Minilivestock: an ecologically sound food source

Are humans herbivores? Heck no, is the short answer. Even most herbivores aren’t exclusively herbivores. For example, deer are known to eat the nestlings of ground-nesting birds, if they are deficient in certain minerals that they need to grow antlers. Most primates eat insects as a supplement to plants, along with occasional meat. Human digestive systems and teeth are obviously designed for an omnivorous diet.

What started this line of thinking is that I just spent a little too much time responding to some ill-considered comments on a vegetarian message board. I was surfing for good recipes to feed my cheese-itarian fiancé. When I ran into ridiculous assertions that humans can’t digest meat and have herbivore teeth, I felt compelled to respond.

There are excellent arguments for a vegetarian lifestyle, but “humans are biologically herbivores” is simply not one of them. Basic palentology shows that we have what are called “bunodont teeth,” a type of tooth found in omnivorous animals. Herbivore mammals have much taller “hyposdont” teeth that can last longer when worn down by a gritty, plant-dominant diet. Primitive stone tools tell us that 2.5 million years ago early hominids were using stone implements to cut the flesh off the bones of large animals that they had either hunted or whose carcasses they had scavenged. Our digestive systems are clearly designed to digest animal proteins, beginning with pepsin in the stomach. The bottom line is that, historically and biologically speaking, we are omnivores.

What many of us in developed countries have “forgotten” is that an omnivorous diet can include insects. And it just might be a good idea for the environment.

Entomo-what?

Honeypot ant

Entomophagy–eating insects, arachnids, and myriapods–has been a successful dietary strategy for humans for tens of thousands of years (at least). Insect foods remain a popular in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. There are an estimated 1,462 species of edible arthropods including crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers, ants, beetle grubs, caterpillars, scorpions, and tarantulas. Depending on the culture and customs, insects may be skewered, fried, smoked, baked, or eaten raw. In Australia, aboriginal peoples consider honeypot ants, whose grape-sized abdomens are filled with with sweet liquid, a delicacy.

OK, now you’ve really grossed me out!

Why bring up this topic that is likely to turn your stomach? If you’ll permit me a moment on my soapbox, I think a thoughtful semi-vegetarian and low-dairy diet is a moral imperative for everyone on the planet. We need to reverse the trend of large, specialized farms for meat or dairy, because they have a significant environmental impact. A  study on the environmental impacts of dairy in the UK found that intensive dairy farms overwhelm the local ecosystems to damage habitat, reduce biodiversity, damage soil, increase use of fertilizers, medications and hormones, and pollute groundwater (skip to page 151 to read the conclusions for yourself). So ovo-lacto vegetarians are not off the hook. They are contributing to the problem.

But you just said we were omnivores. Don’t we all need protein?

Grasshoppers on a skewer

Of course we all need protein (more specifically their building blocks, amino acids). Plant sources are unlikely to provide enough. Unless we can each return to keeping chickens and a cow on family farms, where we would live with the immediate environmental impacts of our dietary choices, we need to develop a cultural solution. One promising solution–if we can just get over the ick-factor–is minilivestock, or the cultivation of insects for food.

Some of the benefits:

  • Insects generally contain more protein and less fat than traditional meats, according to the Entomological Society of America.
  • They also have about 20 times higher food conversion efficiency than traditional meats, meaning they have a higher meat-to-feed ratio than beef, pork, lamb or chicken.
  • Insects can be a good source of not only protein, but also vitamins, minerals, and fats. For example, crickets are high in calcium, and termites are rich in iron. Giant silkworm moth larvae provide copper, zinc, iron, thiamin, and riboflavin.
  • One study noted that food collection of a crop pest grasshopper, Sphenarium purpurascens, may be a viable alternative to pesticide use in Mexico’s Puebla–Tlaxcala Valley. Collection of pest insects for food has a long history.
  • We eat them anyway. Some estimates suggest that we eat from one to two pounds of insects each year, and without knowing it. We might as well make it a conscious part of caring for the environment.

