Last week I had the pleasure of presenting research as part of a "Humans in Marginal Environments" symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. It is a general concept that edible insects are only consumed in areas where the local environment is not suitable for the production of domesticated livestock. From my experience, this has not seemed true. I have primarily worked in South Africa, where edible insects such as mopane worms and termites are harvested from agricultural fields and pasture lands and sold in the marketplace alongside a wide range of foods that are produced locally. I decided to test whether this pattern held worldwide by comparing prevalence of edible insects in a country to the percentage of arable land (defined as land under temporary crops, temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture, land under market or kitchen gardens, and land temporarily fallow) recorded for that country. Not surprising to me, there was no relationship between the two variables.
Coming up quick on February 18th, anthropologists everywhere will be celebrating World Anthropology Day. This day serves as an opportunity for anthropologists to celebrate and participate in their discipline with the public around them.
I will be celebrating the day by handing out cupcakes made with cricket powder on Wayne State Campus, and
ENTOMO FARMS WANTS TO GIVE YOU FREE SAMPLES TO USE IN YOUR OWN EVENT!
Just contact me here and I will put you in touch with them to get your own whole or powdered crickets and mealworms! Act fast so that we can get them shipped to you in plenty of time.
I also want to share some information and resources with you here so that you will best be able to incorporate edible insects into your World Anthropology Day plans.
One thing the American Anthropological Association notes about the day is that anthropologists are innovators and creative thinkers who contribute to every industry, and in my particular case, that industry is the sustainable production of insects as food here in the United States. But for any anthropologist, edible insects are a fun way to engage with different food cultures as well as with a real "paleo" food.
About one half of the world’s countries have cultures that utilize insects in their diets, resulting in over 2,000 known edible insect species. Of the countries that do not eat insects, the vast majority is in the northern hemisphere, and thus is mostly European or strongly European-influenced. Therefore, it is Western culture that is the outlier when it comes to insect consumption. The reasons behind our bias against insects are vast and complex, as they are part of a cultural phenomenon that has been being shaped since Columbus first "discovered" America. Edible insects were stigmatized by explorers; couple that with a northern environment where insects are not an abundant and readily available resource like they are in tropical areas of the world, and it is not difficult to see why they would fall out of favor.
With that knowledge, though, we can look at insects as the valuable food resource that they are. Crickets are gaining some popularity in the US and Europe, being incorporated into protein bars, protein shakes, as well as all sorts of snack foods. The momentum for crickets seems to come from people already having a positive opinion of crickets compared to other insects, maybe because of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, or because they are considered lucky in some East Asian cultures. However, crickets are not the most popular edible insect in the world. That achievement belongs to beetle larvae. If you wanted to partake in the beetle larvae trend, then I suggest trying some mealworms! Not only are food-grade mealworms available here, but they are also a lot less intimidating than something like a palm weevil larva.
Insects are an animal-based food. They offer similar nutritional offerings as traditional livestock, including being high in protein, rich in the essential amino acids, a good source of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and a host of other micronutrients such as iron and magnesium. Unlike other animal foods, they require much less resources to produce. It is an understatement to say that amount of land or water it takes to farm something like crickets is less than what is needed for traditional livestock like pigs and cows.
Many people are worried about how our current food system is going to sustain the global population as it approaches 10 billion people by the year 2050. The worry is not necessarily one of having enough food, we throw millions of pounds of food away every day here in the United States. The worry is that that system is going to have an upper limit for how long we can use it, because over-producing is going to continue to strip our environmental resources. Sustainable food sources are going to be important when that happens, so wevmight as well start now.
Besides how bad meat-eating is for our environment, there is also the animal welfare bit that turns many eaters into vegetarians or vegans. However, humans are omnivores and it takes considerable conscious effort to make sure that we get all the nutrients we need from an entirely plant-based diet. Being able to make those choices is a privilege of both education and money. Insects like crickets, who live in dark-cramped spaces naturally and are killed at commercial farms via torpor-inducing freezing, offer an interesting caveat to the ethical dilemma. Their pain and suffering is minimal. Additionally, it is known and controlled, unlike industrial harvesting of crops, where pesticides kill all sorts of insects and small animals get killed in farm equipment. If you are not producing all of your food yourself, there is no perfect answer to the perfect ethical diet. Insects, however, provide an appealing option for making high-volume food production better all around.
