Why Eat Bugs When Plants Abound?
The New York Times, in an astonishing conclusion to its recent series on the destruction wrought by industrial animal agriculture, has invited Americans to forego cows and chickens… and instead feast on bugs. The Times isn’t alone in envisioning a future of insect-eating. Imagining eating insects has become a recent trend in food journalism with pieces in Slate, The Guardian, Time, and many others.
“The Joy of Cooking (Insects)” rightfully notes that what people consider a “normal” diet is not fixed — in many of our lifetimes, for instance, we’ve witnessed veal dropping off most menus and seen the avocado shift from fringe to hipster frenzy. Despite America’s infamy for the “SAD” diet, food norms are perpetually in flux, offering hope that we can shift our current meat-centric meals to foods less harmful to our planet than meat, dairy, and eggs.
But industrializing insect production to address climate change is akin to colonizing Mars to address overpopulation. There is no need to create a new form of industrial agriculture; those who aim to create a climate-friendly food system have a much simpler — and more sustainable — solution than industrialized insect farming, and it’s already at our fingertips: putting plants at the center of our plates.*
Growing and eating plants is inherently more sustainable than growing plants to feed to animals (be they mammals, birds, or insects) and then eating those animals ourselves. Since farmed insects are fed monoculture corn and soy, the energy footprint of insect protein is 6 to 10 times greater than that of plant-based protein. When insects are farmed, they are not much more efficient than factory farmed chicken, with only a 35 percent protein conversion rate — most of the plant-based protein inputs are still being wasted. This inefficiency, as well as moral concerns about insects suffering by the billions, is explained more fully in a recent analysis by Open Philanthropy.
Although the U.S. currently has one of the highest rates of eating animals in the world, in most other countries plants are already the default protein. Vegetarianism and veganism are not recent diet fads. According to Time, “[T]he concept of flesh-avoidance can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean societies.” Globally, about two-thirds of all protein today comes from plant-based sources like beans, lentils, tofu, and rice. And GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, reports that at least 70 percent of the world’s population is cutting back or cutting out their meat consumption.
Western cultures are catching up. In 2020, the pandemic kicked off the greatest decline in meat consumption we’d seen in decades, and National Geographic reported that nearly 50 percent of American millennials have been eschewing meat more often. In 2020, sales of plant-based milk grew twice as fast as those of dairy, with almost 40 percent of American households buying these products.
Yes, our food preferences are shaped by culture. But food culture is shaped by institutions like restaurants, schools, hospitals, religious centers and other places that serve thousands of meals each day, and these places have a powerful and innovative technique to steer people toward plant-based foods: behavioral nudges. Simply setting plants as the default option (with animal products available for people to opt into) “nudges” people to pick them, ultimately increasing their selection by an average of 60 percentage points. This strategy can cut food’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and water footprint by 24 percent. In the case of plant milks, this past year, cafes across the globe like Starbucks in Shanghai and Blue Bottle in California have begun modeling the power of this strategy by defaulting to oat milk, while Guilder in Portland worked with the Better Food Foundation to eliminate their cow milk default.
To tackle climate change, habitat destruction, and pollution, let’s embrace the solution that’s already on our plates and pervasive in cultures across the globe, and make plant-based food our default, instead of funneling it through insects first.
Help your institution make the switch to a plant-based default: become a DefaultVeg ambassador today.
Rev. Jennifer Channin is the Executive Director of the Better Food Foundation.
*We know that relying on plant protein over animal protein can drastically cut our collective environmental footprint: for example, only three calories of beef are produced for every 100 calories of grain fed to cows — grain that could, instead, have been grown for human consumption. And up to 8,000 gallons of water are needed to produce just a pound of beef; meanwhile, a pound of tofu only requires about 300 gallons.