Insect food taboo?

Just like last year, the first week of the course Food Culture and Customs deals with what a food taboo is and discusses theories on how a food taboo comes into existence. These theories inform an assignment where students question people for their opinion on insects as food. Clearly, insects are a food taboo in Western countries, no? Well, maybe reality is by-passing me soon. And I might have to look for other examples soon. There were quite a few insect-should-be-food seminars during the past year. It fits so well with the current Malthusian fear on an exploding world population which supposedly can’t be fed. For this, new solutions are sought. In the direction of so-called ‘sustainable intensification’ for example. Or in alternative protein sources, such as those from insects.

The entomology group at Wageningen University is a passionate advocate of the use of edible insects and farming insects for industrial use. They are working on foodstuffs where the protein is coming from insect sources. They are definitely gaining momentum and are currently appearing on TV in different countries; ‘the Dutch are eating insects’.  Not quite yet, but a group of people, including some insect food entrepreneurs/farmers is certainly busy paving the way for more acceptance of this idea (see this item). In their reasoning on why we should start eating insects, we can clearly recognise the functionalist view on food taboo. Functionalists explain taboos in terms of their utility. The taboo is there to promote sustainable or efficient resource utilization by for example excluding husbandry of species that are destructive or uneconomical. So far it has been uneconomical to farm insects which are not as big and numerous in moderate climates as in the tropics where they are used as food.

Since protein from current sources is predicted to become scarce, the reasoning is that we need to get it from new sources. Other literature on food taboos is highly critical of this rational way of reasoning. It ignores the fact that disgust reactions have a deeper cultural and emotional root. Hence, the issue is not just the usual hesitation around new food (neophobia).