by Cynthia Ariosta
Mendocino County is arguably a leader of sustainability, where local food production, organic farming, and support for local farmers are paramount to many who live here. Farmers markets, school gardens, farm-to-table restaurants, and events featuring local bounty are regular occurrences. We have a DPO (Direct Public Offering) funded wool mill in development, a heritage grains project, a robust foraging community and a thriving presence of boutique animal husbandry. All of this means that Mendocino County is ripe for the development of a new type of farm, specializing in insects raised for human consumption.
The first time I engaged in entomophagy (insect-eating) was in Mendocino County while on a mushroom foraging expedition with our very own resident mycologist, David Arora. David, author of the celebrated field guide Mushrooms Demystified, travels worldwide hunting and identifying mushrooms, but is also a collector of the eclectic, including fragrant Asian teas and canned edible insects. While preparing, marinating and sautéing our daily haul of mushrooms, we pan fried a can of Thai crickets in a mixture of white wine, garlic, butter and herbs. Scampi style crickets: delicious, albeit crunchy.
A trip to Mexico City solidified my entomophagy. A friend and I sat in a hotel room in the Polanco crunching on a bunch of market purchased chili-lime marinated chapulines (grasshoppers) sipping a glass of white wine. Later that week, we ate agave worm tacos in a roadside restaurant. The server presented a bowl of the high protein critters, cooked in garlic and xonostle liquor, made from the prickly pear, and we wrapped the worms appropriately in corn tortillas with salsa, onion and cilantro. I bit in and waited for the gush, but the worms were crunchy, nutty, and tasted quite like marinated Rice Krispies. It was, for me, an edible epiphany akin to discovering sushi, during which I realized that just because something isn’t intrinsic to our culture of eating doesn’t mean that we can’t also enjoy it.
Perhaps, for the benefit of the planet, we should.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2013 study on edible insects, by 2050 there will be 9 billion people living on the planet; in order to sustain them, food production will need to double. Our planet is already suffering from land scarcity, overfishing, climate change and chronic hunger. Edible insects could potentially contribute to creating food security. More than 1900 species of insects are consumed by more than 2 billion people on the planet. Insects are a source of significant protein, fat, vitamins and fiber and their cultivation utilizes less water and land resources than cows and pigs.
For example, crickets only need to consume two kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of body weight, and grow to maturity in about six weeks. In a cow, the ratio is 8 to 1, and maturation can take two to three years. It takes 1800 gallons of water to create one pound of beef, and one gallon of water to create one pound of cricket protein. A cow uses two acres of resources in its lifetime; 55 crickets grow in a 4 x 6 box. House crickets contain approximately 21 grams of protein per 100 grams of cricket, while ground beef contains about 26 grams per 100 grams of meat. Insects can be fed with consumable organic human and animal waste, like spent grains and composted vegetables. They emit significantly less greenhouse gasses and ammonia than cattle and pigs, therefore contributing less to global warming than their farm animal counterparts.
So, what is the stumbling block? The disgust factor – which, it seems, may be something we can overcome. French restaurants, after all, fetch a hefty price for escargot, but we turn our noses up at the thought of consuming a common garden snail. Caviar is considered a delicacy but you don’t see carts of escamoles (ant eggs) rolling by on silver platters. We boast many “water bugs” in the American diet – lobster, shrimp, crab, crawfish – but don’t see “cricket” boils popping up for Mardi Gras.
Despite this, we are making great strides to incorporate insect protein into a neatly packaged Western diet. San Francisco based Bitty Foods creates and sells cookies make from cricket flour. Parisian Company Jimini’s, whose slogan is “Think bigger, eat smaller,” offers insect sampler boxes for your next cocktail party. Exo makes Paleofriendly, gluten-free bug based protein bars.
Can edible insects have their sushi moment here? It seems that we might have the right ingredients. Entomophagy offers one possible solution to the global problem of food shortages, over-farming, and depletion of natural resources. Mendocino is a pioneer for sustainability. We have abundant resources in our farmers, investors and land. We are collectively passionate about food systems and a healthy planet.
I’m ready for another worm taco please.