I was interviewed by L’Entomofago, an Italian site focused on promoting edible insects. The edited interview can be read in Italian here, a shortened version in English here, and the full text published with permission below.
Tell us shortly how you got interested in the edible insects world
It started off quite by accident, actually! Though I’m very glad I stumbled upon it when I did.
I moved from Latin America to Asia in 2013, and while subconsciously I was suddenly exposed to people eating insects on a daily basis – and consciously I was grossed out by the idea – I never really gave them much thought beyond being a weird local street food. I’d previously had some fried ants many years ago in Colombia, but that was the extent of my foray into Entomophagy.
Then in early 2016 as I was researching vertical farming methods, and looking for potential ideas around sustainable food production within cities, I ended up on a google deep dive on that topic that led me to a random article about farming insects in an abandoned warehouse.
There was some mention about sustainability and nutritional benefits, so I followed that rabbit trail from site to site and article to article, and – no joke – within 2 hours I was on the street excitedly buying fried crickets and mealworms to taste!
In all honesty, in that moment I was still really grossed out by the idea of eating insects. The crickets were palatable, the mealworms I thought tasted horrible.
So when I talk to people now, like when I was giving speeches with Chef Melgarejo the past couple months at universities in Mexico, I can still easily relate to peoples’ disgust at the idea of crunching down on some of these crazy-looking critters. I was there myself, not too long ago!
But the more I researched over the course of the year, the more I talked to locals – including expat friends who had way more insect-eating experience than me – and the more I just kept sampling different insects, I realized that there are a lot of good reasons why a large percentage of the planet eats bugs regularly.
They’re really healthy naturally (although how they fry them up on street carts isn’t always so healthy…), they’re nutritious, they provide a source of income for people in rural poor areas, they’re sustainable, and much more – all the things that the FAO report highlights.
This year, along with friends in Cambodia and in Mexico, I’ve jumped in fully to learn and experience everything that I possibly can about farming insects, the potential for insects as food and feed, and the actual nutritional benefits that can be derived from replacing animal products in my diet with edible insects.
That last point is where my Entovegan journey began.
The obvious question: could a vegan eat insects?
I believe so, but of course then it wouldn’t be strictly “vegan” – thus I coined the term Entovegan to describe what it actually is.
Similar to a Vegetarian who eats fish going by the label Pescatarian, a Vegan who eats insects and other arthropods (known as Entomophagy), but no animal meats or by-products (eggs, dairy, oils, etc) would be considered an Entovegan.
There are many reasons why people choose to eat a vegan diet, or live a vegan lifestyle (which goes beyond mere food consumption, to the point of avoiding all animal products or by-products of any kind).
For my purposes though, I categorized them into 2 large groups, which obviously have overlap:
– those who are Vegan based on health & nutritional reasons
– those who are Vegan based on ethical reasons
While I do my individual part daily when it comes to taking care of the planet and treating all living things with respect (I ride a bike everywhere, buy local, recycle, etc), my motivation for becoming vegan was based much more on what I’d been learning about the benefits of a plant-based vegan diet, and the long-term health risks associated with not just meat, but other animal products such as dairy, also.
My philosophy for being Entovegan is fairly simple, but I’m sure the more devout a vegan is to the lifestyle, the more umbrage they may take with my way of thinking. (More here: https://entovegan.com/entovegan-philosophy/)
However, because the goal is to combine both the best of sustainability with the best of nutrition, and to do so in a non-dogmatic way, I think being a Vegan who eats insects makes complete sense. But the label would then be Entovegan, so as to clarify their position.
Like many things in life, there’s nuance to the idea, but I can simplify it very easily.
1. Insects don’t feel pain, according to science. Yes they’re alive, but so are plants.
2. Plants, according to science, are capable of responding to music, and repeated strong emotion (either positive or negative) directed their way.
3. Harvesting vegetables or grain crops kills numerous small animals that do feel pain, such as field mice, birds, and even rabbits, to name a few.
As I see it, then, from an ethical perspective eating insects is actually less harmful to living things than eating plants, especially plant products harvested by any kind of commercial system.
Should people stop eating plants, then, too? Well, based on the ethics of the most hardcore vegans, one would have to consider that, because they’re living things that numerous scientific studies have shown actually can respond in seemingly “emotional” ways, like a puppy would, to gentle speech or hateful screaming.
I don’t subscribe to the dogma though. As I mentioned, I became a vegan primarily for the health benefits, coupled with the efficient sustainability of insect protein. I don’t agree with the more extreme dogmatic views of veganism, because to take them to their logical end, it values the lives of other living creatures on planet earth (plants and animals) more than human life – and thus it’s a suicidal worldview for humans to hold.
