Are insects the food of the future?
They're creepy. They're crawly. And soon, they could be on your menu.
A panel of experts discussed this week how insects could be used as a food source for a world population estimated to reach 8 billion by 2025. Guests were then treated to a taste test of insect cuisine.
The discussion was hosted by the Royal Netherlands Embassy and featured Marcel Dicke, chair and head of the Laboratory of Entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands; Daniella Martin, a bug blogger for her own website, GirlMeetsBug.com; and Michael Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and host of BugoftheWeek.com.
Currently, 70 percent of agriculture land is being used for livestock, Dicke said. But eventually, the demand for livestock will be too great for the land available.
When that time comes, Dicke said people will have to turn to other, more sustainable sources of food - however icky they may be.
Insects from more than 1,900 species form parts of the diets of roughly 2 billion people worldwide, according to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The crunchy critters are a good source of protein, iron and calcium.
The study found that beetles are the most widely consumed insect, accounting for nearly a third of insects eaten. But caterpillars, bees, wasps and crickets also make up a significant portion of people's diets.
Dicke said that to these 2 million people, insects aren't just a source of food, they're a delicacy, much like lobster and escargot are to Western culture.
Societies have been eating bugs for thousands of years, Martin said.
"This was not something that someone just decided to experiment with," Martin said. "This is something that societies have been surviving off of."
Martin's blog discusses recipes for cooking some of these insects, including instructions on making meals like caramel apples covered in mealworms; cabbage, snap peas and crickets; and a "bee-LT" sandwich, made with fried bee larvae.
Martin cooked the food at Wednesday's event, which included a display of colours so vibrant it was almost easy to look past the crickets on top.
Visitors at the embassy were treated to chips and guacamole topped with crickets; pancakes with mealworms baked inside; and fresh asparagus skewered with cicadas.
It's a meal that sounds intimidating, but as Alexandra Fourier said when she saw the preparation of the food, her fears were put to rest.
Fourier, an intern at the French Embassy, said the insects reminded her of seafood. Although initially uneasy at the idea, she said she would eat them again.
Martin said she first encountered edible insects in Mexico, and since then has been borrowing recipes from friends.
But the best way to get a taste for the insects was to experiment. She said she learned which insects had which flavors - mealworms taste nutty, like almonds; crickets have a shrimpy taste and match well with spices; and cicadas have a nutty, creamy flavor.
The biggest problem, Martin said, is that insects are still expensive to get. There aren't the same farming and distribution techniques available as for other markets.
But whether we like it or not, Dicke said, even people who may be bugged by the idea are eating insects.
Processed foods, including tomato soup, ketchup and peanut butter, have bug parts in them. In addition, natural dyes used in certain foods like M&Ms are made from bugs.
Researchers like Dicke are currently working on finding which foods are easiest to raise in "insect farms," hoping to pave the way for the future of this sustainable source of food.