Mustard with your mustelid? The future of ethical protein eating

by Margo White / 26 April, 2017

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Mustard with your mustelid? Photo/Getty

If we want to feed the masses without wrecking the planet with more intensive agriculture, we might need to reframe our attitude to insects.

Having tucked into rump steak for much of my life, rarely making a connection between that and the arse-end of the cow, it was only recently that I could bring myself to eat part of a cow’s face. But the beef cheeks were slow-cooked for hours and served on a bed of mashed potato with truffle oil, and if you’re going to eat the arse-end then you surely have some responsibility to the face-end.

This is what you tell yourself. And no, being an inconsistent consumer, this “nose-to-tail” philosophy has not yet been extended to include the tongues, ears, snouts or the feet of any animal.

There’s a lot of food to choose between in our Western world and, increasingly, a lot of concerns about our food choices. If it was an animal, did it have a happy life? If it was a plant, was it grown organically? Was the food grown or produced locally, or locally-ish, and at what environmental cost? All of these are important questions, but how we resolve them is often based more on subjective and sentimental values than a consistent ethic.

Now, how do you feel about chicken fed on maggots? According to researchers in Australia, black soldier fly larvae is the chicken feed of the future, the fish-feed of the future and quite possibly the future feedstock for a range of animals. The ecological virtues are numerous. Black soldier fly larvae will turn all sorts of organic matter into a rich source of protein, calcium, essential fats and amino acids, so let them eat our household waste. While half the world’s usable surface is used to grow crops such as soy and corn to feed agricultural animals, black soldier fly larvae can be cultivated in small warehouses stacked on top of each other, kept in the dark, and they don’t mind the overcrowded conditions. They hardly need any water, either. Chickens, I’m told, can’t get enough of them. Why hasn’t soldier fly larvae been developed as feedstock already? Probably because of consumer squeamishness about eating chicken breasts fattened on maggots.

Still, if we get our head around fly larvae as livestock feed, that could help us get used to the idea of insects as people-feed. Entomophagy, the technical term for insect eating, is now being championed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation as a way to feed the expanding population. Demographers predict by 2050, the world’s population will have grown to around 9.6 billion, which is a third more than there is now. If we want to feed the masses without wrecking the planet with more intensive agriculture, we might need to reframe our attitude to insects, seeing them not as creepy crawlies but as “mini livestock”.

Companies around the world are introducing consumers to the concept of insect-eating through processed products, such as cricket protein powder and rhino beetle chips flavoured with cheese and bacon. This isn’t too much of a leap; apparently insects find their way into processed foods anyway, with the average person eating 500g of accidentally processed bugs every year. Obviously, eating a complete creature will be more challenging, given we’re used to eating bits of an animal served on a polystyrene tray and wrapped in plastic rather than the “whole food”. And what if the legs and antennae get stuck in our teeth? 

Locusts are said to a have a buttery flavour similar to freshwater prawns. Photo/Getty

Anyway, two billion people in the non-Western world already include insects as a regular part of their diet. The Christchurch-based company Anteater – “NZ’s supplier of fresh, high-quality edible insects” – is looking to mainstream insect eating by supplying a range of gourmet bugs to high-end New Zealand restaurants. Its product range, marketed in the lingo of contemporary food-speak, includes “lemongrass ants, wild harvested from the Canterbury region” and “grass-fed locusts”. The ants apparently have “a distinctive kaffir lime and lemongrass flavour with a mild blue cheese aftertaste” and the locusts “a buttery flavour similar to freshwater prawns”.

Why aren’t Australians eating more camels? Australia, where they were initially introduced from India to help colonisers explore the arid interior, has more of them than any other nation. Unlike camels in the rest of the world, they’re now largely feral, or you could say “free range”. And they’re considered a pest. There’s an estimated 300,000 of them (there were more than twice that before a costly culling exercise a few years ago) and in dry seasons they can wreak havoc on environmental and cultural sites, such as Aboriginal waterholes. They’ve also been known to move in on human communities, smashing through air conditioners for a few drops of water. A report into the potential of kangaroo meat added that harvesting feral camels would be “both profitable and viable”, although ultimately there’d need to be a “transition to farmed camels to maintain the supply of camels to market and stay profitable”.

There have also been attempts in some Australian culinary circles to revive traditional forms of bush tucker such as kangaroos and wallabies. As sources of meat, they should appeal to ethically motivated omnivores, being abundant, wild, seasonal and locally sourced. Yet it seems Australians aren’t that keen to tuck into their national emblem. The 1960s TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo probably didn’t help, with kangaroos still being thought of as too cute to cook. Still, people have got over the Bambi factor and its associations with venison, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time. A change of name might also help witchetty grubs become more widely accepted as a sustainable food source; they’re apparently quite palatable and said to taste like almonds.

Anyone for camel burger? Photo/Getty

Meanwhile, chefs in the UK have put grey squirrels on the menu – and they come with the same green credentials that kangaroos do. What’s more, they aren’t even native, but an introduced species that’s having a detrimental impact on native red squirrels. But while grey-squirrel meat has some novelty value, it’s hardly taking the UK by storm, partly because grey squirrels are thought of as vermin, a kind of tree rat.

There’s nowt so queer as folk and their arbitrary food categories.

If you want to pursue pest-eating as a form of ethical consumption in New Zealand, you’ll need to find someone who can provide you with cuts of wild pig or wild deer or perhaps the odd rabbit, the feral pests we tend to categorise as “wild game”. Possums, ferrets and stoats would also fit into that category. If we took the idea of a predator-free New Zealand seriously, which would involve killing countless mustelids and rodents, it would make ecological sense to at least have an open mind about the culinary potential of... well, maybe not rats, but ferrets?

Moving on to the more extreme end of ethical protein consumption, the writer and environmentalist George Monbiot caused a stir on social media a couple of years ago after tweeting that he’d cooked and eaten a grey squirrel found on the roadside (video below). The typical Twitter response was: “I thought I could look up to you, you monster...” Monbiot went into more detail in a follow-up article in the Guardian; how he’d found the squirrel “dead but still twitching”, boned and skinned it, spatchcocked it, marinated it in lemon juice for a couple of hours before slow-cooking it on the barbecue. “It was exquisite: tender and delicately flavoured.”

 

He also laid out a compelling argument against intensive agriculture and organic farming, and presented a good case for eating squirrels, as well as other feral animals, such as rabbits, pigeons and deer. Which he says he does quite often. But seriously, roadkill?

Not for me, thanks. Still, I can see his point: waste not, want not and, when you stop to think about it, why not?

 

This was published in the April 2017 issue of North & South.


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