Insects provide protein that comes not only with enormously positive environmental consequences but off-the-charts health benefits as well.
By James McWilliams
A grasshopper burger topped with dried grasshoppers and mealworms. (Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Standing in a foot of snow, Wendy Lu McGill looked up at the roof of her company’s headquarters. It was a rust-red shipping container sitting in the middle of an ad hoc junkyard five miles from downtown Denver. She was contemplating climbing to the top. She wanted to show me the panel of solar tubes that, when fully installed, were going to warm the container for the hundreds of thousands of live insects — mostly crickets and mealworms — that were about to inhabit it.
Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, which McGill founded with her business partner, Taylor Ferguson, in 2015, is the first of its kind in Colorado. It’s obviously not what most people think about when they think about animal farming. But McGill — who currently raises her stock in the basement of her home — has already demonstrated something that few critics could have predicted: there’s considerable demand for the offbeat flesh she incubates.
“Oh there’s that ladder,” she said, walking over to a tired contraption propped sidewise into a snow bank. “Want to go up?” No, I didn’t. Before I could answer, though, McGill, a trim and tireless 45-year-old wearing weather-appropriate footgear, was clanging the thing to the side of the can. Up we went.
“Cows need 22,000 times more water to produce the same amount of meat as insects” and “insects emit almost no greenhouse gas emissions.”
It was a risky climb, even Everest-like for the vertiginously inclined, but we survived, and that was a good thing, as the impressive tubes of virtue reflect the larger spirit of sustainability driving McGill’s mission to bring insects to the culinary masses. It’s hardly a secret that conventional animal agriculture — pasture-based systems that damage enormous amounts of land, water, and air — are leading humanity toward ecological Armageddon, with livestock responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than automobiles, occupying the vast majority of the world’s arable land (either for grazing or feed production), and hogging the lion’s share of agriculture’s water supply.
Advocates of entomophagy — the art of eating insects — promote essential talking points such as (to quote McGill) “cows need 22,000 times more water to produce the same amount of meat as insects,” “insects emit almost no greenhouse gas emissions,” and “80–100 percent of insects are edible compared to less than 50 percent for traditional livestock.” All of which is true. And important. Naturally, nobody’s going to save the planet with a solarized shipping container, but keep your cynicism in check because the photovoltaic tubes underscore the deeper possibility that, with insects, we can, one day soon, have our meat and eat it too.*
The obvious question that comes up in any discussion of eating insects is the willingness of consumers to accept as an edible source of protein something that normally demands a call to the exterminator. Cultures around the world eat insects as a matter of course, but Americans, for reasons that aren’t altogether apparent, react to the prospect with a tense mix of disgust and horror.
Entomophagy enthusiasts aren’t dissuaded. Insects provide protein that comes not only with enormously positive environmental consequences (which consumers claim to care about), but off-the-charts health benefits as well (which consumers definitely do care about). Consider the cricket. Two tablespoons of cricket flour contains 73 calories and 2.6 grams of fat while providing 25 percent of daily protein requirements, 88 percent of B12 (hello vegans), 31.7 percent of iron, and 54 percent of potassium. All of which is to say: We are talking about a rarified superfood, one that leads Robert Nathan Allen, director of the advocacy group Little Herds (yes, edible insects have an advocacy group), to tell me that “the aversion factor is the easiest hurdle to overcome.”
There’s no need to tell that to Daniel Asher. When I first met Asher, he was wielding under his arm a copy of Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes From the Future of Food. We were introduced at Linger, the Denver restaurant where he’s head chef. Linger uses 10 pounds of McGill’s frozen crickets a week, incorporating them into dishes innovative enough for customers to keep asking for more.
After eating three of Asher’s cricket tacos, I can attest that the demand makes perfect sense. I usually cringe when writers try to describe the taste and texture of exceptionally prepared food (Jim Harrison and A.J. Leibling excepted), so I won’t bother with that. But I will say that, if you properly sauté and salt these chirpers, as Asher clearly knows how to do, there’s little than can go wrong flavor-wise.
Asher, whose demeanor is energetic and stature chef-like, embraces cricket cooking as part of a larger culinary vision, noting — a la Barber — that he grew up eating his mother’s Romanian cooking, a tradition that, for Asher’s mom at least, tolerated snout-to-tail novelties as “brain pancakes” and other organ-centric meals that, all in all, make crickets look about as daring as a French fry. Either way, Asher sees nothing but the brightest future for insect-based meals, and he’s orienting his kitchen in that direction.
While it seems too good to be true, the local supply chain that McGill is developing around insects begins (and, in our case, ended) at a brewery. Unlike traditional farm animals, which require farmers in the United States to dedicate our most fertile agriculture land to corn and soy production, insects only ask us to continue drinking first-rate craft beer. At Wit’s End Brewing Company, we did just that after McGill scooped into a bucket a few shovelfuls of spent brewing grains, which the brewers leave sitting in barrels outside the entrance, and placed them into the back of her car. That’s it for the feed.
It might seem grandiose to suggest that these aromatic grains represent the future of food production. However, as they travel to a small basement lined with cages of cricket and mealworms about to be transported to a shipping container, and as McGill tells me that the sad vacant lot with her red can will soon be the epicenter of the Westwood Food Co-op (with an urban farm and a community-owned grocery store), it’s hard not to find hope in small gestures, much less those who undertake them.
*Update — April 27, 2016: The phrase goes, “Cows need 22,000 times more water to produce the same amount of meat as insects,” not “Cows need 22,000 times more water to produce the same amount of meat as cows.” We have updated this post accordingly.