This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
St. Cuthbert’s Mission / Pakuri, Guyana In a small bushveld, Leeland Clenkian swings his ax in the rotting wood of a palm tree and picks out a winding tacoma worm.
The tacoma, which Clenkian throws in a plastic bowl, is a delicacy in this indigenous Arawak community of about 2,000 residents, which is two hours by road from the Guyanese capital of Georgetown.
“They are buttery, high in protein and can be cooked without the need for oil,” Clenkian, a 73-year-old retired Arawak chief and military veteran, told Al Jazeera. “It is very versatile, very tasty – finger licking good.”
If insects like these are raw, sautéed or eaten in sticks and roasted like marshmallows on an open fire, it could help make food systems more sustainable worldwide, Clenkian said. While he was speaking, a group of concerned visitors from the city tasted tacoma fried with onions.
With the world’s population set to obscure nine billion by 2050, and as climate-changing livestock emissions continue to rise, experts say diets need to change to ensure a sustainable future – and insects can play more than a bite.
Insects are about eight times better for the planet than beef in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, said Arnold van Huis, an emeritus professor of tropical entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He spent much of his professional life studying the role of insects food systems.
“I think everyone realizes we need to change our diet,” van Huis, a lover of spicy deep-fried locusts, told Al Jazeera. “I think it is safer to eat insects than chicken. Insects are taxonomically much further away from humans than chickens or pigs. ” Diseases carried by livestock, such as mad cows, are generally more dangerous to humans than anything found in insects, he added.
Livestock production results in 8x more greenhouse gas emissions and requires 6x more water than is needed for edible insects. These tacoma worms in Guyana are delicious when roasted on the fire #Food Security #environment pic.twitter.com/5AhewRzgw0
– Chris Arsenault (@chrisarsenaul) 19 November 2021
Producing one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef requires about 25 kg (55 pounds) of feed, Van Huis said, while one kilogram of protein-rich crickets requires 2 kg (4.4 pounds) of food. Insects are cold-blooded, so unlike cows, they do not expend energy to produce body heat. Livestock also need about six times more water than an equivalent amount of insects need, he said.
“About 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land is already used for livestock,” he added. “We have to change.”
Western aversion to bugs
In much of the global south, eating insects is nothing new or exotic. About two billion people worldwide indulge in insects in their regular meals, with about 1,900 edible species, according to the FAO.
There are spicy scorpions as street food in parts of China; fried termites in western Kenya; curry dragonflies in Indonesia; beetle larvae in parts of Cameroon; wok-fried tarantulas or silkworms in Cambodia; and gravy-soaked mopane worms in rural Zimbabwe.
In Mexico, crispy locusts are served with lime and chilli – and of course the humble tequila worm to chase a strong shot.
In Niger, locusts collected in yarrow fields have achieved a higher price in local markets than the actual millet, according to a 2003 study.
In Guyanese indigenous communities like Pakuri, the tacoma worm is “not an everyday delicacy”, says Michael Patterson, an indigenous chef who specializes in traditional foods run by a catering company. Georgetown.
To put down a tree – to cut it down, make the correct incisions and wait for the bugs to grow in the rotting wood – takes a few weeks, and it can not be done too often without clearing the forest. not to damage, he said.
Tacoma worms are usually prepared during cultural activities or festivals, Patterson told Al Jazeera. Their consumption, he said, “comes back to the very basic mode of survival of humans. Mankind began with the earth; it’s back to those basics ”.
For some consumers, however, eating insects is not just rude; it’s part of a dark, humiliating future. The opening scene of the dystopian sci-fi movie Blade Runner 2049 shows how the main character enters a protein farm, where a worker in a hazmat pack grows insect larvae in a brown slime that looks toxic.
Van Huis traces Western cultural aversion to insect consumption to environmental factors. Insects tend to be larger, easier to harvest and available in many of the tropics throughout the year, compared to the smaller bugs in much of the Western world, which are not accessible in winter.
Even in countries where insects are traditionally eaten, changing dietary preferences mean that some middle-class consumers are now avoiding them, Van Huis said, as they are “associated with the poor man’s diet”.
Insects for animal feed
For people who are not comfortable eating it directly, insects still have a role to play in addressing climate change and making agriculture more sustainable, said Renata Clarke, a Barbados-based researcher at the FAO. . She is working on a project to make it easier for smallholder farmers to produce insects, mainly mealworms and black soldier flies, to feed chickens and pigs.
“The use of insects as a feed source is much cheaper for the environment than traditional feeds,” Clarke said in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera. “It is also less likely to evoke the ‘yuk’ factor than people who consume it directly. Who knows; maybe it’s a way to think differently about insects? ”
About 17 percent of the world food is wasted, according to a recent FAO report. Using some of that garbage as a food source for insects, which can then be fed to livestock, would be a win-win for local farmers and the environment, Clarke said.
Many Caribbean countries import 80 percent of their animal feed, and supply chain disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic – coupled with recent price increases – have made insects more palatable than a source of animal feed, she added.
If local farmers produce the insects, rather than importing feed from “monopolistic” traders, it could also be local economies, she said.
Back in Pakuri, Leeland Clenkian and current boss Timothy Andrews hope the tacoma worm can one day have a export for their community – or at least a potential attraction for tourists who want to try something new.
They are working on building an ecotourism project where day visitors from the capital or foreign tourists can go swimming in the river, watch colorful birds, take a walk in the woods or try the tacoma worm.
“I’ve heard insects become a delicacy in Southeast Asia,” Clenkian said. “So the tacoma has a good chance of having a global flavor.”