In the documentary BUGS, which premiered this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Josh Evans eats bugs. Traveling the world as a researcher for the Nordic Food Lab, Evans sucks the honey from an African stingless bee, breads chicken in mealworm crumbs, and feasts on a roasted termite queen described as “God’s handmade sausage.” That they are delicious is beside the point: Evans, unlike advocates of insect consumption, is far less interested in bugs themselves than he is in the cultures that consume them. Evans doesn’t actually buy the argument that entomophagy will save us from starvation by offering a powerful new protein source. He believes bugs matter because they can help us dismantle the systems we’ve created that threaten to starve us out.

“It’s time that we take it to the next place,” Evans tells Inverse. “What can bugs, in particular, teach us about healthy food systems in general?”

In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization released a report praising edible bugs as food of the future, encouraging the development of industrial-scale farms for insects and the technology needed to process them. The burgeoning cricket flour market and gourmet worm scene are signs that the U.N.’s report struck a chord. To Evans, these developments represent proof we’re missing the point.

“If we’re growing one thing, sooner or later we’re all fucked,” Evans says. “And it doesn’t matter if that one thing is corn, or soy, or crickets. If the one thing is crickets, we’re still fucked.”

He doesn’t buy the argument that bugs are going to replace traditional meats as a protein source because he doesn’t think we should be replacing one food with another, period. “The crickets, if they’re mass produced, are probably going to be eating industrial chicken feed or industrial soy,” he says. “The logic doesn’t change.” Avoiding starvation, he insists, isn’t about finding a single food to meet our nutritional needs; it’s learning to meet those needs by eating multiple foods from multiple sources.

The poor, insect-eating cultures he encountered overseas while filming BUGS were, ironically, probably better prepared for famine than their Western counterparts. In one particularly poignant interview, a Kenyan food studies professor, demonstrating her university’s small-scale approach to farming crickets locally and sustainably, puts it bluntly: “Not everything Westerners do is correct.”

        With the rest of the ‘BUGS’ team, Evans (left) realized that sustainability lessons from bug-eating cultures were more important than the insects themselves.
With the rest of the ‘BUGS’ team, Evans (left) realized that sustainability lessons from bug-eating cultures were more important than the insects themselves.

“Eating well means different things in different contexts precisely because the kinds of foods that we can produce well and the kinds of organisms that we can collaborate with well differ depending on where you are,” Evans says. “Starting with that attention to diversity is super important.”

advertisement

Evans refers to diversity as the “operating system” running in the background of our minds when we think about food and how to get it. That’s why the monolithic Western food system, with its emphasis on mass production, is the polar opposite of his ideal in both goal and form. Not only is he especially wary of systems that favor monocultures; he’s against the idea that a single system should govern the way people eat across thousands of acres of land. The way we grow and harvest food, he explains, should reflect the ecological and biological diversity of the Earth. To strive for a single overarching system is to miss the point entirely.

While filming BUGS, he realized that the cultures that incorporated insects into their diets, crucially, didn’t rely on them for sustenance — at least not entirely. In bug-eating cultures across Africa, Australia, and Europe, bugs were a single component of a varied diet. “One recurring theme was that, when we went to a place, thinking that we were going investigate a bug — a specific species — it very quickly unraveled into this whole web of other species that could also be bugs but also could be fungi or plants or animals or humans or a whole constellation of them,” he says. The problem with our current food system is that it fosters dependence on a few dietary linchpins; knock one out, and the entire culture risks starvation.

Gourmet bug dishes, like the termite queen with mango shown here, force us to ask how we can eat both sustainably and well.
Gourmet bug dishes, like the termite queen with mango shown here, force us to ask how we can eat both sustainably and well.

How, then, should we go about changing the way we get food? Evans, reiterating his thoughts on diversity, insists that it’s impossible to describe the perfect food system because there’s no universal ideal for what such a system would look like. But what is clear to him is what all systems should aim to do. Optimizing diet diversity is, of course, key. So is disseminating technical knowledge — whether about how to handle GMO crops or how to harvest a queen from a termite nest — widely and equally, so that agricultural profits don’t end up in the hands of a select few who propagate the lucrative monocultural food paradigm. Relatedly, focusing on sustainable farming — involving smaller plots of land and a greater variety of crops — will ensure we’ll have not only food to harvest but land on which to grow that food in the long run.

The global network of small-scale, hyper-local, biodiverse farms that Evans is imagining has been dismissed by his critics as naively traditionalist, a paradigm for a long gone, less populated world. Evans thinks that argument is a cop-out; these systems still exist and flourish, he argues, albeit less commonly, but only because we’re stuck in a singular, narrow-minded agricultural mindset. He knows the social, financial, and cultural structures that keep us locked in — the exorbitant price of farmland, our unending appetite for corn — aren’t going to change overnight. But he’s hoping that small shifts in the way we think about food — openness to bug-eating included — will prevent us from having to worry about starvation in the first place.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but if that’s the direction that we’re moving toward, then it can’t be a bad thing,” he says. “And that’s what I’m super interested in fighting for.”

Photos via Andreas Johnsen, Andreas Johnsen

Yasmin is a writer and former biologist living in New York. A Toronto girl at heart, her writing also appears in The Last Magazine and SciArt in America. You might recognize her as a past host of Scientific American's YouTube series.