Back in December, I had the chance to participate in an online discussion about insects as food. It was an international collaboration of people interested in the subject posing questions and offering suggestions. There was much being said about marketing and business potential, which was super exciting! However, I created a thread where people could ask me questions related to my expertise in the evolution of the human diet. I also chimed in about issues in the developing world. I have culled my responses and put them below in a Q&A format.
What do you think we can learn from studying how our ancestors consumed diets?
First off, the majority of human evolution took place in tropical regions. Our lineage was in Africa for millions of years. We have only been up in Europe for 150,000 or so. Our dependence on meat and milk, something that we needed to do in order to survive in cold, glaciated areas, is a very recent development. Prior to this, animal protein was a supplement to a vegetarian based diet.
So, if you think of hunter-gatherers/foragers in the tropics, nothing is available in abundance for very long (spatial and temporal variability in resources). Yet, we have created a system where the rarest/riskiest resource - meat - is consumed multiple times a time, every day of the year. It should be no wonder that it is not sustainable!
Social insects such as termites and ants, were always a more reliable source of animal protein in the tropics. While men might preoccupy themselves with hunting, it is women who tend to gather these reliable insects, which makes sense, since women are the ones who need to make sure their nutritional requirements are met as they are often "eating for two." If women couldn't successfully have healthy babies, none of us would be here!
Anyways, I think a better understanding of the *real* paleo diet highlights the importance of insects. The "cave-man diet" trend is Euro-centric and an excuse to eat bacon! But I do think it shows that the public is interested in making informed decisions about food. Unfortunately the info they are given is often crap.
Do you study any regions in particular?
I work more in a time period (4 million to 10,000 years ago) than a region, although this period clearly takes place mostly in Africa. I use modern foraging populations around the world in order to create my models for what was going on back then.
What do you think has triggered the emergence of the Paleo diet and the kind of 'looking-back' to the way our ancestors used to eat that it encourages (albeit perhaps not in the most informed ways in most cases!)? Is it concerns with particular environmental issues, or maybe human health?
I believe interest in the "Paleo Diet" goes hand-in-hand with the current stigma on gluten. Many people diagnosed with Celiac's were sick for so long and no one could figure it out. Now people are getting the help they need. This legitimate allergy to gluten is due to not being able to digest our modern grain-based diets, so people interested in going gluten free started to look at what people were eating pre-agriculture. "Gluten free" then exploded in popularity as people began "detoxing" and documenting "sensitivities," (all B.S., by the way - most documented sensitivities are not to the gluten protein but to chemicals in the growing or processing of the product).
Do you think promoting insects as part of a Paleo Diet is a good idea? A concern could be that instead of fully embracing the way our ancestors actually ate meat like you describe (i.e. sporadically), consumers will continue to consume the same amount of meat, whether that be completely from insects or a mixture of insects and traditional livestock?
I honestly do not know how I feel about promoting insects as part of the Paleo Diet. On one hand, I HATE the Paleo Diet.. I critique that it is Euro-centric and that it is Atkins reimagined, using false testimony from my scientific field in order to market it. However, I believe educated individuals can make more informed choices, and I want people to have a better understanding of human evolution, so if insects can be marketed as part of the "real" paleo diet, then maybe I shouldn't be so reluctant. The problem is that the "real" paleo diet did not include a lot of animal protein, so that does not help promote insects as much as it should help people to reduce their reliance on meat.
What type of edible insect products are likely to be most suitable for the 'developing world' and which ones are less likely to take off in poor countries?' Please share your experiences and thoughts for the future.
I really think the potential for insects in developing countries lies in small household farms. The issue of food security is so much less about there not being enough food and more about people being too poor to get it. I think small insect farms could be an amazing way people can provide protein to their families. I think what needs to be demonstrated, though, is how these live insects can be turned into delicious "foods;" foods that are recognized in one's own culture, so this is going to be different everywhere you go. I am working my hardest to get more anthropologists thinking about the subject because it is people who study these cultures that can provide the insight necessary. As projects start targeting communities, if I am asked, I can try to find anthropologists working in the region who might be able/willing to help. I truly believe they hold the key to the success of this movement in these areas.
I know you know, but now there are official dates and now it is taking over my life, so I feel like there should be a blog here dedicated to it!
On May 26-28, 2016, a little more than a year from now, I will be hosting the Eating Innovation Detroit conference dedicated to exploring the culture of insects as food and feed. Daily programming will occur on Wayne State University’s campus, and nightly events will happen across the city.
What have I accomplished so far?
There is much still to do, like reserving a block of rooms at a hotel and figuring out shuttles and other transportation options, but it's coming along. I will keep everyone updated here on the blog about how it's all going!
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.