Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Save the Environment - Eat an Insect

A bright, engaging man, Mr. Van Dongen is head of the meat department at Sligro, a kind of Costco on the edge of this trim Dutch town. Besides steaks, poultry and others kinds of meat, he offers mealworms, buffalo worms, locusts and other insects, as well as prepared products containing insects like Bugs Sticks and Bugs Nuggets — not for pets, but as a source of protein for people.

On a recent afternoon he arranged two sample stands, one with chunks of chocolate laced with ground mealworms (larvae for a type of beetle), another with various kinds of whole insects for munching, including worms and crickets, in small plastic containers.

At a nearby stand with a Dutch name that translated roughly as the Tasting Garden, there were more insects than garden. While shoppers gazed with puzzled looks, Mr. Van Dongen, 41, warmed up portions of an Asian vegetable dish with crickets mixed in.

Silvia van der Donk tasted some, raised her eyebrows and smiled approvingly.

Her daughter Melanie, 21, recoiled. “I ate locusts once,” she said. “I didn’t like the texture.”

The efforts of Mr. Van Dongen and Sligro, a chain of 25 membership-only warehouse stores throughout the Netherlands, are part of a drive to convince the Dutch that crickets, worms and caterpillars are healthier sources of protein, and are less taxing on the environment, than steaks and pork chops.

Dutch breeders of insects, who until now have supplied the market for pet food — insects for geckos and other lizards, salamanders, newts, frogs, birds or fish — have jumped at an opportunity to open a new market and have founded a trade organization to promote the idea. The government is backing them, and last year it appropriated $1.4 million for research into insects as food, to prepare legislation governing insect farms, health and safety standards, and marketing through retail outlets.

To be sure, the idea is not new. Entomologists in the United States have promoted the idea for decades and produced a newsletter and even cookbooks with titles like “Creepy Crawly Cuisine.”

The Dutch take the food business seriously. One of the world’s largest food companies, Unilever, has roots here, and the Netherlands, though a small country, is a major exporter of food products, including vegetables, meat and fish.

Moreover, it has the backing of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which warns that the production of meat like beef and pork as sources of protein taxes the environment, estimating that almost one-fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions comes from livestock.

Ms. Peters stresses that insects are already a major source of protein elsewhere in the world. Caterpillars and locusts are popular in Africa, wasps are a delicacy in Japan, crickets are eaten in Thailand. Yet in Europe, as in the United States, most people, except some very young children, consider them, well, pretty disgusting.

Michel van de Ven, 38, and his brother Roland, 40, have been raising insects for 12 years, the last six of them in a large brick barn once used for growing mushrooms. They export 40 percent of their stock to pet shops in Britain, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere; only 1 percent or less goes to supermarkets.

Most of his customers are restaurants, cafes and snack bars. To attract individual shoppers, he places his insect-laced chocolate samples where they will be encountered first. Only then does he display his samples of insects.

“When they see the bugs, they’ve already eaten them in the chocolate,” he said. “Some people scream, ‘Oh, my God!’ But if you do it once, then you do it twice.”

Source: New York Times, March 14, 2011

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