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Future of meat? edible bugs as low waste, homegrown protein

Mónica Martínez thinks Americans are ready to embrace entomophagy (bug-eating) and she’s launched an edible bug food cart (Don Bugito) and home mealworm farm (Wurmhaus) to prove her point.

High in protein, low in saturated fats, packed with vitamins and minerals, edible bugs could become the next superfood. Before you write off the idea as novelty, consider what most of us in the western world thought of eating raw fish 20 years ago. Why couldn’t a cheap, accessible and tasty source of protein become this decade’s sushi?

The protein of our ancestors

Martínez, originally from Mexico, didn’t grow up eating insects, but she is drawing from her country’s food culture for inspiration. “The cuisine in the prehispanic era include a lot of edible insects because it’s such a good source of protein.”

Most of our ancestors probably relied on insects for food, and today, 80% of the world’s nations still count them as a protein source.

Is it weirder than eating a cow?

At the Don Bugito inauguration (at the San Francisco Street Food Festival), some novice insect eaters were squeamish at the start, but after a bite of wax moth larvae taco, most agreed bug tacos taste like, well, tacos (perhaps with a bit of pork rind thrown in). And no one stopped to ask why. Most seemed ready to accept a new source of protein with relatively few questions.

One customer even questioned the question, “Is it weirder than eating a cow?”. Given the expense involved in raising a cow (both the resources required to feed and house it, as well as the hormones and antibiotics used in conventional farming), it would seem that bugs (with the best feed-to-meat conversion ratio of any other edible creature) have an advantage over more traditional sources of protein.

An alternative to factory farms

Insect farming is also one of the easiest ways- particularly for urbanites and/or those worried about food safety- to actively get in touch with your protein. Bugs require very little space to live and not a lot of care.

Martínez, who is also an artist dedicated to micro architectural structures (i.e. small farms), created a home mealworm farm called Wurmhaus as a nod to the Bauhaus humanist approach and a reaction to “contemporary agriculture and the practices of large-scale factory farms”.

Micro-livestock: home mealworm farms

Mealworms are very low-maintenance livestock: they eat simply oats (or other grains) and for water, they need just pieces of vegetable or fruit (Martínez uses carrots). Though it does take a year to complete their lifecycle stages between egg, larva, pupa and adult beetle and since only the larvae are eaten, this involves some moving of eggs/beetles between homes.

Martínez is doubtful that home mealworm farms will catch on in a big way, but she is hopeful that there will be a shift in attitude in the near future and Americans (and other Westerners) might at least consider ordering a serving of crickets or wax moth larvae as the basis of a home-cooked meal.

Eating bugs with FDA approval

And for those certain they aren’t interested in giving it a try, Martínez has some words of advice: you’re already eating insects. The FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) has established acceptable levels of things like bugs in our food.

Tomato juice can average “10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams or five or more fly eggs and one or more maggots” and peanut butter is allowed approximately 145 bug parts per 18-ounce jar. We all involuntarily and unknowingly consume plenty of bugs per year, or to be more exact (according to E.J. Levy of the New York Times) our annual intake is roughly two pounds of flies, maggots and mites.