Some interesting reads:

For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural

Edible Insects

Entomophagy and space agriculture

Buggy recipes

Feeling brave? You can buy insect foods online.

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Media Worth Watching: Insect News Network

Insects can use more friends on the Web. Emmet Brady is one such guy. A little bit hipster, a lot bug geek, Emmet is a dedicated promoter of cultural entomology. Cultural entomology studies the intersections between humans and insects, many of which are likely to have important implications as the climate changes, food production is threatened by the loss of pollinators, and more people on the planet require more protein. So, kudos to you, Emmet. We’ll have our eyes on your work!

http://www.insectnewsnetwork.com/

More on lacewing eggs and mystical flowers

A friend of mine commented on my previous post regarding the lacewing eggs mistaken for a “rare Buddhist flower” by referring me to this article on EnvironmentalGraffiti.com, which unfortunately demonstrates some bad journalism. The article purports to “dig deeper” into the issue, but it merely muddles it with some incorrect assertions. My take on it: they want to keep all their readers happy, including those who believe in miracles–an unfortunate trait for an environmental publication.

Ficus racemosa, one of the plants traditionally considered an udumbara flower.

First, the article does little to debunk the idea that tiny flowers can grow on nun’s washing machines. It proposes several types of real flowers that are traditionally called udumbara, all of which are trees or lotuses (see above photo). Somehow, however, the author misses that that small “flowers” growing off of metal surfaces or Buddha statues could not be any of these udumbara. The bottom line: plants need accessible nutrients to grow. Washing machines are not generally a good place to grow roots and absorb nitrogen. To believe otherwise demonstrates, in my mind, a lack of any sort of desire to use rational thought. The Hindu concept of Maya applies here–humans’ fundamental illusion is that we are somehow separate from the universe (and nature). This separation, reinforced by a lack of education, is what makes us believe in the necessity of miracles. The irony is the world is plenty fabulous without magical thinking.

Second, the author’s assertion that lacewings are not common in China is simply not true. There are at least two lineages, each with multiple species, that occur in China. For instance, the Chinese green lacewing (Chrysopa sinica) is an important predator for aphids affecting the Chinese cotton crop.

OK, enough of my rant. For your reading pleasure, here’s a link to some interesting lacewing information, including more about the properties of the egg stalks and research about whether they could be used to produce silk: http://biocontrolbeat.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/lacewing-silk/ . Cool, huh?

Rare Buddhist flower?

News items have popped up purporting the blossoming of the rare Udumbara flower, which, according to Buddhist legend, only blooms every 3,000 years. According to followers of the Falun Gong, Buddhist scripture describes the Udumbara as a “product of supernatural phenomena…a celestial flower (that) does not exist in the mundane world.” Some sources that I’ve found say it’s a sign that a new Buddha has come to the world.

The problem is that it’s not a flower at all. It’s….lacewing eggs.

Here’s a picture published in the article Rare Buddhist flower found under nuns washing machine in the London Telegraph on March 1, 2010.

A rare Buddhist flower? No! These are lacewing eggs!

Here are some purported udumbara on a Buddha’s face:

For comparison, here are a couple of pictures of lacewing eggs. The eggs are laid atop the silken stalks to keep the the hungry larvae from eating one another.

Green lacewing eggs

Lacewing eggs

Lacewings are certainly wonderful predators to have in your garden for aphid control, and they’re available for sale (here’s one online source). Perhaps to the chagrin of the Buddhists, they will “bloom” again next year, and every year after as well. It’s too bad that the lacewing’s real story–and usefulness to humans–can be so easily obscured by a little superstition. This spring, look around you and see if you can catch a glimpse of the aphid lions patrolling your garden. Treat them well; your roses will thank you!

Lacewing larva, a.k.a. an aphid lion

Lacewing larva attacking an aphid

Lacewing adult

Cultural Entomology

Entomology has long been concerned with survival and scientific study, but the branch of investigation that addresses the influence of insects in literature, language, music, the arts, interpretive history, religion, and recreation has only recently been recognized as a distinct field. Here, Dr. Charles Hogue talks in depth about this budding field, “cultural entomology“.