When I was in the fourth grade, I had a classmate named Alex. He'd been raised in an African country—I don't remember which one—and being a nine-year-old boy, he took great pleasure in telling us how everyone in Africa ate bugs. On the last day of school that year, Alex brought in what I remember as a cooked worm wrapped in dried leaves, which he said was a traditional snack in Africa.
Whatever it was, Alex didn't have to twist our arms to get us to watch him eat it. Grossing other people out is something of a sport when you're that age, and this topped any of the other stunts from fourth-grade boys. Plus, watching Alex eat the worm seemed like a win/win proposition: If it tasted terrible, we'd get to watch him suffer. If it tasted good, we'd live vicariously through him.
On the surface, BUGS, a new documentary about eating insects, has a similar appeal. The film follows three chefs who travel the world sampling entomological delicacies, from ant larvae to cooked termites. It's not just gross curiosity—chefs Josh Evans, Ben Reade, and Roberto Flore, along with director Andreas Johnsen, are trying to understand the potential of bug cuisine to save the world.
Evans, Reade, and Flore all work with the Nordic Food Lab, a Danish nonprofit that "investigates food diversity and deliciousness." It was started by the head chef at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that's been voted best in the world four times, and is known for its experimental dishes.
The Nordic Food Lab started to research insect recipes after the release of a widely circulated report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013, on edible insects and the "future prospects for food and feed security."
According to the UN, there are several reasons we should look to insects for food: First, they're highly nutritious. Mealworms have roughly the same amount of iron and protein as beef. Greenhouse gases could be significantly reduced by switching to insect farming, too—mealworms generate ten to 100 times fewer greenhouse gases per kilo than pigs. The report also cites population growth and strain on the environment as a reason to look for radical ways to increase the food supply of humans and animals.
The UN estimates that about 1,900 insect species are part of human diets for people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. So the chefs at the Nordic Food Lab posed a radical question: Could eating insects not only be environmentally responsible, but also delicious?
The documentary follows them as they travel around the world—to Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, Japan, Australia, and Italy—tasting local delicacies and experimenting with insect cuisine. The only place someone gets sick is Sydney, where Meade gets food poisoning from a (non-insect) hamburger.
In Uganda, Reade pan-sears a termite queen. Uncooked, the queen is almost entirely liquid, so this hardens it. "It's like God's handmade sausage," he says in the film. The finished dish—served in several delicate bites over a slice of mango—is "luxurious," if you believe Reade.
In Mexico City, Reade and Evans visit Pujol, a restaurant that serves cooked escamoles—ant larvae—inside tortillas. "We don't see these as insects," the restaurant owner explains in the film. "We see this as food."
While the chefs make bugs look incredibly appetizing, there's another layer to the documentary—will eating insects help the environment? Just because insects are more efficient than mammals at turning feed into protein, does that make mass producing them a good idea?
The film acknowledges some compelling projects—like a small-scale cricket farm in Kenya, where a few kilos of the bugs can be cultivated and eaten fresh on site. Other projects raise questions about mass-produced insects. In Uganda, the team visits a grasshopper farm that keeps the floodlights turned on all night to attract the insects. The workers don't have eye protection, and after spending a night exposed to the lights, both Evans and Reade wind up in the hospital with severe headaches.
So can eating insects save the earth? Probably not. By the end of the film, Evans points out that mass-producing bugs probably can't solve the world's food shortage. Today's hunger challenges are about access, not quantity. According to the UN World Food Program, the reason people go hungry isn't food shortage—it's poverty, climate change, war, unstable markets, and food waste (the fact that one-third of all the food in the world gets thrown away or wasted).
While entomophagy is not a panacea, BUGS offers another more promising message: Insect cuisine can be delicious, if only we're brave enough to try it.
To find an upcoming screening of BUGS, visit the documentary's website here.
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