Last week, CNN reported that “Tyson Foods, one of the biggest meat producers, is investing in insect protein.” Nothing about this headline is, strictly speaking, misleading: Tyson produces about a fifth of all American beef, pork, and chicken, and it has indeed acquired a minority stake in the Dutch insect protein startup Protix. But the black soldier flies Tyson has invested in will only be used in pet, livestock, and fish food — they’re not “going into human food,” CNN clarifies, adding ominously, “at this point.”
Still, “the climate people want you to eat bugs!” is a media trope that seems to resurface every couple of months, with bug-eating — or, more politely, “entomophagy” — floated as an opportunity to “save the world” if only Westerners could get over “the psychological ‘ick’ factor.” (Many other cultures and ethnic groups still practice entomophagy today.) Right-wing media, unsurprisingly, loves to play up the gross-out: “The ruling class really, really wants us to eat bugs,” conservative commentator Michael Knowles claimed last year.
The word “bug” usually means “a small insect,” and in that sense, most people in the United States do not electively eat bugs. But colloquially, “bug” is used to refer to any small gross vermin (someone once tried to tell me that a mouse is a bug), and Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary both allow for definitions that include “any of various small arthropods” to be considered bugs too. In which case, the ruling class eats bugs … all the time.
Crabs, lobsters, shrimp, prawns — have you ever really looked at those guys?
This is absolutely a bug.Getty Images
A whole plate of tasty bugs. Getty Images
Like crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders, shellfish are all arthropods, and if they creepy-crawlied their way through our living rooms, rather than out of sight in the ocean, we’d absolutely just refer to them as “bugs” and call the exterminator. In fact, even the human immune system gets confused and “fail[s] to differentiate between bugs of the land and the ocean,” McGill University reports. The 2% of people who have shellfish allergies are typically reacting to the protein tropomyosin, which is also found in “insects like crickets, fruit flies, grasshoppers, cockroaches, locusts, and dust mites.” (I’ve inadvertently tested this out on myself and, uh, can confirm the shared allergen to be true).
Pass the cocktail sauce.Getty Images
While headlines and right-wing commentators continue to scaremonger about “insect protein” creeping closer and closer to our dinner plates, the leap to mainstream bug consumption might not even be that far off because of the relative bugginess of our diets already. In the span of only about 200 years, for example, lobster went from being considered disgusting and barely edible by many Westerners to being one of the most popular last-meal requests of death row prisoners. Conceptually, we’ve already cleared the hurdle of eating animals with more than four legs and that look like they just arrived from outer space. The remaining barrier to bug-eating might be as flimsy as just that: the word bug.
So no, Tyson isn’t going to start sneaking insects into your hamburgers. But when you next walk past your grocery store’s tank of sea cockroaches, consider that if it weren’t for a little residual squeamishness, you could be eating delicious land plankton instead.