David Gracer lifts a giant water bug, places his thumbs in a pre-sliced slit in its underside, and flips off its head. “Smell the meat,” he says, sniffing the decapitated creature, and the people gathered around the table willingly oblige. Members of the New York Gastronauts, a club for adventurous eaters, they murmur appreciatively as they scoop out and swallow the grayish, slightly greasy insect flesh.
“Perfumey, tastes like salty apples,” one says. “Like a scented candle blended with an artichoke,” another adds.
The giant water bug, or Lethocerus indicus, a three-inch-long South Asian insect that looks uncannily like a local cockroach, is just one of the items on the menu of this bug-eating bacchanal. The Gastronauts’ meal may seem more like a reality TV stunt than a radical environmental strategy, but Gracer is on a serious mission to shake up how we all think about our food supply. Gracer, a self-described “geeky poet/nature boy” who teaches composition at a community college in Providence, Rhode Island, has made it his duty to persuade ordinary Americans to eat insects.
Gracer wants people to move away from getting their protein from traditional livestock such as cows, pigs, and chickens because raising livestock has a huge negative impact on the environment, regardless of whether the animals belong to subsistence farmers in developing countries or a Western industrial conglomerate. A United Nations report released in 2006 calls the livestock sector “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” The report notes that, among other adverse impacts, livestock production is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. (That’s more than what is produced by transportation worldwide.) And the problem is only going to grow, with global production of meat reaching 465 million tons by 2050, double the amount produced in 2000.
“Americans have no idea how wasteful these large mammals are,” Gracer says. “If you want to feed a lot of people, insects are the best choice in terms of getting the biggest bang for your buck.” Insects, he claims, are nutritious. Although they typically contain less protein by weight than beef or chicken—100 grams of giant water bugs or small grasshoppers, for example, have about 20 grams of protein, compared with 27 grams in the same amount of lean ground beef—they do have other benefits. For instance, grasshoppers contain just one-third of the fat found in beef, and water bugs offer almost four times as much iron. A 100-gram portion of the cooked caterpillar Usata terpsichore has about 28 grams of protein. In their dried form, as they are commonly sold in Africa, insects such as grasshoppers may contain up to 60 percent protein.
Raising insects has a low impact on the environment. They require little water, perhaps because they obtain much of their moisture from their food. It takes 869 gallons of water to produce a third of a pound of beef, about enough for a large hamburger. By contrast, to supply water to a quarter pound of crickets, Gracer simply places a moist paper towel at the bottom of their tank and refreshes it weekly. Insects, he says, also need less food and space than vertebrate sources of protein and therefore could replace or supplement food resources that may become scarce in the future, such as fish stocks, which a recent study indicates may collapse by 2048.
Founded in 2005, Gracer’s company, a one-man operation called Sunrise Land Shrimp, educates people about insect eating, or entomophagy. On a roughly monthly basis, Gracer will visit a high school or give a public lecture, and he recently appeared on The Colbert Report (video). Not long ago he traveled to Thailand to attend a United Nations workshop on entomophagy. “I would love to counteract the portrayal of entomophagy that we see on Fear Factor and Survivor,” he says. “It’s my interest to bring it out of the zone of freakdom.” But even Sunrise Land Shrimp doesn’t sell insects—yet. In the United States insects are generally available only as novelty foods, such as the salt-and-vinegar-flavored crickets sold by Hotlix, a California company that specializes in insect-based candies.