Figure 3. Grasshoppers can chew through the soybean pod and feed on the developing seeds.
Figure 3. Grasshoppers can chew through the soybean pod and feed on the developing seeds.

With all the attention devoted to mitigating the environmental impact of food production, the prevailing meme is that meat production should be considered one of the culprits. If only we could all go vegan, so the argument goes, the planet would be a much better and (allegedly) much cleaner place.

That argument is being embraced by just about every activist with an anti-industry agenda, whether it stems from concerns about animal welfare, resource consumption, economic justice, global hunger, poverty—you name it, going veggie is touted as the answer.

According to advocates who never consider the other side of the equation, that is. It’s fine to yak about “eliminating meat”—both production and consumption—but what replaces all that protein, all that food energy? What do we substitute in the center of the plate at mealtime? And what would be the eco-impact of those substitutes?

That’s a tougher question for activists to answer, but one suggestion that is gaining attention, if not traction, is insects.

That’s right: bugs.

The substitution of insect-derived protein for beef, pork and poultry is being taken seriously by a number of self-styled activists, and what’s most interesting is that they’re using the ecological argument as leverage.

For example: On a recent segment on the David Pakman Show, a syndicated radio show, the subject of using insects—farm-raised bugs, mind you—as a substitute for our current choices in animal protein was discussed. The host, Mr. Pakman, comes across as a typically indulgent, post-modern consumer, secure in his holier-then-thou food choices that are themselves divorced from the very realities of food’s environmental footprint about which he claims to be so sensitized.

(Here’s his take on beef: “I hardly ever eat beef. Now, if I’m in Argentina, where the beef is really good, then I’ll go ahead and eat a steak. But I would never think about ordering a steak from a restaurant here at home.” That is so wrong on so many levels, but let’s get back to the bugs.)

Here’s the bottom line: Can someone “sell” the health benefits of eating insect protein, which is positioned as being so much better for the environment, when bugs are so stigmatized in the country? Pakman asks his panelists.

No—“I’ll never eat any animals,” his vegan purist panelist replies. “We really don’t know yet if grasshoppers can feel pain.”

No—“I’m not touching anything made from bugs,” his “mainstream” vegetarian panelist replies. “No way, no how. It’s disgusting.”

Pakman then goes on to tout the offerings of a Dutch manufacturer, which offers such “treats” as chocolate-covered mealworms, the larvae of darkling beetles, along with roasted crickets and other culinary delights. The “raw materials” for these products are all farm-raised, of course, and that’s where the “better for the environment” argument comes in. Allegedly, insects are as much as two times more efficient at feed-to-protein conversion then pigs; five times as efficient as cattle.

That sounds suspect, because according to published data, grasshoppers (or locusts, if you prefer the upscale designation) yield only half as much protein—about 14.3 grams per 100-gram serving—as beef, which yields about 29 grams.

Yuck factor aside, there are also production and processing issues to consider if we are to take insects-as-protein-replacements seriously. You think you’d be offended living downwind of a hog farm or feedlot? How’d you like to find out that your rural neighbors are cranking up a big-time locust farm? (“Don’t worry; they’ll never escape.”)

There have been sporadic attempts to “showcase” the benefits of insect consumption, of course, but more as a novelty act than as a serious attempt to deal with the 21st century challenge of feeding the world’s burgeoning population. Back in the 1990s, Iowa State famously concocted such recipes as Corn Borer Corn Muffins, Mealworm Fried Rice, Banana Worm Bread and that standby staple, Chocolate-Covered Grasshoppers.

Guess those students never got the memo that grasshoppers, when touted as fine dining, should be styled as “farm-raised locust.”

And I sincerely doubt that many Americans are going to seriously consider responding to the never-ending question, “What’s for dinner?” with anything derived from creatures that we spend summers swatting, spraying or otherwise eliminating.

To paraphrase Animal Farm, “Four legs good; six legs bad.”

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator