Simao Yecai Guan, a small Jingpo minority restaurant in the southern part of Kunming, has been made famous by its menu of local wild foods. In addition to serving up odd delicacies like bamboo rat, giant Mekong catfish, ferns, fungi and all sorts of wild vegetables, the restaurant also offers a variety of edible insects.
“We grew up eating these,” one woman says holding up a fried grasshopper. “Sure, when you think about what you’re eating, it can seem kind of gross. But they are tasty.” She sits at just one of the 15 large tables of a wedding party where everyone is chowing down on the little crispy critters.
Grasshoppers aren’t the only bugs on the menu. Simao Yecai Guan also fries up cicadas (legs and wings still attached), giant coconut tree grubs and black armored insects about the size of a thumb, called chestnut bugs. With prices ranging from 48-68 yuan ($8-$11) per dish, the restaurant claims to sell more than 1000 yuan ($160) per day in insects alone.
Although many of us may cringe at the thought, nearly one in three people on the planet eats insects as a part of their diet. As food prices continue to soar and many parts of the world face starvation, more people are starting to agree that insects can be a viable food source. With more than 1,900 known edible insect species, and an estimated 40 tons of insects to every person, it’s difficult to deny that it just might be worth getting past our squeamishness when it comes to eating bugs.
China’s meat consumption per capita has nearly quadrupled over the past 30 years to an estimated 71 million tons per year. That is the equivalent of about 53 kilograms per person per year, still only half of the amount consumed by the average American. And if China’s meat consumption doesn’t slow down, the environmental consequences could be disastrous.
As China’s pollution problems and water shortages continue to worsen, most fingers are pointed at the rapid rate of urbanization and industrialization. Few are recognizing that meat industries are at least worthy of equal blame. Livestock produces more greenhouse gasses on the planet than all automobiles and other forms of transportation combined. Cows alone are responsible for about 37% of all human induced methane emissions – a greenhouse gas that traps 23 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. Raising the same amount of protein from insects would cut the total methane emissions from humans by more than one-third.
About 70% of the planet’s agricultural land is used in the process of raising livestock. Beef requires about 13,000 liters of water and 10 kilograms of feed just to produce one kilogram of meat. Raising insects requires one-sixth as much feed and consumes very little water with almost no emissions; and one cricket, the most widely consumed insect in the world, can produce 100 babies per month. Overall, farming insects is 20 times more efficient than raising cattle.
In addition to being environmentally friendly – and a more humane way to raise animal protein – insects are also very healthy. Beef contains 18% protein whereas a grasshopper meat is nearly 60% protein. Eating insects also can cut out 90% of the fat beef eaters ingest.
Thailand is the largest consumer of insects in the world with a $50 million insect industry. Kunming is hoping to tap into this market. Lin Zufa runs a wholesale insect shop where he sells an assortment of frozen insects but specializes in wasp larvae. Wasp larvae are Yunnan’s most treasured edible insect and they sell for 150-250 yuan ($24-$40) per kilogram depending upon species. In the wasp larvae market alone, Mr. Lin takes in nearly 2 million yuan ($320,000) per year.
If Kunming’s insect business can continue to grow, it may be more than just a small step in the right direction toward a more environmentally friendly future. If insects can fulfill some of China’s growing demand for meat, they may be able to compensate for its rapid industrialization. So food prejudices aside, if China hopes to solve its water and pollution problems it might just start with a plateful of fried crickets.