Saving the Planet by Eating One Bug at a Time

Eating insects may seem like an odd way to protect our planet, but Brooklyn Bugs’ executive director Joseph Yoon believes it may play a key role in sustainability initiatives.

Joseph Yoon and Andrea LiceagaYoon, alongside Andrea Liceaga, associate professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory at Purdue University, teamed up to talk about the benefits of edible insects as a part of a Purdue Ideas Festival event.

“What IF Eating Insects Saved the Planet?” was held Thursday, April 4, in the Wilmeth Active Learning Center as part of Purdue’s Giant Leaps Sesquicentennial Campaign. Yoon’s talk aligned with the Sustainable Economy and Planet theme of the 150th anniversary celebration.

“Our mission was to think what would happen if we try to eat insects to help save the planet. Obviously, we will not solve all the world’s problems, but we can actually contribute a little bit toward helping our planet,” said Liceaga, the first speaker at the event.

Going Down the Wormhole

So, how does one get into the bug-eating industry to address food scarcity? Yoon, an entrepreneur, professional chef and owner of Yummy Eats in New York City, came up with the idea after his friend wanted to face her fear of bugs by eating them. That’s where Brooklyn Bugs came into play, with its creative and educational program. Brooklyn Bugs is currently on its college tour to engage students on entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs. They’re approaching it in a delicious and fun new way.

Many other cultures, such as the Aztecs, Aché, Mayas and Sun, have included insects in their diets for thousands of years. Although 80% of the world’s nations accept eating insects as part of their daily meals, North America and England have a ways to go.

“Before we can talk about edible insects, I need you to understand and believe that adoption is even possible,” Yoon said. “When I talk about edible insects, the common things I hear is it’s a manufactured crisis, it’s only for poor people and insects are a last resort — apocalyptic food. What we need to address is a drastic shift in perception from insects as pests to edible insects — something that is delicious, nutritious and sustainably farmed and harvested for human consumption.”

Advocating for Edible Insects

Yoon doesn’t just call himself executive director of Brooklyn Bugs; he also thinks of himself as an edible-insect advocate. He is pushing for a movement in North America where insects won’t just become a “trendy” snack but sustainable and tasty meals. For people to think of insects as an alternative protein source, Yoon said, the language used for edible insects needs to become normalized and demonstrated in everyday applications “like an English muffin with black ant butter.”

Joesph Yoon“One of the big obstacles is that the words we are using right now like ‘entomophagy’ sounds like a big science term and doesn’t sound so delicious to me. And if you think about it, we eat ‘beef’ and ‘steak,’ not cow. We eat ‘pork’ and ‘bacon,’ but not pig. We need to come up with new words,” Yoon said.

“Our advocacy encourages everyone to join the movement: entomologists, scientists, students, artists, marketers, anthropologists, children, policymakers and everyone.”

The Future Food is Edible Bugs

“If even 10% of you ate edible insects just once a week, even that would have a tremendous impact on our environment,” Yoon said. “This is really something for everyone like vegetarians, pescatarians, meat eaters. There’s even a new class of eaters calling themselves entovegans who have already incorporated edible insects into their diet.”

Yoon believes this movement of edible bugs will be widely accepted and normalized in America within five to 10 years. Mass adoption of edible insects is what he strives for, and he thinks incorporating insects in hot foods instead of just snacks will help achieve this goal.

“Snacks are a great introduction, but we need substantial meals for adoption. We are currently researching new approaches and innovative ento-ideas with Purdue University, San Diego State University and Montana State University,” he said.

Yoon looked across the audience while asking, “What do you guys think crickets taste like?” The overcrowded room chuckled, and a few audience members shouted out answers: chicken, chips and nuts were among the few replies.

Joseph Yoon and Tom TurpinRetired Purdue entomology professor Tom Turpin is widely known for establishing Bug Bowl, an insect-themed festival that holds events in cricket spitting, cockroach races and educating the public about entomology. “The most fascinating thing to me about eating bugs is the negative view that insects are bad,” said Turpin, who attended the Brooklyn Bugs What IF event. “This talk is needed because overcoming the negative mindset that so many people have that insects are bad alone, and especially to eat, will help turn that negative talk into positive talk.”

At the end of the event, audience members could sample some of Yoon’s prepared dishes — brownies with roasted crickets, popcorn with meal worm salt and shrimp topped with black ants. These samples along with full dishes also were served during Purdue’s Spring Fest on April 6-7 in Nelson Hall of Food Science at Purdue.

Maggie Delp, a Purdue student majoring in wildlife, was not surprised when being served cricket brownies and meal worm-salted popcorn. “I think eating bugs is something we really need to consider. With what I’ve learned about sustainability, and with a growing population problem, I think it’s a good idea to be educated on alternative sources of protein. The idea of insects becoming farmed as an alternative food source wasn’t something I really considered until tonight.”

“There are solutions, and that is what we’re trying to do,” Yoon said. “That has led me to believe that anything is possible. Now, I am not guaranteeing that this is how all of you will feel about eating insects, but I welcome you to join me in trying. One bug at a time.”

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