Cicadas à la carte? That’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat insects

Cicadas à la carte? That’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat insects
Cicadas à la carte? That’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat insects

Chip Somodevilla // Getty Images

Cicadas à la carte? That’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat insects

Grilled cicada skewers with some cicadas catching fire on the grill during Cicadafest at Dr. Jim Duke’s Green Farmacy Garden on May 22, 2021 in Fulton, Maryland.

When Cortni Borgerson thinks of the trillion or so cicadas that regularly emerge from underground, she sees more than clumsy flying insects darting from tree to tree in search of a mate. She sees her lunch.

Some may find that idea repulsive, a notion that is often, if unconsciously, rooted in colonialism and the idea that eating insects is “uncivilized.” But Borgerson, an anthropologist at Montclair State University, is one of those seeking to change that perception. She enjoys eating insects of all kinds, but finds cicadas particularly appetizing. “They’re one of the best insects in the Americas,” she says.

She said their texture is similar to peeled shrimp and their taste is like “a chicken nugget and a sunflower seed had a baby.” She recommends that beginners prepare them like any other meat and try them in tacos.

As Grist reports, Borgerson is not alone in her fascination with edible insects. In the lead-up to the double brood’s emergence this spring, numerous cicada recipes, sweet treats and culinary odes have praised the big bugs. The interest is part of a growing social movement in favor of alternative proteins among consumers who are increasingly demanding a more sustainable food system.

“They’re these magical-looking insects that crawl up and excite and interest people,” she said. “People are more excited about eating them than other types of insects.”

The excitement surrounding the emergence of cicadas, says Borgerson, offers an opportunity to break down false stereotypes and misconceptions about eating insects. She believes the animals are more than just tasty. They are a sustainable alternative to carbon-intensive proteins like beef and an effective way to address rising food insecurity.

“Some insects offer incredible opportunity and potential to reduce our carbon footprint in a delicious but sustainable way,” she said.

About 30 percent of the world’s population considers insects a delicacy or staple food, a practice that dates back thousands of years. A study published earlier this year found that over 3,000 ethnic groups in 128 countries eat 2,205 species of insects, with everything from caterpillars to locusts appearing in dishes of all kinds. These invertebrates are a rich source of protein, fat and vitamins. The animals are most commonly eaten by consumers in Asia, North America – especially Mexico, where people enjoy 450 species – and Africa.

The idea is still a novelty in the United States, where only six species are regularly consumed (the most popular being crickets), and consumer attitudes based on old stigmas remain a barrier to wider acceptance.

Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University who studies Western bias against eating things like bugs, calls the “yuck” reaction many Americans have to the idea a cultural byproduct of colonization.

“Disgust is a very instinctive and biological experience,” she said. “To tell someone that their aversion to insects is cultural and not physiologically innate is difficult to grasp, because you feel your stomach turning and you get a gag reflex when you are disgusted by the thought of eating insects. But disgust is one of the few learned emotions, so we are disgusted by the things our culture tells us to be disgusted by.”

Such a reaction can also be a sign of internalized prejudice, she said. Indigenous peoples across North America once ate various insects, a practice that European colonists considered “uncivilized” – a way to “exclude” non-white communities and cultural practices. “Is that racist? Yes, it is,” Lesnik said.

The racist basis of this ideology has come under fire in the wake of right-wing claims that a shadowy global elite is forcing people to eat insects going viral. Politicized conspiracy theories—like the claim that Bill Gates is going to ban meat and force everyone to eat insects—are insidious pieces of misinformation that Joseph Yoon fights against on a daily basis.

“I think just the idea of ​​edible insects makes people think about the lowest common denominator,” says Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs and executive chef at the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development. “It’s about the apocalypse. It’s about the poor. It’s about the marginalized in developing countries. And just the idea of ​​that triggers a sense of fear, anger and resentment. Instead of putting insects in a silo because you don’t understand them… we can work together to find solutions for our global food systems.”

Eleven years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations identified insects as a promising alternative to conventional meat production. In the decade since, countless start-ups have been founded in North America to make insects a primary food source for humans, an ingredient (flour is common) or a feed for cattle and pets. The market for such products is expected to reach $1.1 billion in the United States by 2033; the global figure is more than three times that.

Still, whether insect proteins can provide a real climate solution for a fledgling industry remains a burning question that Rachel Mazac has studied in depth. Mazac, a sustainability researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is one of the scientists who have tried to quantify the carbon footprint of producing products like crickets, mealworms and black soldier flies on an industrial scale. So far, she has found that insects are “extremely efficient” in using land and water compared to conventional livestock. While she acknowledges the lack of data on the subject, Mazac believes insects deserve further scrutiny as a viable alternative to more common – and carbon-intensive – meat.

However, not everyone sees insects as a climate solution. Matthew Hayek, an environmental researcher and assistant professor at New York University, co-authored a 2024 survey of more than 200 climate and agricultural scientists that showed broad support for greater efforts by governments and the private sector to promote alternatives to meat and dairy. But he doesn’t believe insects belong on the list of most urgent solutions. Among other things, he questions the environmental impact of feeding them to farmed animals and whether the animals can be raised and slaughtered humanely.

“It’s a worthwhile area of ​​study for basic science and R&D,” he said. “As an actual market-level climate solution, it’s not worth it for someone to invest in a climate solution.”

Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, doesn’t think so. He believes every possible protein alternative needs to be on the table because addressing the climate crisis requires reforming the global food system. “We should consider all options when we talk about how to better manage our planet,” he said. “We need to diversify as much as possible.”

But that would require consumers and policymakers to put aside old ideas and consider new possibilities. That, Tomberlin said, would spur the kind of research and funding needed to “safely and efficiently” develop the processing and production practices needed to make insect protein a viable, scalable alternative to other meats. Only then will the idea of ​​eating insects be more than a barrage of trendy headlines and cicada tacos more than a fleeting novelty.

This story was produced by Ground material and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.

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