The Ethics Of Entomophagy

As an entomophagy advocate, very occasionally I hear from people who are appalled not at the idea of my eating insects, but rather at my eating certain species which they deem to be, well, superior. Tarantula-lovers in particular tend to be up-in-pedipalps about it, even though this is a species regularly consumed in places like Cambodia.

I completely understand this perspective; after all, we Americans have no problem picking up ground beef at the supermarket, but the day that supermarket begins selling a different ground mammal meat — say, puppy for instance — a picket line would appear so fast it would make your ethnocentric head spin.

As a student of anthropology, it would hardly be fair of me to ascribe to such food-animal ranking. Once, while staying with a family in China, I was served dog for dinner.  Now, I adore dogs: I’ve worked with dogs, read dog-training books the way other people read Dr. Spock,  feel womb-pangs toward puppies, etc. But barring a religious belief, it would have been quite rude to turn down my host’s offering, so naturally, I tasted it. It wasn’t my favorite flavor; I found it tasted much like that very specific essence of wet dog, and because in my mind that smell was associated with “household pet” I didn’t find it appealing. However, I could just as easily imagine someone else associating the taste of beef with a household cow, and while I love dogs and would prefer not to think of them being used for meat, I can’t ethically say that one animal is better than another. (Although, ask me again after a tribal chief offers me a bite of human — I still haven’t worked out what I’d do in that situation.)

What I do find interesting and quite surprising is that the more I eat bugs, the more I respect and admire them. I regularly coo to live insects when I handle them. When I raised hornworm caterpillars, I took pictures of their development not only out of fascination, but also out of an almost-maternal affection, which made harvesting them somewhat difficult.

I think these feelings have to do with the fact that I am involved with the entire process, from collection (hunting) to preparing (killing) to eating.  I say a prayer over all my insects before I freeze or cook them, thanking them for their service. I imagine this is more than most people do before they bite into a hamburger.

And yes, I also occasionally hear from vegetarians and vegans who ask the obvious question: why not stop eating meat altogether? The truth is that while vegetarianism is a legitimate solution for many people, it simply wouldn’t work in all situations and environments. There are places where hungry people live that lack sufficient arable land and resources to generate enough protein via vegetable sources. Lack of protein is one of the key problems that plague hungry peoples, and significantly contributes to brain development or hindrance thereof.

Edible insects have the potential to close this gap in nutrition in a sustainable way, and this is the main reason I am interested in helping to create a larger market for them. By creating a larger market, we can help show influential  organizations that edible insect programs are feasible, and generate funding for what could be a real solution to a problem that has plagued our species for centuries.

Crazier things have been attempted. Why not try bugs?


4 responses to “The Ethics Of Entomophagy

  1. There’s another problem with going totally vegan and the lack of protein. The best option for such a diet is soy (to accommodate full proteins), but unfortunately the soy industry is heading towards unhealthy GMOs. As a guy, I’m also concerned with the hormonal effect. Yes, it is possible to provide all the nutrition one needs via a variety of local vegetables, but insects, due to their ease of growth and manageability, are much more suitable to the population at large. Ethically, it’s not the third world we should be concerned about, but rather the community that consumes a quarter of the worlds resources – the US. Why buy a hybrid or go solar when you can effectively do better (and save money instead of spending it) by simply being adventurous?

    • @ Trout
      Trout, insects qualify as neither vegan nor vegetarian. I personally refrain from eating food which requires killing. Eating insects requires killing a sentient being, taking its life. I would not like for my life to be taken, so I refrain from taking the life of other sentient beings. My food selection is therefore “vegetarian.” Milk and eggs don’t require killing (unless the chickens eat bugs) and are nutritionally great, so my food selection is not “vegan.” I have eaten grasshoppers in Mexico, they are quite tasty. But I will refrain from doing that again.

  2. Not to mention that a vegan diet requires vast areas of monocultures which, among other problems, displaces large areas of animal habitat (including habitat for bugs!), contributes to soil erosion and nutrient depletion, and leaves the agriculture we so heavily depend upon vulnerable to catastrophes like the Irish potato famine. In light of all this, eating bugs is an exquisitely ethical practice.

  3. Hey I find your post very interesting. I’ve been planning for a while now to make insects a regular part of my diet. How do you go about hunting the ones you eat? Do you eventually get them to reproduce in captivity or do you just keep them to clean their digestive tracks before you cook them?

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