Grub’s up

Summary

The presence of horsemeat in supermarket food caused less fuss in Flanders than in other places. But would the Flemish consumer be just as willing to eat, say, crickets, grubs or worms? There are those who say they ought to be; however, the prospects for widespread acceptance of insects for human consumption look to be tentative, to put it mildly, for the time being.

If agricultural experts have their way, insects could appear on dinner tables in Flanders

The presence of horsemeat in supermarket food caused less fuss in Flanders than in other places. But would the Flemish consumer be just as willing to eat, say, crickets, grubs or worms? There are those who say they ought to be; however, the prospects for widespread acceptance of insects for human consumption look to be tentative, to put it mildly, for the time being.

Undaunted, the province of Flemish Brabant last month organised a study day on the subject. “We wanted to get a clear picture of how realistic it was to imagine we might have insects on our plate by 2020, how far along the research is and what the possibilities are for business,” explains Ine Vervaeke, the province’s head of agriculture and horticulture. “We brought together a range of stakeholders – researchers, agricultural interests, the catering industry. As a province, our role is as a facilitator, bringing those different interests together and getting the discussion going.”

The idea of eating insects – entomophagy – is not a strange one to a large majority of people in the world. According to some estimates, there are about 1,400 species considered edible by someone somewhere, and they include caterpillars, beetles, ants, bees, termites, butterflies and moths. Some are eaten in their adult state; others as larvae or grubs. They lend themselves to all styles of cooking, including no cooking at all. The taste is generally described as “nutty”.

Insect aversion

“Insects have been eaten by humans since time immemorial; clear evidence of this has been found in fossilised faeces,” says Dr Mik Van Der Borght of the industrial engineering faculty of the University of Leuven. “Right now, about 80% of the world’s population eats insects on a regular basis.”

But in Europe a distaste for insects developed over time. “That aversion could be overcome by a smart approach and some education,” he continues. “A good example is the success of sushi in Europe in recent years. Increased environmental awareness and attention to animal welfare will play an increasing role in convincing the wider public.”

They’re already a lot closer in the Netherlands than here: Our northern neighbours have about 20 companies operating in the field as well as a sector association. At present, there is only one business in Flanders producing insects for human consumption: Ecology Projects in Antwerp. Unfortunately, Flanders Today received no response to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.

Another company, Eirogado in Knesselaere, East Flanders, commissioned a feasibility study last year to examine the viability of switching from egg and chicken production to cultivating insects. However, the results of the study, a spokesperson said, were not positive. “We’re not open to the consumption of insects here in Europe,” he said. The company has since gone out of business.

According to Vervaeke, uncertainty is putting as much of a brake on developments as disgust. “The regulations here in Flanders are perhaps less well-adapted to the possibilities of today,” she said. “There’s a certain amount of uncertainty over what’s allowed and what’s not as far as food safety is concerned.”

The study day, then, “was an attempt to get a picture of what’s happening,” she continues. “Now we’re looking into how much of a problem there is, and how we might do something about it. The first point would be: Are there actually companies that want to start up in this area?”

A more popular avenue of exploration, on the other hand, is the use of insect material in animal feed. “Insects can contribute directly or indirectly to human nutrition,” Van Der Borght says. “An aversion to insects is indeed an obstacle standing in the way of entomophagy. Then the indirect route – adding insect protein to the feed of animals that are already entomophages, like fish, poultry or pigs – is a useful alternative.”

However, European laws on BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease, present a problem. According to the law, insect meal cannot be fed to agricultural animals because it comes under the heading of processed animal protein.

The EU has agreed to introduce some flexibility into its plan as BSE is now virtually eradicated from the bovine population. In July, a first step will be taken which will allow insect meal to be used in feed in fish farms.

But what is the point of pursuing this line of research, given the widespread public distaste? “Insects are able to transform plant material that is not suitable for human consumption into high-value products such as proteins, fats, vitamins and other bioactive materials,” responds Van Der Borght. “Also, particular insects produce virtually no greenhouse gases and require very little water and space. And above all, they’re really tasty.”