Happy New Year, everyone! I can still say that as long as it is still January, right?
2016 is going to be a big year.
I successfully submitted a book manuscript, currently titled "Edible Insects and Human Evolution," on January 5th to go out to peer review. I spent lots of energy trying to come up with a catchier title, but to no avail. My favorite was "Sex, Bugs, and Rock and Roll," but I felt I would have a hard time convincing my publisher that was a good idea considering it has nothing to do with rock and roll. I threw it in as a chapter title, so we'll see how far that goes.
I am happy with what I put together, and I am hopeful that the reviews will be constructive and help make the book the strongest version of itself. I am trying to accomplish A LOT with this book, and it requires a delicate balance to make it accessible to a broad audience yet true to the complicated and dense data from biological anthropology research that are necessary to reconstruct the insect portion of hominin diets. At this point it is out of my hands and I know nothing of when or what will happen next.
The good thing about not being able to think about the book is that I can switch my efforts to conference planning. With the turn of the new year there seems to be ignited interest in the conference. I had to essentially ignore the conference while working on the book and I had the fear that it was going to be a flop. I comforted myself in knowing that even if it was just a gathering of my closest entomophagy colleagues, it would be productive. However, that does not seem to be an issue! I am getting strong international interest, which was one of my goals. I have over 20 abstracts submitted for the priority deadline, which if I were to accept them all, would make up about 1/3 of the conference programming. So they, like all, will go through a rigorous peer review. I am grateful to have amazing people helping me as my review board and co-organizers. I have never given a formal shout-out to Marianne Shockley and Wendy Lu McGill. They are my dream team. I also have awesome people like David George Gordon helping with some of my event planning, and countless other people who have reached out to ask how they could help. I couldn't do this without all of you!
I am beginning my biggest fundraising frenzy, mostly across my university. Wayne State is very supportive of my work and I know there is a lot of excitement about this event. Did you see the video they made using footage from last year's cricket flour bake off?! So fun.
In other news, I received a Leakey Foundation grant to continue my research on termites. Receiving this grant meant the world to me. The Leakey Foundation is the biggest supporter of human origins research and they found value in exploring termites as a hominin food source! Additionally, it was a good reminder that I can still science! I have spent a lot of time recently writing, and planning, and all other sorts of work that is not directly related to data collection. It will be a lot of fun to get back to the field and to work with my great collaborators Clayton Magill and Robert O'Malley to investigate chemical properties of termites as they relate to their desirability as a food. If all goes as planned, I will travel to Africa three times this year in order to collect all the data. I hope to squeeze in a trip to South Africa in March over spring break. South Africa has been experiencing a drought which is affecting the reproductive flights of the termites, so timing my return there has been difficult. Fingers crossed they will be flying in March, or I may be a year behind on the South Africa sample. I should be able to go to Tanzania this summer to visit the hominin site of Olduvai, but in order to get termites from the chimpanzee site of Gombe in Tanzania, I have to play with timing again, and will likely be doing the same frantic, squeeze-a-trip-in during the fall semester. It is all very exciting. I am definitely not complaining! However, I just adopted this adorable black lab in October, so all of this travel will be more difficult having to be away from this cute face (Shameless excuse to wrap up this post with pictures of the dog).
Uco the entomophagist
(We came to Uco's name via a very circuitous route from the French last name "Foucault" for both the philosopher Michel and the physicist Léon. He lives with an anthropologist and an architect...).
Uco the love sponge
I'll miss both these boys when I travel, but at least they have each other.
2016 is going to be a big year.
I should get back to work.
