Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Bug's Life: Food in the 21st Century

If I were on a desert island, and there was nothing else to eat, would I rather eat a grasshopper, than say, my companion? Yes. Under those circumstances. Eating insects falls about there on the "would you rather" scale for me.

So when I saw an article about an Israeli startup called Steak Tzar Tzar which is farming six species of edible grasshoppers, I phoned them up immediately. Very kindly and gently, I explained that they were in great need of my help. Great need. I am a storytelling and messaging consultant. This was a mercy call.

Oh -- you mean the "yuck factor," said Dror Tamir, one of the founders of the initiative, with a chuckle. I nodded empathetically even though we were on the phone and he couldn't see me. Yes, that, I said, picturing a skinny grasshopper leg stuck between my teeth.

Have you ever had popcorn shrimp, Dror asked? I knew what was coming. He was going to point out that we eat insects regularly with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. Shrimp, crab and lobster are all insects de la mer, if you will. What a gross thing to point out, and thanks for dragging that out of my subliminal conscious to share with me, I thought. Don't ruin Crab Louies forever!

But c'mon. Winged bugs? That hop? With those legs?

Dror and co-founders Chanan Aviv and Ben Friedman were obviously deluded and in denial. With a sigh, I asked Dror to tell me a little bit more about the company and its vision. (The best way to get someone on your side is just to let them talk for awhile.) Soon, these guys would see that without my magical storytelling, spin doctor help, this grasshopper business was going nowhere.

Dror told me how grasshoppers require humane treatment when they are farmed, because if they are overcrowded or stressed, they cannibalise each other. You have to given them adequate space and the food that they want to eat, in other words. Skip that at your own peril. He told me the grasshoppers, when -- um -- harvested -- are frozen, slowly, so that they in essence go to sleep and do not suffer.

Dror told me about the negligible environmental impact of farming grasshoppers compared to the indisputably huge environmental impact of beef cattle and other livestock.

Yes, yes, all good stuff, I said, pretending to be enthused -- but -- how about your wife and kids? Do they eat them too? Will they actually put a teriyaki grasshopper in their mouths and eat it?!

I could tell my return to the Yuck Factor was mildly amusing to Dror.

2.5 billion people around the world eat grasshoppers, Dror pointed out. In fact, there are only two places in the world that do not consume insects on a daily basis: the U.S. and the E.U.

In Africa, grasshoppers are considered a delicacy, only available once a year and are not farmed on an industrial level, so they are very expensive -- up to 10 times the cost of meat. During high season, the price of grasshoppers is $8 a kilo -- double the cost of beef. But in the off season the cost can be as much as $50 a kilo.

Nice try, changing the subject to how farming the bugs year round using industrial methods will result in a huge drop in prices and availability. But -- honestly -- I mean -- does your wife eat these? What does she think?

Dror laughed and pointed out that being the spouse of an entrepreneur has to be a very difficult thing and that his wife supports him 100 percent. She really likes, he went on, how we are going to change the face of food insecurity in Africa, for starters. And how we are going to employ whole villages in Africa, who will have partial ownership of the farms, and will be mostly women. They will use solar power for the little energy they need and because grasshoppers get water from the food they eat -- vegetables, wheat plants, corn plants -- there is no need to strain local water resources, either.

Dror mentioned the movie Fed Up and the book Fast Food Nation -- curse him -- and mentioned the inhuman, filthy, overcrowded conditions in which livestock is raised and slaughtered. He talked about outbreaks of E. Coli and mad cow disease. He talked about how most of us eat too much saturated fat and not enough quality protein. He talked about how the American penchant for beef is destroying the environment, with cattle ranching in particular, resulting in up 20 percent of the greenhouse gasses currently melting icebergs not to mention the deforestation, blah blah blah. Man this guy is a downer, I thought.

Look, Dror said, noticing that my Yuck Factor was pretty entrenched -- what we eat is culturally learned. Does the idea of eating chicken wings bother you? How about hamburger? When you really think about either of those foods and they way they are produced and slaughtered, the Yuck Factor would turn your stomach.

SHUT UP SHUT UP make this guy stop talking!

That's what I thought. What I said was -- uh huh uh huh you make interesting points.

Insects are the food of the future, Dror went on. On my notepad I wrote: "So is Soylent Green!"

But I would be lying if it didn't occur to me that one of my favorite delicacies is oyster on the half shell, an alive-when-you-eat-it, slimy mollusk. Or that I also enjoy patè, and that I try very hard not to think about the life and death of the turkey in the oven at Thanksgiving. My ideas about what is and is not food and why can be shot full of holes very, very quickly.

Okay okay okay so grasshoppers can be farmed humanely and quickly. They can feed the world a low fat, high quality protein that is healthy, they do not impact the green house affect, their farming can employ entire villages, they need little in the way of water and other resources, they taste like whatever you cook them in - the teriyaki ones actually sounded pretty good -- and the only thing in our way is our stubborn ideas about what we eat. Which are totally random and learned.

My efforts to convince Steak Tzar Tzar that they are up against a huge obstacles were failing, rapidly, as my intellect soaked in the facts. Lobster -- big sea spiders! Shrimp -- look at them next time you are in the market! Hamburger -- one look at the inside of a slaughterhouse will show you the level of denial we have all learned to wipe from our conscious thought.

We eat what we eat because we have always eaten it. We say it's okay irrespective of its environmental and health impacts, without thinking about the cruelty for the animals involved -- beef is an animal you guys -- our food comes from animals trapped in cages that are then butchered.

I know, I know, I sound like a real tree hugger right now but this whole conversation with Steak Tzar Tzar (fun fact: tzar means "cricket" in Hebrew) really made me face some of my food prejudices and the very tidy, convenient way we categorize what is and is not okay.

Dror reminded me of the story of sushi in America, from its first appearance in 1966, as something brave and exotic to try to its current enshrined status of Deliciousness available in any mall across the country.

Tamir, Friedman and Aviv, as it turns out, are less interested in getting you to try grasshoppers than they are in providing employment opportunities and a low cost, high protein food source in Africa. You probably won't see a Grasshopper Shack in the mall anytime soon, in other words.

But what they are doing is challenging the conventions of how we think about what we eat and the ethics and impact of those choices. The Yuck Factor is a learned response. For the sake of all of us, I hope it's one we can unlearn. You go first.

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