Plugging in bugs & slugs on the menu: Our spiced-up future?

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: June 27, 2019 21:41:00 | Updated: July 03, 2019 20:16:56

Imagine yourself saying something like this to your adult dinner guests, "Would you like cockroach soup for beginners," and their children, "How about caterpillar candies, kiddies?" Not many visitors might stay beyond the greetings, skipping what could become the hottest meal mode later in this century, perhaps the only option. Insect meals might sound weird, even despicable, but so too high-fashion to the pure conservationist. By century's end, we will have irrevocably disrupted our food chain: traditional meals (what we consume today) will be extinct by then, even entomophagous meals (insect-based) could be jeopardised against the rapidly expanding endangered insect list.

Since mothers will get, in greater dosages, their favourite food component, the story actually gets more savoury than that. From crickets, grasshoppers, locusts, and worms to roaches, ticks, mosquitoes, flies, and bugs, every entomophagous bite would become less of a "beggar's" banquet and more of a royal "feast." Bake, boil, fry, or stew them, one will still be getting far more protein than the typical doctor prescribes (except for beetles, which carry lots of fat). They leave less waste (since we eat them all in one go), prevent far more forest-land from farm-field conversion, release far less greenhouse gases than animals, and help us to plant footprints our grandchildren would adore us for (unlike we ourselves do to our ancestors).

Even more, one could fatten one's pocket by losing one's calories, paying less for food, and running insect food business. A booming billion-dollar industry already at first-base awaits at the door. With population growth reaching its tipping point, turning to insects for survival in our inimitable fashionable way seems increasingly inevitable. Look at the negative side of the scorecard: greenhouse gases from food consumption have already (and irreversibly) twisted steady-state climate patterns; water shortages, since a huge chunk goes into preparing the animals for our typical lunches, dinners, and feasts; by injecting farm-animals and foods with chemicals, our hospitals have exploded with gastro-driven or coronary ailments, even confronting new diseases caused by our high-end lifestyles; and plastic in our oceans not only threaten the fish population, but returns as food components for our own stomach, intestines, and ultimately, body muscles and brain parts. We might as well have been born in a test tube.

What have we done about building an insect culinary? In countries like the Netherlands, insect farms have sprung up -  some of them housing insects, billions more than people inhabiting this planet. These seem more set to feed future generations than building human colonies on the moon. Littered with more insects by far than the temperate-zone countries, tropical-zone countries might, again, find themselves tip-toeing the temperate zone line.  Would-be entrepreneurs cultivating this industry carry the longest-term future profits right in their pockets: substituting animal sacrifice for easy-to-get insect soups, appetisers, entrées, and desserts also bloats bank accounts far faster than smuggling or low-wage factory exploitation.

As insect cafés begin to dot European cities, the more natural playground, China, for example, in the tropics, offers better models for countries like Bangladesh to follow. Its thriving 100-odd cockroach farms nurture this message effectively (breeding more than 6.0 billion insects for medicinal inputs). Unlike the European insect cafés, which process the insects to the extent that they do not even look like insects to on-looking customers, cockroaches do not have to be processed at all. At $20 per pound, consuming them raw after boiling them has not produced any health problems, let alone an epidemic. Given the rich array of spices in the "eastern" world (one of the key attractions for European colonialists), cockroaches can be eloquently prepared, analogously, in fact, to the best boutique wares. Even with the extra protein intake over time, countervailing forces also proliferate, especially plastic-filled fashionable clothes. Cockroach milk is already in the market, supplying at least as much protein as ordinary milk, in addition to amino acids and healthy sugars.

Perceptions aside, there is more to an insect diet becoming the most rewarding item to hit our palate. For such scrupulous food preparers and consumers as the Chinese, one might even explore the co-relationship between diet and world leadership. For would-be great powers in the rest of the world which cannot afford building nuclear weapons, well, there is a putative insect-based world-leadership hypothesis right there to test, building the next genuinely protein-filled country on earth.

Bangladesh has neither the land for cattle farming, nor the yearnings to chop more trees down for agriculture. It is about 40-50 million people short of its carrying capacity. Remarkably its farm revolutions (from the 1960s), in places like Cumilla, have helped carry the day food-wise thus far, but an insect diet offers a far more efficient distribution and usages of available resources: it needs no fertilisers, irrigation, or as much human labour. We have more cockroaches and multiple other insects than the tea potential that attracted the East India Company in the early 17th century, or the jute potential pre-partition Indian entrepreneurs exploited during our Pakistan days. Instead of spraying them with pesticides (a possible ozone-threatening action), we could begin collecting them for a small payment as the start of a cottage industry. Like the Dutch, we might attract more insect deposits and live insects than people on this planet, then the fairly straightforward processing would begin. If the outcome can match Bokshibazar khashi, Cumilla rosh-molai, or Tangail sondesh, we would know big business in brewing, promising profitable increasingly than RMG (ready-made garments) export income.

Domestically, our children would grow with as much protein as needed, but without the stomach pouch or the lethargy haunting teenagers these days. Almost two-thirds of a typical insect is raw protein, a proportion far higher than mothers get from beef to raise their children. Children raised upon an insect diet will be far less likely to even face diabetes, a current Bangladesh plague (for which so much is being spent on medication locally, and an escalating foreign exchange component for treatment abroad). Red meat would be brought under control. Even white meat, as from chicken or duck, though vastly better than its red counterpart for health, also need not be in any diet when far more effective insect-based protein alternatives prevail.

Externally, if we have gotten our act together, we could do what the government is beginning to prioritise: diversify industries, and particularly export-based ones. As the world's middle-class begins to bulge (and will continue doing so into at least mid-century), not just food intake, but delicacy demand will explode (sparks have already begun flying). We are set to capture that market since our likeliest competitors, China and India, have far too many more mouths to feed domestically to become instant international threats.

We will then have more pastures left for picnics, forests for our threatened tiger population, less pollution to suffocate our fish and humans, and fewer bourgeois-based health problems to finance. We will build higher foreign exchange reserves and supply conceivably more Bangladeshi brands abroad. Therein lies our consumer's surplus.

Any volunteer to open the first cockroach café in your para, or invite one's most privileged guests to a sumptuous lentil-laced locust stew? Now that's future party talk.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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