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.

Beautiful Bug Art

Looking at insects through a dissecting scope is one of my favorite activities. I love seeing the gorgeous textures and colors up close–it’s like entering a secret sci-fi wonderland, where you can get intimate with the alien without it eating your head. I especially like this “fantasy” world because it’s real–and because human lives are entwined with these marvelous tiny beings, even if we aren’t generally aware of it.

Not everyone has the equipment or inclination to gaze at insects through a scope, however. For them, artists can provide an accessible aesthetic for enjoying insect beauty. Mielle Harvey is my latest find. (Actually, she found me on this blog–thanks Mielle!) Her HEXAPODA collection is both artistically sophisticated and scientifically accurate enough to suit both art aficionados and entomology buffs. Check it out!

http://www.mielleharvey.com/the-hexapoda-collection

CicadaeGoldenEgg400 Cicadae and Golden Egg

Cicadae and Golden Egg, by Mielle Harvey

Bee dance may be more complex than thought

Bees use a complex “waggle” dance to communicate with hivemates about the direction and distance to sources of food. Through a sequence of waggles and vibrations, the dance communicates direction relative to the sun, distance from the hive, and quality of the food source–all in the complete darkness inside a hive.

Discovery and decoding of this remarkable form of communication won Karl von Frisch the nobel prize in 1973. Now, UCSD professor James Nieh has built on this research by finding that some members of the bee audience may stop the dancer if they know about predators or other risks at the food source. By doing so, the hive improves its collective intelligence.

Studies of bee waggling have led to discoveries about the complex communication patterns of true social insects such as bees, wasps, and ants. The “stop” signal is only the second known example of a sophisticated insect society using “negative feedback” — signals that tell others to stop a behavior.

Sources: The Nieh lab at UCSD

http://www.physorg.com/news185115064.html

Hives stayin’ alive – SignOnSanDiego.com.

E.O. Wilson interview

A lengthy but informative video interview with ant expert E.O Wilson about the emergence of molecular techniques during his career.

Evolution – the Molecular Landscape Interview with EDWARD O WILSON interviewed by Jan Witkowski | SciVee.

British bees go urban!

The "Beehaus" by Omlet, on the roof of a house in London.

A new and improved design of beehive could be used by city dwellers to harvest up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of their own honey each year, according to Natural England, a British government conservation agency. The hives could also help stem the decline of bee populations. Continue reading

Acacia plant controls ants with chemical signal

The mutually beneficial relationship between acacias and the ants that guard them is a little better understood, thanks to researchers in the UK and Sweden. They found that the ants are deterred from entering the flowers–and thus competing with pollinators–by a chemical the plant produces. This chemical is produced in addition to the food rewards provided to the ants. Continue reading