“Why Don’t More Humans Eat Bugs?”
by Esther Landhuis
Sapiens, November 30, 2018
Thanks for the helpful and enjoyable chat earlier this week. I’ve taken a stab at turning my bullet-point musings into something that looks more like a pitch. 🙂
Why Westerners think eating bugs is yucky
In a widely publicized 2013 report, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization argued that current farming and food production practices are unsustainable for the world’s expanding population — and pushed edible insects as a solution. Insects are a healthy alternative to beef, pork and chicken, and raising them requiring far less water and land. Plus, raising bugs is way more planet-friendly, releasing but a tiny fraction of greenhouse gases compared with traditional livestock.
Yet despite growing concern about sustainability and compelling data on bugs’ nutritional and environmental benefits, many Westerners have a similar gut response to the thought of creepy-crawlies on the dinner plate — “Ewwww!”
Julie Lesnik was no exception. A picky eater since childhood, the paleoanthropologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, says she got “really good at evasive techniques.” When a local bug advocate brought Chex mix with mealworms to an anthropology symposium in 2012, Lesnik cleverly busied herself “talking to people — you know, networking — so the opportunity never came for me to eat the Chex mix.” Even when the UN report came out the following year, “it was hard for me to start eating bugs,” she admits.
At some point, though — after years spent researching the role of termites in the hominid diet for her doctoral dissertation — it dawned on Lesnik that she “knew a lot about bug eating and could contribute to this conversation about their potential as a sustainable food source.”
It’s a conversation currently dominated by insect biologists, food scientists and others working on the “how” — how to raise bugs, how to make them appeal to customers. Anthropologists such as Lesnik, and other social scientists, can speak to the “why” — why Westerners cringe at eating insects to begin with. Some industry experts say understanding this “yuck factor” is critical to transforming social attitudes about insects in the Western diet.
In her upcoming book (available July), Edible Insects and Human Evolution, Lesnik discusses the impact of latitude and geography on bug eating habits (or lack thereof) and the role of Western colonialism in building and perpetuating the idea of insects as food for the savage. She summarizes developmental psychology research on the origins of disgust and how it can be overcome, as well as consumer research identifying factors predicting who’s likely to adopt insects as a meat substitute in Western societies. And Lesnik is among the few social scientists who will speak at the “Insects to Feed the World” conference in China next week.
I’m envisioning a SAPIENS feature with Lesnik as the main character. Today she eats dry-roasted mealworms, crickets and other bugs — but only after getting past her own disgust — and that makes her relatable to readers. “My overcoming [the disgust] was entirely through education,” she says. “At some point I was like, alright, this is the bed you’ve made for yourself. You’ve got to eat bugs. You’ve got to make this happen.”
The Lesnik-driven narrative could fold in additional voices:
- Arnold van Huis, entomologist at Wageningen University (Netherlands) and co-organizer of the China conference, can explain what anthropologists bring to the “insects as food” conversation
- Paul Rozin, Penn psychologist famous for his decades-long research on food choice and disgust
- European researchers who published recent studies investigating who’s most likely to eat insects and what factors contribute
How does this sound?