There are many people dedicated to the sustainability of the planet and its human inhabitants. Among the many problems we face, sustainable food sources is on the list, even if not as high up as fossil fuel. Soylent Green, anyone? And Lauren Taranow of College Station, Texas, has a solution.
In one year, a single acre of black soldier fly larvae can produce more protein than 3,000 acres of cattle or 130 acres of soybeans. Such yields, combined with the need to find cheap, reliable protein for a global population projected to jump 30 per cent, to 9.8 billion by 2050, present big opportunity for the black soldier fly. The United Nations, which already warns that animal-rich diets cannot stretch that far long term, is encouraging governments and businesses to turn to insects to fulfill the planet’s protein needs.
Black soldier fly larvae is a more technical way of saying maggots.
People who’ve seen what black soldier fly larvae can do often speak of them in evangelical tones. Jeff Tomberlin, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University, said the bug industry could “save lives, stabilize economies, create jobs and protect the environment.”
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing this at some scale throughout the world,” he said.
On paper, there’s much to be said for eating maggots. They not only provide a great source of protein and consume waste, but they’re a far more effective use of resources than our traditional protein sources today. So what’s the issue?
Back at Symton, Taranow pops a couple of oven-dried soldier fly larvae into her mouth. “Honestly, they taste like Fritos,” she said.
They have a pleasant, neutral, nutty flavour to them. Slather them in powdered ranch or barbecue seasoning and it’s easy to imagine bags of them flying off the shelves in truck stops and convenience stores.
The dried larvae also have an advantage over other insect edibles — like, say, Mexico’s chapulines — in that they don’t really look like bugs. They have few identifiable buggy characteristics — no legs to get stuck in your teeth, no eyes to stare at you. It would be easy enough to mistake them for some sort of exotic grain.
On the other hand, they’re maggots. Then again, who was the first person to grab hold of a lobster and say to themselves, “this looks like something I would like to put into my mouth.” Then there was the second person who said, “maybe we should cook it first?”
Close to 2 billion people worldwide already include insects in their diets, according to the 2013 U.N. report. Insect-based snacks are commonly seen in open-air markets in places such as Thailand and China, for instance.
The practice hasn’t caught on in Europe or the United States, in part, because of long-standing cultural attitudes toward insects. This is somewhat puzzling, considering many Westerners happily consume foods such as crab and lobster, which are really just giant sea bugs.
“I absolutely think there will be applications [for the soldier fly] in the human food market,” said EnviroFlight’s Koutsos. “The challenge is getting over the cringe factor.”
There may well come a day when our descendants laugh at our sense of ickiness over eating maggots, whether out of necessity or because it turns out that they taste good and aren’t really any different than anything else we eat, except for the lack of psychological acceptance that we’ve somehow given something as creepy, if you think about it, as goose liver or cow tongue.
But today is not that day.