At first glance, the products designed by the United Kingdom-based startup Ento seem just like any other work of modernist culinary art. As might be expected, the plates are white, the lines are crisp, and the portions are small. Yet the company’s goal is unique among haute cuisine: introduce insects into the diets of Western diners. The four co-founders, students at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, believe that their approach can help overcome the cultural taboo surrounding insect consumption by focusing on taste and nutrition, but there are strong ecological reasons for eating insects as well.
The species of any given ecosystem form a food web, a complex series of interactions representing which organisms eat what other organisms in the environment. The place of a species in the food web can be defined by its trophic level, which indicates how many steps stand between the initial source of energy (usually, but not always, the sun) and that species. In a kelp forest, for example, herbivorous fish form the second trophic level, with only the seaweed standing between them and solar energy, while sharks might be found at the fifth or higher trophic level. A great deal of energy is lost from one trophic level to the next; the general inefficiency is given by the “ten percent rule,” which estimates that each step up the food chain loses 90 percent of the energy in the previous step.
Both cattle and grasshoppers are on the second trophic level, grazing on similar species of grass or grain, but the efficiency with which these organisms convert their food into biomass varies greatly. As warm-blooded animals, cattle require a great deal of food to maintain their body temperature, and it is estimated that only three percent of the energy in grass is used to fatten a cow. Grasshoppers require much less energy for metabolism and can put more of it towards growing larger; estimates of the food conversion efficiency for edible grasshopper species range from 10 to 15 percent, up to five times that of cattle.
The greatly superior efficiency of insects provides a possible solution to one of the most pressing issues of world nutrition, that of increased protein demand in developing countries. As nations such as China and India have become wealthier, their citizens have begun to consume more meat, which has led to increased stress on the environment both from methane emissions and habitat destruction for pasture land. As the United Nations has pointed out, the increased efficiency and decreased carbon impact of insects would fulfill the protein needs of the growing human population while minimizing its effects on the planet. Indeed, over two billion people already eat insects on a regular basis, mostly in Asia and Africa. Perhaps increased knowledge about the scientific benefits of insect consumption will help overcome long-standing taboos on the practice based on Biblical prohibition or the view of insects as agricultural pests. Of course, when insect-based meals look this good, no convincing may be required.