This semester has been dedicated to my book project. I was worried that my progress had been derailed to where I was going to need to push back my deadline, however, I am going to make it work. I hate missing deadlines. So what this means is that I have to really buckle down and make it work. My deadline is January 5th and I have every hour between now and scheduled as to how I am going to pull it off. It's actually not a dire situation; I am very happy with how it is turning out. It just takes a lot of time to get it polished, formatted, referenced, footnoted, etc.
With that said, any multi-tasking I was doing with the conference this whole time has been put on pause. So I am going to extend the dates for the Early Bird Registration to match my own deadline: January 5th.
Buy tickets here on EventBrite!
This extension really has everything to do with the vendors. I need to find a space for the vendors "expo" (remember, this is a small conference. Our "expo" may look more like a science fair! That's not a bad thing; I love science fairs!). Until I am able to list exactly what I am offering vendors, I do not want to raise the fee. Right now the vendor fee allows for 2 participants, so at $300, it is a real bargain. I really hope that you and your group/business/non-profit/dance team will take advantage of this!
And don't forget, the call for abstracts is posted! That deadline has not changed. Please get abstracts submitted by January 15.
I hope everyone has a great holiday season and I look forward to getting back in touch with you in January!
I am just about ready to head to Gibraltar, yes the British territory south of Spain, for the Calpe Conference "Redefining Neanderthals." I am excited to present my poster about Neanderthals eating snails as a fun conversation starter as researchers in the field begin discussing the likelihood that Neanderthals were more omnivorous than previously thought. In some of my other work, I have discussed that Neanderthals likely did not eat many insects because of the cold climate of Pleistocene Europe. Biodiversity is quite low in these regions, thus the available edible insects would be considerably lower here than other, more temperate regions. However, that is not to say they did not eat any invertebrates. It is important to remember that with the latitudinal gradient of biodiversity the variation is clinal; there are no clear-cut boundaries, only increases and decreases in frequencies. An especially appealing insect or invertebrate might be consumed seasonally, and I think snails make a good candidate for that. Today, snails are consumed in the highest numbers in France, Italy, and Spain. Many of the snails are imported into the country from heliciculture farms in other regions allowing for the year-round availability of this delicacy. In order to assess whether Neanderthals were partaking in such an exquisite food, we need to start paying more attention to the snail shells that are found at Neanderthal sites. The problem is that snails can be present at these sites for many reasons other than Neanderthal intervention; they could have naturally wandered there or they could have been brought there by other predators such as rodents. However, if the locale of the Neanderthal site would not be a natural place for snails to visit, or if there is no predatory damage to the shells, then maybe, just maybe, the best explanation is that the shells are refuse from a Neanderthal snack. I believe there is a good case for this at the site of Krapina, Croatia, although I need to look more closely at the shells for rodent damage. Better reports of snails as part of the faunal assemblages at Neanderthal sites will also help address this question, and I hope that by discussing this at the conference, this data will become more available.
It's that time. Most professors are putting the finishing touches on their syllabi, so why not include entomophagy as a topic this year?
To make things a little easier for you, I am putting some of my resources here for you to use.
1) LECTURE SLIDES
These are my own lectures and a lot of the information comes from my own research. I put them up on SlideShare. It should be easy enough for you to get a basic account for free in order to access the presentations.
For a general audience, I posted an introduction to the role of entomophagy over the course of human evolution. This talk is geared towards non-anthropologists and has some infographics about the benefits of eating insects in addition to broader evolution concepts.
"Introduction to Entomophagy and Evolution": http://www.slideshare.net/secret/4afousVfJ3xsUP
It may be useful to go to this blog by "Ask and Entomologist." The author re-iterates me giving the above talk. It can be useful in filling in some of the missed information from only having the slides and not hearing the talk.
For courses in biological anthropology, this is a lecture that includes a reconstruction of australopithecine diet. This is the last lecture I give in Introduction to Biological Anthropology as a paleoanthropology case study, but it would also be very useful in an Evolution of the Human Diet class or Fossil Hominins class.
"Advanced Entomophagy and Evolution": http://www.slideshare.net/secret/ik04btUPJ0QHW2
The research I present in this second talk comes from the below papers. You can access them here on academia.edu if you are a member, or feel free to message me, and I will send you the pdf.