It’s much more rational to hold one’s life and its perpetuation – along with the lives of other humans – as a higher ideal than, for example, saving cows, which actually contribute far more to environmental damage than individual people do.
That said, the perpetuation of human life also requires balance and harmony with our natural surroundings – so while I understand and agree with the concept of treating all living things with love and respect, I’m not going to deny the reality that humans are at the top of the food chain, and that we have a capacity for rational thought beyond that of every other creature on this big beautiful planet.
Regarding eating insects, then, because we can comprehend that they’re nutritious, sustainable to farm, low impact on the planet (I mean, seriously, you can raise 100kg of delicious crickets every 6 weeks in a tiny little 3rd world shack, in cement pens or wooden boxes – with virtually zero waste, emissions, or food and water usage as compared to other protein sources)…plus insects are considered a pest and killed by virtually everyone except perhaps the most devout Buddhist, and are a living thing that doesn’t feel pain – why wouldn’t we eat them?
Ah, but the question is about vegans. Words have meaning, so technically the answer is that “no, vegans can’t eat insects, because it’s an animal, not a plant”.
But that’s why I made up my own word combining vegan with ento, which has become synonymous in the industry with Entomophagy, or the human consumption of insects and other arthropods.
Vegans technically shouldn’t eat insects, as that wouldn’t make any sense – vegan means one who doesn’t eat or use any animal products.
But from a health perspective, I think it’s much more rational to eat insects alongside a vegan diet and be an Entovegan instead. And I haven’t even gotten into the way that insects naturally cover many if not all of the dietary holes that vegans have to fill with supplements, such as vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3’s, and other minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc. etc.
From an ethical standpoint, I haven’t heard a vegan-dogma-based argument against eating insects that holds up against a logical examination.
Everyone has their choices to make for themselves, and when a friend convinced me to go vegan, after researching a plant-based diet I was willing to do that – but I didn’t want to give up eating insects, which I’d come to relish and believe are healthy for me to consume.
So I made up my own framework and called it Entovegan – and so far I’m still convinced it’s the healthiest way forward for people, and the best way forward for the planet.
Do you think that most of the vegans have the same opinion?
I’ve been asking every vegan I’ve met for the past year and a half about eating insects. I find the response is usually a lot of hemming and hawing and “well, I’ve never really thought about eating bugs, actually…I guess if my life depended on it I might, but…gross.”
That answer isn’t good enough for me though, so I usually push people on it, because I’m curious about their level of commitment to their vegan beliefs, and also what barriers they might put up to eating insects. I want to know the why of things.
In my experience most vegans end up kind of straddling the fence – they don’t like the idea of eating an “animal”, because it’s an animal. Which makes sense to an extent, apart from the reasons I covered earlier – the argument can be made that plants are as alive and sentient as insects.
But when shown the data on sustainability, positive impact on nutrition in the developing world, comparisons with other protein sources in efficiency of production and waste by-products, I mean, that’s all very much in line with a worldview that is focused on environmentally friendly solutions.
So most vegans actually like the idea of insects being an eco-friendly food source, at that point, but then they think about the fact that it’s a bug, it’s alive, it’s fauna and not flora…and that’s hard for them to accept.
I’ve found that because it’s a new question that both touches their ethics and their phobias in ways they’ve never really faced before, most people won’t give me a definitive answer in the moment, other than to say that if there was nothing else for them to eat, they might resign themselves to eating bugs.
And that is the bleak picture of the bug-eating future that seems to be pervasive still in mainstream western culture, as evidenced by the recent Blade Runner 2049 movie, for example.
It’s a dark, dystopian world torn apart by nuclear holocaust and blanketed in an ever-present fog…where the sun never shines, and everyone has to survive by eating nasty beetle larvae. The end.
The reality, though, is that those larvae are actually quite tasty, and highly nutritious! Plus, the benefits gained from sustainable insect farming – if we start now – would at least ensure the future won’t be so dismal as it may end up at the current rate, because people now keep eating beef, and cow farts keep destroying the planet through their massive methane contribution to greenhouse gasses.
In terms of discussing bugs with a large number of vegans, though, to be fair, I haven’t yet attended a Vegan Food Expo or similar. But it’s on my list to do because I think I’d learn a lot from people’s responses and have some interesting conversations about what it means to people to be vegan, and if the idea of being an entovegan is plausible, or just entirely sacrilegious to those who have already committed to the vegan lifestyle.
How can you convince a vegan that eating an insect is different from eating a cow?
