This story was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
St. Cuthbert Church/Pacuri, Guyana – In a small forest clearing, Leeland Clenkian swung his axe into the rotting wood of an ite palm tree, and then took out a wriggling Tacoma worm.
Clenkian throws Tacoma into a plastic bowl, a delicacy in this indigenous Arawak community of approximately 2,000 residents, a two-hour drive from Guyana’s capital, Georgetown.
Clenkian, a 73-year-old retired Arawak chief and a veteran, told Al Jazeera: “They are buttery, high in protein and can be cooked without oil.” “It is very versatile and delicious-fingers licked. Just fine.”
Clenkian said that like marshmallows eaten raw, fried or skewered over an open flame, insects like this can help food systems worldwide become more sustainable. While he was talking, a group of worried tourists from the city tasted Tacoma with fried onions.
By 2050, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion, and with climate change, livestock emissions continue to rise. Experts say diets must be transformed to ensure a sustainable future-insects can play more than bite-sized roles.
According to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), on a global scale, animal husbandry accounts for approximately 15% of all carbon emissions caused by humans.
Arnold van Huis, professor emeritus of tropical entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, said that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, insects have about eight times the impact on the earth than beef. He has spent most of his career studying the role of insects in the food system.
“I think everyone is aware that we need to change our eating habits,” Fan Huis, a fan of spicy fried locusts, told Al Jazeera. “I think eating insects is safer than eating chicken. Insects are taxonomically farther from humans than chickens or pigs.” He added that diseases carried by livestock, such as mad cow disease, are usually more dangerous to humans than anything carried by insects. .
Compared with edible insects, raising livestock will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 8 times and the amount of water required will increase by 6 times.These Tacoma worms from Guyana are delicious when roasted on a fire #food safety #environment pic.twitter.com/5AhewRzgw0
— Chris Arsenal (@chrisarsenaul) November 19, 2021
Van Huis said that producing one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef requires approximately 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of feed, while one kilogram of protein-rich crickets requires 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of food. Insects are cold-blooded animals, so unlike cows, they do not consume energy to generate body temperature. He said that livestock need about six times as much water as the same number of insects.
“About 80% of the world’s agricultural land has been used for raising livestock,” he added. “We must change.”
Westerners’ aversion to bugs
In most parts of the global south, eating insects is nothing new or exotic. According to FAO, about 2 billion people around the world taste insects in their daily diets, and there are about 1,900 edible species.
Spicy scorpion street food in parts of China; fried termites in western Kenya; curry dragonflies in Indonesia; beetle larvae in parts of Cameroon; fried tarantulas or silkworms in Cambodia;
In Mexico, crispy grasshoppers are paired with limes and peppers—and of course the humble tequila, to chase spirits.
According to a 2003 study, in Niger, the price of grasshoppers collected in millet fields in the local market is higher than the actual millet.
Michael Patterson, an indigenous chef who runs a catering company in Georgetown and specializes in traditional food, said that in Guyana’s indigenous communities such as Pakuri, Tacoma worms are “not everyday food”.
He said that setting up a tree — cutting it down, making the right cuts and waiting for bugs to grow in the rotting wood — takes weeks and cannot be done often without destroying the forest.
Patterson told Al Jazeera that Tacoma worms are usually prepared during cultural events or festivals. He said that their consumption “returned to the entire basic human survival mode. Humans start from the soil; it returns to those basic principles.”
However, for some consumers, eating insects is not only disgusting; it is part of a dark, humiliating future.The opening scene of a dystopian science fiction movie Blade Runner 2049 shows that the protagonist enters a protein farm, and a worker in protective clothing breeds insect larvae in a toxic-looking brown sludge tank.
Van Huis traced the Western culture’s aversion to insect consumption to environmental factors. Compared to smaller insects in most parts of the Western world, insects tend to be larger, easier to harvest, and can be found year-round in most tropical regions, while the latter are not accessible in winter.
Van Huis said that even in countries that traditionally eat insects, changing dietary preferences mean that some middle-class consumers are now avoiding them because they are “related to the diet of the poor.”
Insects for animal feed
Renata Clarke, an FAO researcher in Barbados, said that for people who are not used to directly eating insects, insects can still play a role in combating climate change and improving agricultural sustainability. She is working on a project to make it easier for small farmers to produce insects, mainly mealworms and black flies, to feed chickens and pigs.
“Compared with traditional feed, using insects as a feed source has a much lower environmental cost,” Clark told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “Compared to people who eat them directly, it is also less likely to cause the’yuk’ factor. Who knows; maybe this is a way of thinking about insects in a different way?”
According to a recent FAO report, approximately 17% of the world’s food is wasted. Clark said that using some of this garbage as a food source for insects can then feed livestock, which will be a win-win for local farmers and the environment.
She added that 80% of animal feed in many countries in the Caribbean is imported, and the supply chain disruption associated with the COVID-19 pandemic — coupled with recent price increases — has made insects more palatable as a source of animal feed.
She said that allowing local farmers to produce insects instead of importing feed from “monopoly” traders can also strengthen the local economy.
Back in Pakuri, Leeland Clenkian and current director Timothy Andrews hope that the Tacoma worm will one day become an export product for their community—or at least a potential attraction for tourists who want to try new things.
They are building an eco-tourism project that allows day-trippers or foreign tourists from the capital to swim in the river, watch colorful birds, hike in the forest or try Tacoma worms.
“I heard that insects are becoming a delicacy in Southeast Asia,” Clenkian said. “So Tacoma is likely to be tasted worldwide.”