J. Lesnik. (2014). Termites in the hominid diet: A meta-analysis of termite genera, species and castes as a dietary supplement for South African robust australopithecines. Journal of Human Evolution. Special Issue: The Other Faunivory. 71: 94-104.
J. Lesnik. (2011). Bone tool texture analysis and the role of termites in the hominid diet. Paleoanthropology. 2011: 268-281.
Here is another post by "Ask an Entomologist."
This is an interview with me about why we don't eat bugs in Western culture. The author types out an abridged version of the interview, but the whole thing is there as an audio file. It could potentially be useful to assign it to students instead of a reading.
One other useful thing I want to share is this video that could be used n any anthropology, entomology, environment studies, food, or nutrition class. This is a BBC video titled "Can Eating Insects Save the World?"
I hope that you will find these resources useful! Thanks for helping to spread the word to your students!
I was invited to speak in a symposium on edible insects at the Institute of Food Technologists conference in Chicago on July 13. Food Navigator did a report on our session and interviewed all of the participants. You can watch the video below or check out their full post here.
I am in Croatia working on my book. It's pretty romantic, actually. I sit in little coffee shops/pubs every day just writing. I couldn't ask for a better setting.
I am staying with a dear friend of mine and we see her parents multiple times during the week and join them for dinner. I have thus had most of my meals at home instead of at restaurants. Immediately upon arriving to Croatia, I began noticing an interesting cultural difference when it came to food. It really started with bananas. I personally hate bananas, but my friend eats them almost every day. Every time she would have a banana, she would offer me one, or half of hers, and every time I would tell her that I didn't like them. After about 3 days and 10 inquiries I finally convinced her that I would never eat a banana. It hasn't stopped her from asking, but now she just always answers her own question and we have a laugh. I then realized that the food offers didn't come only when she was deciding to eat something - I get the politeness of not wanting to eat in front of someone without offering - but that it would be any time she was engaging with food, often just seeing it in the kitchen. It was the timing of these questions that gave away that something more was going on. If she saw food, it didn't matter when, I would get an offer - it could be immediately upon returning home from a gut-busting meal, it could be while I was head-down focused and working, it could even be right after I was getting into bed at night. A generosity that knows no bounds, for sure. I have never said "no" so many times in my life, and with each one I have a tinge of guilt like it is rude to refuse when she is being so gracious.
It is even worse at the family dinners. I ultimately eat twice as much as everyone at the table because there are three people trying to put more food on my plate, yet none of them offer the food in the same way to each other. It is so ingrained in me to avoid over-eating that this has been quite a challenge. For the first meal, it was a like a special occasion welcoming me to Zagreb, so I obliged every offer. But eating like that almost every day? I can't. We also eat so early! We are technically eating lunch when we sit down to these big meals because that is traditionally the big meal of the day. So with modern work schedules, these lunches are pushed back as far as possible so that a whole work day can be had, but it means that we are eating at 4:00. I am then useless the rest of the night.
I came up with a metaphor for my experiences at these meals. For some reason wildlife photographers came up in conversation today and I asked my friend if she had seen the photos/heard the story about the leopard seal that kept trying to feed the photographer penguins. It's really an amazing encounter. I hate to anthropomorphize the seal, but she genuinely seemed interested in getting the photographer to eat a penguin. When one method would not work, she would try another. When live penguins kept swimming away, she kept trying other methods, ultimately shoving a dead penguin into the photographer's face. So at dinner, it would never matter how many times I refused food, efforts would continue, just like those of the leopard seal.
I was inspired to write this post because we just had a large birthday dinner for her dad. We had a traditional Dalmatian meal (from the coast, where her dad is from).. broiled mackerel with string beans. It was delicious. But I could not help but feel more culture difference as I looked at the whole fish and really had no idea what to do with it. Ultimately my friend's dad just de-boned it for me. I sat at the table like a 5-year-old waiting for someone to cut my meat for me. Below is a stock photo I found online because I did not want to interrupt dinner by pulling out my camera and being like "They're staring at me! I need a picture!"