According to the FAO report in 2013, around 2 billion people on earth eat insects regularly. For the other 5+ billion people, I’d wager the majority of them look at insects as a plague, a nuisance, repulsive, or all of the above.
So unlike furry cows, people do not have the same emotional connection to wriggling maggots or leggy locusts. For the most part, people are repulsed by insects, while big brown-eyed cows look so sweet and cuddly and elicit awwwww’s and hearts on social media. (Even though, in reality, they’re extremely destructive to the planet.)
Starting from that basis, then, there are fewer emotional barriers put up to the message of why crickets (or any edible insect) can and should be eaten.
Then, the reality is that eating insects is very much in line with what makes up a large portion of the vegan worldview, setting aside for the moment they’re in the animal kingdom: environmental sustainability, nutritional benefit, global variety, and local economic gain.
Do you think that in general entomophagy will be soon a normal food habit also in the West?
I’m optimistic, but I think we have to be realistic as well. Looking at the past 4 years since the FAO report came out, you’ll see that a lot of people and companies jumped headlong into the entomophagy world with high expectations of rapid returns. And it seems like for most, that hasn’t panned out nearly as quickly as people probably hoped.
Then, looking at where the investment money is going, it’s quite obvious that you could make a really good case for the answer to this question being a resounding “no”, based on the simple fact that something like 95% of investment money the past several years has gone into the “Insects as Feed” category, meaning insect protein for animals.
So while some companies like EXO, Chapul, Chirp’s Chips, and others have received high-profile funding to target the consumer foods market, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the investor dollars going to black soldier fly larvae farms (along with crickets and mealworms) to create a sustainable, high-protein, nutritious feed source for fish, poultry, and pork.
On the surface, then, that suggests that no, people aren’t going to give up their fish fillet, their fried chicken, or their chicharrónes to eat bugs.
While that may be discouraging to some who are passionate about Entomophagy and believe in its sustainability and nutritional benefits, I think they’d be well-served to take a longer view of the issue.
Eating insects has been a staple in many cultural diets around the world, for all of recorded human history. Now, for the first time, it’s meeting modern technological innovation – and that’s going to bring about some incredibly beneficial and environmentally-friendly changes for the human diet (along with positive economic impact in the developing world) in coming years.
Through that process though, what we have to realize and accept is that not everyone is going to have the same motivation. So I’ve heard criticism of some companies in the consumer products space, that they’re “just marketing companies” who are trying to take advantage of the current rise in popularity of eating bugs.
That may be true – but those companies are vitally important to the process of widespread acceptance for Entomophagy in the west. And while it may run counter to the stated ethics of many who simply want to save the planet through eating insects, and aren’t doing it to get rich off the trend, there’s usually a big difference in the marketing reach of the two groups.
I think in the long run we’re going to see that these first-movers who are spending large amounts of money to gain traction and a loyal following among a core group of more “mainstream” people (e.g., EXO now targeting Crossfit athletes), those companies will be a large part of the reason that the idea of eating insects becomes more widely acceptable in the mainstream and in pop culture. The edible insects industry will owe them a debt of gratitude for their expensive groundbreaking work, like it or not.
In a similar way to how lobster went from being “prison food” and the food of paupers to becoming a delicacy in elite fine dining restaurants, I think over the next decade or so we’ll begin to see insects transition from a repulsive, disgusting plague, to becoming a sought-after and readily enjoyed delicacy in the western diet. That’s already the case in a handful of fine dining establishments in Thailand and Mexico.
I know for me personally, I feel better than I have in years eating insect protein instead of animal protein, and thanks to my time with Chef Melgarejo in Mexico (and others around the world), I’ve learned that insects really can taste delicious.
As I tell anyone who will listen, it’s just a mindset, a change of attitude. Look at the nutritional benefits eating insects can have on your health, the economic benefits to farmers in impoverished areas, and the long term net-positive impact on the planet, and then taste them with an open mind.
So many people are held back by cultural (western) beliefs that insects are these horrible creatures we should be afraid of, stomp on, or spray with deadly chemicals. But the reality is so much different, and so much better – and tastier! – on the other side of those biased irrational fears.
I never imagined I’d go from exploring the world’s rivers as an extreme athlete, to promoting the eating of insects, but here I am, doing just that! And I believe in it enough to use myself as a test vehicle, and do so publicly through Entovegan.com and social media for anyone interested.
Thus far I am feeling better than I have in years, and despite most of my western friends thinking I’ve suddenly gone crazy, I’m really passionate about it all because I’m living the health changes personally, and seeing the positive impact that Entomophagy as an industry can have on people and planet.
That’s exciting, and the effort to wholeheartedly promote it is something I consider really worthwhile.