In 1880s Hawaii, a “giant insect” was eaten to extinction. No photographs and specimens remain, but the beast was probably a katydid, so it might have looked something like this:
This happened in a bygone era when passenger pigeons, sea cows and dodos where also eaten. Sadly, these animals no longer exist anywhere on our planet. Sadly, this attitude towards eating animals still exists.
Some Asian consumers (and their suppliers) are chasing pangolins, bluefin tuna and fin whales towards extinction. Some people hunt endangered African elephants, chimpanzees and gorillas for bushmeat. Canada’s threatened caribou populations are overhunted, with local populations at risk of disappearing forever.
In the last few years, people in Europe and America have started eating insects as a regular part of their diet. There are plenty of reasons to do this – insects are an exciting and versatile ingredient, they tend to be high in protein, fibre, calcium and a range of other micronutrients, and they offer a powerful solution to food security.
A huge pull factor for many of these consumers are the range of environmental benefits that come with eating insects. Insects are remarkably efficient at converting feed into edible weight. They also don’t require pastures, which means less deforestation, soil erosion and habitat clearance. Insects also demand drastically less water, and are not fussy about what you feed them.
The world’s ento-preneurs and their growing customer bases are highly sensitive to environmental issues. Some of them are advocates of the circular economy, and many of them are outspoken environmentalists. I can imagine no insect supplier wanting to remotely participate in the extinction of a species or an ecosystem collapse. Even if someone were an ecological psychopath with full disregard for environmental issues, their customers would inevitably turn on them.
Those involved in the edible insect industry need to be careful what they are importing. Harvesting wild insects on a commercial scale can be perilous.
Writing back in 2004, two scientists – Jintana Yhoung-Aree and Kanvee Viwatpanich – made this observation of Thailand:
At present, the demand for insects as food is increasing, and the business of marketing edible insects is becoming more lucrative … a consequence of this increase in the quantity of edible insects collected is that the ecosystem and food chain have been adversely affected, resulting in a biodiversity crisis.
Overharvesting wild insects is bad news for targeted species, but it’s also damaging for the wider ecosystem. Diminishing one species drains a whole range of other species’ food supply, or, for example if giant water bugs were completely removed from a habitat, the creatures they eat could run riot. Without sufficient bees and beetles for pollination, or termites for nutrient cycling, wild ecosystems will inevitably collapse.
Of the thirty wild insect species harvested for human consumption in Mexico’s Hidalgo region, Julieta Ramos-Elorduy has identified fourteen of them as seriously threatened:
- “Escamoles” (larvae and pupae of Liometopum ants)
- White agave worm (Aegiale hesperiaris)
- Red agave worm (Xyleutes redtembacheri)
- “Bojita”/“Chatita” (agave weevil, Scyphophorus acupunctatus)
- “Xamues” (mesquite worm, Thasus gigas)
- “Axayactl” and “ahuahutle” (six species of Corixidae aquatic insects)
- “Repletas” (two species of honeypot ants, Myrmecosistus melliger and mexicanus)
- Black wasp (Polybia occidentalis nigratella)
Humans have always eaten insects. Whether it’s flying termites by Lake Malawi, sweet honeypot ants in the Australian desert or cockchafer soup in rural France – they are traditionally consumed as local, seasonal, wild-harvested delicacies.
There is nothing wrong with eating insects. The problems start when people try to commercialise something that is local, seasonal, and dependent on traditional practices for its renewal. As Dr Alan Yen explains:
With some exceptions, traditional wild harvesting of insects as food has been sustainable. The development of traditional knowledge on collecting, storage and cooking methods over time is evidence of this. The problem facing traditional cultures is how to respond when there is increasing demand and pressure to commercialise the products and achieve a balance between subsistence use and commercial utilisation without destroying the resource.
This is not to say that people should stop eating insects. Edible insects should be commercialised, but commercialising them from the wild is risky at best, catastrophic at worst.
There are a range of measures that could help ease the pressures to overharvest – things like educational guidelines, licensing systems, protection zones, monitoring programmes and trade cooperatives.
But while these are all brilliant ideas well worth pursuing, there is another, arguably more powerful solution.
Instead of alleviating the pressure to overharvest, we could remove the pressure to overharvest. That is to say, insects can be farmed and ranched (domesticated and semi-domesticated).
While this might sound radically futuristic, we have been in a very similar situation before, but with ancient giant reptiles…
The American alligator had long been hunted for its hide and meat, but by 1967 it was facing extinction. Facing an ecological disaster, the US government made the bold decision to place alligators under legal protection as an endangered species, which banned hunting. Almost immediately alligator farms appeared across Louisiana, Florida and Georgia to meet consumer demand.
Less than fifty years later wild American alligator populations have recovered, and alligator farming is a $60-70 million industry in Louisiana alone. Conservationists are happy, and many of the locals who used to hunt alligator for a living now entertain tourists with wild alligator tours and farmed alligator steaks.
The conservation of wild aurochs – giant primeval cattle that once roamed from Korea to Scotland – is a different story. Aurochs are the beasts venerated in cave paintings for their colossal size, and may be where the ancient zodiac Taurus comes from. These magnificent animals were hunted to extinction, with the last of the species dying in Poland in 1627.
We are approaching a crossroads with edible insects. We could ignore the impacts of overexploiting the wild, as we did with the aurochs, or we could act before it’s too late, as we did with the alligator.
Threatened edible insects in Hidalgo, Mexico and some measures to preserve them (2006) by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy
Section 4: Edible insects as a natural resource (2013) from Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Ark of Taste: Insects by Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity
Ecological Implications of Minilivestock (2005) edited by Maurizio G Paoletti.
–> Chapter 2: The Minilivestock: Environment, Education, Research, and Economics by Jacques E. Hardouin
–> Chapter 17: Palm worm (Coleoptera, Curculionidae: Rhynchophorus palmarum) A Traditional Food: Examples from Alto Orinoco, Venezuela by Hugo Cerda, Y. Araujo, Robert H. Glew and Maurizio G. Paoletti
–> Chapter 20: Edible Insects in the Laos PDR, Myanmar, thailand, and Vietnam by Jintana Yhoung-Aree and Kanvee Viwatpanich
They Eat That? (2012) by Jonathan Deutsch and Natalya Murakhver (Hawaii’s extinct “giant insect” is described on page 117)