited (ecstatic, even) over the array of delicious protein choices out there, ranging from roasted termite queens to the honey of stingless bees.

But they also push back hard against any simple notion that "insects can save the world." They become especially jaded by schemes to turn insect products into food brands that will mostly serve to line the pockets of big corporations. For Reade and Evans, the key to environmentally healthy eating isn't mass-produced insects; it's diversity in growing and eating good, locally sustainable foods.

And that FAO statistic? Evans is skeptical. He notes that the World Food Programme, another U.N. agency, says that enough food is available right now to feed every human being. The issue, Evans says, isn't food production but "the power structures that perpetuate inequality of access" to food.

This aspect of BUGS — its willingness to push at questions that often lie beneath the surface of entomophagy-based discourse — really appealed to me.

I'm not a complete stranger to bug-eating. I've sampled grasshopper-stuffed chapulines at Washington, D.C.'s Oyamel restaurant and cricket cookies sent to me by Little Herds in Texas.

And I'm seriously interested in thinking through whether or not investment in global entomophagy could mean that the suffering of animals on factory farms is significantly reduced.

(I'm equally interested in arguments that plant-based diets are the way to go, and I hope for cross-talk among these different camps.)

What about insect welfare, though? Director Andreas Johnsen and I had this exchange, via email:

BK: The words "insect welfare" come up once in the film. What is your take on situations like what happened in Kenya, when the huge termite queen was unearthed, and Ben Reade puts her in a pan over the fire, and says, "She's in pain, she's being cooked alive?" How do you think of the insects' experience here — or Ben's attitude toward it?

AJ: Insect welfare, or animal welfare in general, is something that Ben is very conscious about, but he is also a chef and an explorer, so when he cooked the termite queen alive in Kenya, it's not because he believes that this is the way it should be done, but he needed to try it. He doesn't even believe that people should start digging up all the termite mounds to get to the delicious and extremely healthy termite queen, only if it's proven that it will not drastically decrease the termite population. He is quite aware of these issues, and he also brings it up later in the film when we visit the industrialized insect farm Kreca, in Wageningen in The Netherlands.

What kind of conversations, actions or events, if any, do you hope may emerge once audiences start seeing BUGS?

I sincerely hope that people will start asking themselves: Where does the food I eat come from? Why do I eat what I eat? Could I be eating something else that might have been produced in a more sustainable way and which might even be healthier for me and my community?

I'm uncomfortable with some of the practices involved in insect cuisine, because these are living creatures we're talking about. But we can't turn away from entomophagy. It's happening — and as Wayne State University anthropologist Julie Lesnik reminds us in this short video, it's been happening for millennia and in a sustained way cross-culturally. Now it's a powerful part of the Euro-American re-evaluation of our global food systems.

We should debate questions about entomophagy. Watching and discussing BUGS is a good way to do this.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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