Nicola Ruotolo is an intern in CNN's Rome bureau
Insects are the ideal food of the future, according to a new United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report.
In "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security," presented at a news conference in Rome on Monday, the group's etnomophagy experts shared compelling evidence suggesting that increased intake of insects would promote health, wealth and a cleaner environment for both rural and urban communities around the globe.
Consumption of insects like locusts, crickets or larvae is very common in parts of Asia, South America, Mexico and Africa, due in large part to their high nutritional value. Insects beat out both meat and fish in protein content and quality, and they're also rich in fiber and healthy micronutrients including copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.
Insects adapt so quickly to climate change, that there would be few barriers to gathering from the wild or farming at any altitude or latitude around the planet - making them a cheap and eco-friendly food source. They also have a very low risk of transmitting disease to humans, unlike farmed beef, pork and poultry.
In Cambodia, deep-fried tarantula spiders are a traditional treat, and some native tribes in Australian regard honeypot ants as a sweet, delicious dessert. Mopane worms provide a key source of protein for millions of people in Southern Africa and in various parts of Mexico, chapulines (toasted, spiced grasshoppers) are commonly sold at markets and as a snack at sporting events.
I had never considered eating insects until hearing Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, a professor in Entomology from Khon Kaen University in Thailand, speak passionately at the conference about the practice and its potential benefits for the world's food systems. According to Hanboonsong, the “yummiest” insect in all of Thailand is the bamboo caterpillar, especially when deep-fried with some herbs.
Interest piqued, after the conference I followed Dr. Arnold Van Huis, an entomology professor from the Wageningen University, back to his office at the FAO. There, he showed me various plastic boxes packed with insects that had been farmed in the Netherlands for human consumption.
Western cultural and psychological barriers were no match for my curiosity by this point, so I decided to taste one. Dr. Van Huis recommended going for the locust, so I took one, removed the wings and chewed it up. To my surprise I found it quite pleasant, with a crunchy texture and creamy, nutty flavor, not unlike a shrimp. It's a comparison that's been made before; Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke thinks we should think of insects as the “shrimp of the land,” and a delicacy all eaters should prize.
It will probably take a while for insect dishes to pop up on European and American kitchen tables or in restaurants. But then again, several decades ago when sushi was introduced to Western cuisine, it took some time to prepare people's palates for eating raw fish. And once people realize that this unconventional meal might help save the planet, it might not bug them so much.