I learned that mackerel must be eaten smothered with olive oil. It is a traditional Dalmation saying that the fish swim three times: once in the water, once in the olive oil, and once in the wine in your stomach. I was absolutely OK with this.
We finished dinner with a "cake" that is popular here. I've seen it in the bakeries and the layers can even be bought so as to not need to make it from scratch at home. These layers are actually meringue instead of cake, and then it is layered with berries or other fillings. So sweet. So delicious. I managed to take a picture of the cake.
This has really been an additional benefit to the writing retreat that I had not anticipated. I spend some time in the book discussing the complexities of food culture, so it is fun to be immersed in one that is in so many ways different from mine at home. It is really difficult to explain why people do what they do. I asked my friend why she thinks Croatian culture is so generous, and it was difficult to come up with anything other than "that's just how it is; that's how we are raised." She then gave me an extreme example of Dalmatian generosity. Apparently, when someone leaves their home in Dalmatia, there is a chance that someone could come to visit while they are not there. In order to make sure that their guest's trip would not be completely in vain, it is important to make sure that they could still could be fed and people leave soparnik, a traditional dish, on the windowsill before they leave, just in case!
We started to think about these traditions more.. why would it be custom to go out of your way to make sure your guests are well-fed? We realized that it likely has a deep history in relationship building with neighbors, representing the anthropological concept of reciprocity. Although no one here ever wants to ask for something, if these customs are in place and their networks are strong, they should never want for anything.
I have been "writing" a book for some time now. Once I got my job at Wayne State, my editor automatically extended the deadline in my contract by a year so that I could take the necessary time to get settled. This adjustment also allowed me to make negotiations to have teaching release in the upcoming fall term so that I can more fully focus on the book. The book is also my biggest summer project, so now the real writing is upon me. It is time to remind myself of all that I have learned about the process and the different mantras that I want to hold dear.
"You already wrote a dissertation. This is so much better than your dissertation."
"Forgive yourself for oversights and bad writing."
"Write like a motherf*cker."
Writing Routines/Writing Retreats
Culture and cultural history are so important. For instance take the case of crickets. Trying to promote crickets as food in the United States comes with all sorts of psychological barriers, mostly those that trigger disgust. However, if you think about trying to do the same in China, a country where insects are consumed regularly, especially in southern provinces, the cricket is a symbol of luck, and with that comes an entirely different set of mechanisms that would suggest they be avoided as food.
These different cultural conceptions of food are why I really want anthropologists to get more involved with entomophagy. I am currently working hard to put together a proposal to bring anthropologists with interest in insects as food from around the world together to engage is some deep theoretical debates about why people make the food choices they do. If I am able to get this workshop funded, then maybe these anthropologists will consider sharing their work at the Eating Innovation Conference in May of 2016.
I was interviewed for this piece that came out in Huffington Post today. I was very happy with the quotes the reporter chose because I feel it is the best reflection of the importance anthropology that I have seen in entomophagy media. My personal research is related to human evolution, so when I think about why we are not keen to eat insects in the US and Canada, I think about the fact that the majority of the continent was covered in ice when people first arrived here tens of thousands of years ago. This concept is reflected in the article, and it is the aspect about my work that tends to capture people's attention the most. However, I was excited when the reporter asked me about cultures around the world that have already accomplished what we are trying to accomplish here with the entomophagy movement.
As such, attempting to compare munching down on fried scorpions in Thailand to the same practice taking hold in the United States is like comparing apples to oranges, or, aphids to roseslugs. As Lesnik argues, there is no example of a people group who overwhelmingly stopped or drastically cut back on eating an affordable, readily available protein (such as beef) in favor of a more expensive, less available one (such as crickets).
“It doesn’t exist,” Lesnik noted. “What exists is people eating insects as a primary or major source of protein over an entire culture’s history. When you look at these populations, there’s no analogue to what we’re trying to do up here.”
Julie Lesnik received her PhD studying the role of termites in the diet of fossil hominins and has since started exploring insects as food more broadly.