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Should We Be Eating Bugs?

Two filmmakers delve into the world hunger problem through a many-legged lens.

Termite Queen With Mango In Kenya. | Andreas Johnsen

The new documentary Bugs follows a group of chefs and food researchers as they travel the world in search of delicious bugs and those who eat them. But despite their film’s title, Director Andreas Johnsen and Chef Roberto Flore aren’t out to convince you to put insects in your breakfast burrito. In fact, by and large, they’d prefer if you didn’t.

There are areas of the world in which big, juicy, tasty insects full of protein and vitamins have been eaten for millennia. And there are those where people get sick at even the thought of chowing down on grasshoppers, much less maggots or ant eggs (but you might be surprised: in the movie, the eggs, called “escamoles,” are shown simmering in the kitchen of a high-class restaurant in Mexico). Johnsen didn’t set out to change the opinion of one or both of these groups. He chose to investigate bugs not only because they are a new frontier for taste and “deliciousness,” to borrow a word he uses frequently, but more importantly, because they are a microcosm of the backward way the the world eats.

One in nine people on planet earth suffered from chronic undernourishment between 2014 and 2016, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. However, humanity produces more than enough food for everyone. On a planet of 7.3 billion people, we produce enough to feed 10 billion. It’s a distribution problem.

This is the crux of Johnsen’s film. As big companies look to cash in on the one-ingredient fix for world hunger that looks good on paper — Johnsen mentions grasshopper protein as an easy example, but the same goes for soy and quinoa — they are in practice doing little to feed those in need. Sustainability is used as a gimmick to pack more protein into the West’s already protein-rich diet. Meanwhile, the workers who harvest the bugs receive little pay. Land on which they’re farmed is destroyed because of the focus on high yield, rather than true sustainability. And the wrong people end up eating the bugs, typically for the wrong reasons. What are the right reasons? We spoke with Johnsen and Flore to find out.

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Q: Much of the film is about taste. When you say that a bug tastes good, I think the immediate question is whether that’s an objective statement against all food, or is it good…for a bug?
AJ: Of course it’s objective. You cannot say “for bugs.” As it says in the beginning, there are 1,900 edible insects that we know people are eating. There might be many more. There are a million different species of insect. So you cannot just put them in one category. They also taste very different at different developmental stages. Both in structure and taste.
Roberto Flore: In one scene, Ben is cooking the termite queen. Imagine crunchy and fatty and really juicy. Imagine the same feeling as a chicken wing, but it tastes completely different. It’s difficult to explain. It’s a taste you never experienced before. The best answer is that it tastes like a termite queen.

Q: Do you believe that the majority of Americans would find the taste good, even if right now they wouldn’t willingly try a bug? Like for instance, if you served them a bug without telling them.
AJ: Of course this would break down a barrier [the aversion to bugs], but it doesn’t make sense to serve people food if they don’t know what it is.
RF: It’s the wrong approach, it’s hiding the beautiful part of the story. I don’t want to play with gimmicky things: lollipops or biscuits [with grasshopper protein] that you can sell for Halloween. This is not eating insects. You are responsible for bringing to the world an experience, and there are many different ways to explain the experience. The cultural value and all the know-how. Thousands of years of know-how. People are curious, you just have to give them the first push.

Q: Are bugs rare or speciality cuisine in the countries you visited in the film, or is eating them more commonplace?
AJ: In Mexico, people eat bugs all over. What we had in the restaurant is not widely available, it’s very expensive. But again, it depends on what type of insect. In Africa it depends on what tribe, what traditions what a family grew up with. Some people eat lake flies, but some people never touch them. Same for termites. Some say: “That’s what my grandmother was eating, I don’t want to have it.” But in Uganda a lot of the young people moving into the city remember they grew up with those green, grasshopper-like bugs [we filmed]. They thought they had lost it, but now it’s becoming an industry, available at market. When you bring this topic to a high-level restaurant, it’s giving a product a new life. And in that nice restaurant in Mexico City, they don’t look at it as insects, it’s food. If it tastes good, it doesn’t matter.

Q: And for good measure, what are some bugs you suggest trying?
AJ: Escamoles [ant eggs] for sure without any doubt. I will promote casu marzu, for sure. With good bread and super red wine, it’s a great cheese. It’s not eating maggots. You are just eating a fucking amazing cheese. It’s generally brought to the table at the end of the meal, as people chat. It’s something that’s strongly related to cultural interaction.

Andreas, Josh, and Roberto chasing Japanese Hornets in Kushihara, Japan.

Q: Looking beyond taste, you hinted at a much bigger discussion in the film and one that you wouldn’t be able to tackle yourself: our broken food system. What, in your eyes, is the biggest problem with how the world eats?
AJ: It’s the problem of always trying to avoid the reality that the system is fucked up. People launch at the opportunity that one single problem will fix it. But we have to deal with the base that is broken. It’s delayed by investing money to do something that is always crashing into a wall.
RF: We have many examples already: soy, quinoa in Peru. So many negative aspects of trying to charge at a single ingredient to save the world.

Q: Now that people have seen your film, what’s been the response?
Andreas Johnsen: People seem happy and super surprised about the diversity of what’s out there. And they are quite surprised about the change [of tone] in the film, when Ben and Josh start talking about the problems of sustainability of an industry that produces insects for food. It’s sold in the media as ‘This is the sustainable protein source of the future,’ and we have all bought into it without questioning.

Q: It was interesting that your worry was not convincing everyone to view insects as a potential food source. It seemed a forgone conclusion that bugs are food, so instead you focus on how the bug conversation is really a conversation about our broken food system. Now that the film premiered, do you have more hope that insects can alleviate some of our food equality problems, or are you still concerned?
AJ: My hope with the film is that it can help start debate that goes to a political level in many places. But we just started; the world premiere was Saturday. Give us three months.

The part I liked the most is that it’s not a critique of any one person, just a really large overview. All the problems are so complicated. In New York, for example, you don’t need to eat insects. Maybe just a little less meat. But, in Kenya, where Professor Monica showed us how they are rearing crickets, with small boxes and a little house. That’s a good example of how easy it is. The big companies don’t need to raise crickets. That’s the focus of foreign companies, investing in East Africa or Thailand. They end up land grabbing and it’s another political scenario.

RF: It’s really important to create awareness on these topics. Bug again, it depends where you are, what you have around you and what your needs are. This film should be important to Kenyans. If every household in rural Kenya could get a small bucket of crickets, feed them with leftovers and eat them with the kids, it’d save so many lives [because of the zinc content]. Or just use them to feed chickens and be independent from buying animal feed.

Be more thoughtful of what you eat. Now people are just beginning to understand sustainability on a global scale. Start-ups doing R&D need to be really careful on what it means to give a [simple] answer to such a complex problem.

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