I’ve tasted the future of food and I like it – but it may give you the creeps.
Grasshoppers, worms, beetles and other bugs are likely to become part of our daily diet as boffins battle to find a solution to the food crisis now threatening to engulf the planet, reports Patrick Hill in the Sunday People.
United Nations experts at the Food and Agriculture Organisation believe the world’s soaring population by 2050 will need 70% more to eat than farmers and factories produce today.
And creepy-crawlies are increasingly being seen as a key ingredient because they are high in protein – and low in production costs.
Last week I visited a pioneering insect farm run by the Dutch company Kreca near Harderwijk in the heart of the Netherlands.
Kreca was launched in 1978 and the 10 types of insect the staff currently breed have helped the firm become one of Europe’s top attractions for entomophagists – people who like grubs as grub.
The sheer number of squirming specimens was spellbinding as manager Marieke Calis gave me a tour of the farm’s sights – and smells.
A staff of 25 breed bite-sized bugs by the bucketload in large grey plastic boxes in one huge room.
After being bulked up for about six weeks, each writhing batch is moved to another building where the mini beasts are put through filters to separate them from their food and waste .
They are then locked into giant freezers to kill them.
Marieke, 32, said: “I have never tried to count the insects here because the numbers are always changing.
“Insects become pregnant within just a couple of days – not like cattle, who take a long time.
“And we don’t need lots of storage space like cattle farmers because you can put more worms in one place than you can put cows.”
It’s hard not to shudder when you first see bins full of live mealworms, crickets, moths, beetles, flies, locusts and even cockroaches.
But Marieke believes no one should be frightened by the prospect of eating insects at all.
And she blames hit reality TV shows such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! for spreading alarm about biting into a bug.
“There is nothing to be scared of,” she said as she held up a fearsome-looking giant grasshopper that will one day end up in the pot.
And Marieka sees her job as part of a vital crusade to avert the global risk of future famines.
She said: “We are contributing to one of the biggest challenges in the world – ensuring sufficient food for humans and animals in a sustainable and cost-effective manner.
“Our biologists constantly develop innovative and sustainable ways to grow and produce insects.”
Less than an hour away at Wageningen University, world-renowned tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis is also campaigning for more insect-eating.
The professor told the Sunday People: “Finding an alternative source of protein is urgent and the answer could be insects.
“It’s only Western people who have problems with it. Most of the world’s population doesn’t.
“And I’d say if you taste it once the next time isn’t a problem any more.”
Arnold added: “We are trying to change the world.”
The professor is a leading consultant for the FOA and is at the forefront of the UN’s drive to change Western eating habits.
It is estimated two billion people around the world currently tuck into termites and other insects on a regular basis.
Non-vegetarians among the other five billion rely on meat and fish.
But today’s methods of producing protein will be completely inadequate by 2050, when the human population of the planet is set to hit nine billion.
One of the biggest problems is that almost three-quarters of the world’s farmland is already taken up raising livestock, so space is running out.
Insects are routinely eaten in Africa, the Far East and Latin America.
And it’s not just about people fighting off hunger-pangs. Bugs bulge with protein, fibre, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.
A caterpillar contains ten times as much iron as a similar weight of beef, for example.
And for millions of people, insects are even regarded as delicacies.
Mexicans prefer roasted ants to a box of popcorn when they go out to the movies.
Giant water-bugs are a favourite for the folk of Singapore. Silk-moth pupae and bee larvae are common on menus in China.
In Japan one of the top tasty treats is – incredibly – a wasp.
And in some tropical regions of the world, insects are so sought-after that they can often cost more at the market than normal meat or fish.
Our planet is awash with millions of species of creatures that crawl, creep, slither, scuttle and writhe.
Experts reckon ten quintillion – that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 – are alive at any given moment.
So we are in no danger of running out of edibles any time soon.
But will we really be able to stomach a plate of pupae, a bowl of bugs or a dish of dragonflies?
To find out, I visited chef Henk van Gurp at Wageningen’s Rijn IJssel Hotel and Tourism School.
Henk has been eating the little critters for at least 20 years and has also written The Insect Cookbook.
It’s a brilliant read and contains more than 30 of his recipes for diners who like a bit of a challenge.
The toothsome titbits include chocolate muffins made with worm-and-grasshopper mix, a quiche flavoured with mealworms and baked grasshopper spring-rolls.
Henk has also created a recipe especially for the Sunday People – battered grasshopper and chips.
Naturally, I tried every single one of his creations.
And despite initial reservations, I can reveal they are not only delicious but I’d have no hesitation in recommending them.
The quiche tasted much like a traditional one, except it was now packed with protein.
The muffins were quite simply scrumptious – despite the fact they looked maggot-infested.
And once I had managed to ignore the unmistakable sight of a head, a mouth and two eyes coming towards me, Henk’s grasshopper and chips combo seemed very like fishy scampi and chips. Yum!