In the wake of the so-called horsemeat scandal along comes an initiative extolling the virtues of eating insects! Is nothing about our diet sacred anymore? Insects as food is the theme of an event in London in April called, somewhat curiously, Pestival 2013. The subject will also be covered in a forthcoming BBC Television programme. As with horsemeat it turns out that a lot of people in the world eat insects from choice, and we are all, even if unwittingly, consuming them and their products anyway.
In this country the most likely sources of insects in our food are the red colouring cochineal, made from the ground up bodies of close relatives of aphids called scale insects, and honey, a viscous liquid regurgitated by bees. Cochineal was first used as a dye for clothing many centuries ago, it is now used in a range of products including sausages, jams, fruit juices and sweets, as well as in lipsticks.
We also consume with relish a lot of prawns and shrimps, which, whilst not insects, are very closely related to them and have similar bodies. It is also possible to buy preparations of other insects such as ants, crickets and grasshoppers, although these are still novelty foods rather than everyday items in our supermarket trollies. I can remember as a child being told that chocolate-covered ants are popular in some parts of the world.
In a world short of food, and doused in chemicals to produce enough to keep pace with demand, insects are an environmentally sound choice. They are very rich in protein, produce very little methane (unlike larger livestock) and are abundant - someone has calculated that for every one of us there are 40 tonnes of insects. Having said that, it would take a lot of ants to make a burger; the solution in some places is to farm larger insects, such as mealworms, which are beetle grubs, and locusts, which are a type of grasshopper.
My natural history interest is plant galls; many of these contain insects, and produce sweet, honeydew like, exudations. Galls complete with their insect inhabitants have long been offered for sale alongside local fruits in street markets in Mexico and the Middle East, and a common gall found in this country on ground ivy is eaten in France and Sweden. Thanks to reality television programmes we are familiar with the term 'bushtucker'. In Australia this may include a gall, called a bush coconut, containing scale insects and found on a eucalyptus called the bloodwood tree.
If you are not convinced by taste, tradition and eco-friendliness, perhaps you should consider eating insects as payback. It is estimated that up to a quarter of all the food crops in the world are destroyed by insects, about 10% whilst growing and about 15% in storage and transport.