Bugs and Krill, the Other White Meats: Time to Start Eating at the Bottom of the Food Chain
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Whales and birds eat these things. A growing number of cutting-edge chefs think you should too.
They say the most sustainable way to eat creatures, if you eat them at all, is by dining at the bottom of the food chain. These organisms -- best known as bait, feed or vermin -- breed so easily and exist in such vast quantities as to be far more sustainable protein sources than, say, halibut or beef. A single baleen whale consumes up to 8,000 pounds of krill daily. Worldwide insect biomass exceeds human biomass by two hundredfold. We might manage to eat every last barnacle and roach, but we would really have to try.
It's a massive paradigm shift: Raised on steak, facing a dung-beetle future.
The rich and powerful have always eaten whatever is rare, expensive to farm, difficult to breed and hard to catch. The poor and powerless have always eaten whatever is cheap, free and plentiful.
But we might all be fighting over roadkill by 2050, according to a new UN report.
Released last week, the report warned of mass starvation as a skyrocketing human population threatens to overbalance an already fragile environment. One-quarter of the planet's land is now "highly degraded," according to the report, with much of the rest classed as "slightly degraded" and only 10 percent classed as "improving." The 9 billion people projected to populate the earth in 2050 face stark hunger unless we radically change our diets, policies and attitudes.
Fire up the krill.
"This is something we're going to get used to," says Casson Trenor, author of Sustainable Sushi: Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time (North Atlantic Books, 2009) and co-owner of Tataki, San Francisco's first-ever sustainable sushi bar. "At this point, chefs must do what they can to mitigate the damage because it's too late to prevent it."
Trenor opposes overfishing wild krill as it's a foundational species about which relatively little is known. At Tataki and its sister restaurant Tataki South, he favors such unglamorous organisms as sardines and smelt. (The latter are literally bottom-feeders.) He also serves Dungeness crab.
"Because they're opportunistic detritivores -- scavengers that eat garbage -- Dungeness crabs are, to me, the true bottom of the food chain -- which I see not so much as a line but as a circle."
For our downscaled-dining future, Trenor advocates shellfish. They breed rapidly and can be farmed in large numbers sustainably. (Much has been learned, over the last decade, from the ecological havoc wrought by unsustainable shrimp farming.) Because shellfish eat sea-borne plankton and bacteria, "when we farm them we don't need to feed them. When we farm them, we create protein without having to give them any protein."
Commercially farming clams, oysters and mussels keeps their wild populations intact. And no link on the food chain is disposable -- even when that link is wasp larvae.
Bugs, too, can be farmed easily and sustainably -- requiring a mere fraction of the space, resources and cost entailed in farming large animals. About twenty pounds of feed yields less than two pounds of beef but more than ten pounds of insect meat, according to studies performed at the Netherlands' Wageningen University, a major research hub in the growing field of entomophagy, aka the eating of bugs. As a food crisis looms on a damaged planet, what was once a freaky fringe movement is now no joke.