I am nine years old, give or take a couple years, and I have learned rage. Like a clumsy Hulk, I crush and I smash and I murder what must be dozens, if not billions, of ants. The tiny black beasts had invaded my lunchbox, infiltrating every last item; I had opened the box eagerly at lunchtime only to recoil in horror, my hunger thwarted, my appetites denied. And thus I am angry—furious, even. I kill the ants not because I am trying to save my food—I have given that up for lost—but out of a primal desire for vengeance. I do not often feel hatred, but today is an exception.
Moments later, as I survey the beady corpses strewn across the table and the wrath seeps out of my bloodstream, I am overwhelmed with shame. “Embarrassed” is too weak a word; I am disgusted with myself, scared by how easily I lost control. These industrious arthropods were merely seeking sustenance, same as myself; what right did I have to destroy them? My passion had been petty, and some portion of my innocence has vanished forever. For the rest of my life, I decide, I will endeavor to be kind to my invertebrate friends. This is not a penance; it is simply what is right.
A decade passes, give or take a couple years, and here I sit, once again thinking about bugs and food. My childhood rampage still haunts me; I hope I will never again so deliberately wreak such wanton destruction. Yet I have recently begun to speculate as to whether there might have been a simpler way to both rectify my nutritive privation and justify the slaughter of innocents: I could have scooped up my prostrate victims, placed them delicately onto my tongue, gnashed those crunchy, chitinous exoskeletons between my molars, swallowed, and absorbed an unorthodox but proteinaceous snack.
I also would have become that weird kid at every elementary school who eats bugs. Like it or not (and I, for one, don’t like it), there is a stigma in this country against eating insects, because—I suppose due to cultural norms—we think they are gross. This raises a curious question in itself: why do we want our food to be “appetizing” in the first place? This is substance that we will tear apart, grind into a mushy pulp, bathe in stomach acid, and messily excrete as odorous brown logs; why are we concerned with its outward appearance? One can try to make an evolutionary argument about wanting our food to be safe and sanitary, but perhaps there is something more sinister going on: perhaps our desire to consume is necessarily destructive, or even lustful; we prefer to eat that which we value (whether we perceive that value due to its intelligence, its beauty, its difficulty to procure, or the efficacy of its marketing campaign) so we can claim that value for ourselves, assimilate it through domination.
But I digress. A 2013 report from the Farm and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN titled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security” estimates that at least two billion humans are regular (and intentional) entomophagists (insect-eaters, that is), and everyone else eats lots of insects accidentally, either while sleeping or because insects are just freaking everywhere, and every last ounce of processed food is riddled with insect parts. Our cultural discomfort with eating insects is thus largely arbitrary, and the FAO report begs the question: should we start eating more?
Their answer is yes: insects are inordinately more efficient protein sources than their vertebrate cousins. As human population skyrockets, freshwater reserves plummet, arable land depletes, protein deficiencies multiply, and livestock greenhouse gas emissions push our planet closer to the brink (a brink that through floods, storms, droughts, mass extinctions, and the migration of disease only exacerbates preexisting food problems), a cheap and less ecologically demanding source of nutrients is required: enter entomophagy. The FAO makes a convincing argument (I recommend you give it a brief skim) that eating insects could help fight climate change, water shortages, and malnutrition, all while being more humane—if only public perception didn’t cast it as primitive and disgusting.
As for myself, I actually think insects are kind of cool; in fact, I like them so much that I hesitate to eat them. For the last two years, I have done my best to avoid eating the flesh of my fellow animals. While part of my motivation stems from environmental and health concerns that don’t really apply to entomophagy, animal welfare is a major—perhaps the major—factor. In elementary school I promised myself I would be compassionate towards insects; how can compassion involve killing and eating them?
And yet some might say this is silly; compassion might preclude killing for no reason, but sustenance is a justified excuse. While some animals might reasonably possess the neurological capacity to suffer, and debatably some level of humanlike sentience, insects appear to be much more mechanical creatures. The harsh and stressful environment of the factory farm might warp and depress the mind of a chicken, but insects seem fairly adaptable, used to living amongst teeming masses of their kin. A pig may have some conception of itself over time that makes killing it wrong; insects probably lack that type of higher-level thought. While insects, like cows, do have complex social relationships, they exist at a more robotic and impersonal level. It’s harder to get worked up about the life of an individual when the operative unit seems to be the hive or colony. Et cetera.
Or so go the arguments. However, this is a very anthropocentric way of looking at our surroundings. We evaluate other beings based on human qualities, using inexact science; who is to say that insects don’t have some bizarre and idiosyncratic interest in life, pleasure, and freedom utterly foreign to how humans perceive the world? This logic is dangerous, of course: why not extend this concern to plants, fungi, or single-celled organisms? To complex systems like the beehive, the herd, or the rainforest, functional groupings of distinct individuals just as individuals are functional groupings of distinct cells and chemicals? Or even to so-called abiotic material like rocks, water, stars, or space-time itself?
But the good vegan is already consigned to hypocrisy. The field mice decimated to plow his amber waves of grain, the floundering soil exhausted by her plant monocultures. To eat—to exist—is to destroy, we confess. I too am swayed by those anthropocentric arguments: I avoid eggs and dairy, but not honey. All we can do is aim low on the food chain, try to create a food supply as small and sustainable as possible and to treat that supply, whatever it may be, with respect. And in this light, eating insects isn’t so bad—its drawbacks certainly pale in comparison to those of the current predominating system.
The FAO and others have noted that the food industry must radically alter itself or we, as a species, will face a catastrophic crash. And as mentioned above, while widespread entomophagy would take time to develop, it has serious potential to slow global warming, assuage food and water scarcities, and provide an affordable source of protein to those who have none. Although the animal liberationist in me is hesitant, I realize that the main obstacle to this entomophagist utopia is not excess regard for insect life but rather a semi-random cultural revulsion toward creepy-crawlies. I cannot fixate on the myth of the cruelty-free diet; we all should welcome a world in which elementary school children would not panic but delight to open their lunchboxes and find nothing but insects.