Bugs and Krill, the Other White Meats: Time to Start Eating at the Bottom of the Food Chain

The Eon Coffee Shop in Hayward, California serves krill. Mezcal -- a Mexican restaurant in nearby San Jose -- serves grasshoppers.

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.

"When you raise insects, you don't need fertilizer. You don't need water. You don't need land. You don't need hard labor or heavy machinery. You just need a room full of bins," says entomophagist and bug chef Dave Gracer, who ate a toasted cicada live on "The Colbert Report" and runs Rhode Island-based Small Stock Foods.

House-fly pupae are "rich with a hint of iron, sort of like blood pudding," Gracer asserts. The African grasshoppers known as nsenene are "surprisingly buttery" and, yes, taste like chicken. But also like shrimp and croutons.

"If I had sufficient funds, I would churn out my own insect flour and mealworm hummus," Gracer says. The latter would be half chickpeas, half boiled and puréed worms.

Fixtures in many cultures worldwide -- from plump brown boiled Korean silkworm pupae (beondegi) to Thai fried-and-spiced crickets (jing leed, popular with beer) to Nigerian roasted termites (not to mention the several types of locust that the Torah deems kosher) -- bugs are low in fat but high in protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. They're also high in fiber, but you do not want to contemplate why.

"If you eat crabs, lobsters and shrimp, it's hypocritical to be afraid of eating insects," Gracer says. "It's a matter of taxonomy. Shellfish and insects are all arthropods" -- that is, animals with exoskeletons.

Envigorated by citywide bug cookoffs such as those held recently in Memphis and Philadelphia, Gracer hopes to someday stage such events on an international, Olympics-style level -- "like 'Iron Chef,' but bigger" -- to raise awareness about what he calls "an up-and-coming paradigm that could save millions of lives. It would be smart of us to develop a taste for these foods progressively before we need them desperately, and to get some public acceptance for them now before we're shooting each other with guns and eating each other."

That's after the roadkill runs out.

Bottom-of-the-food-chain cuisine, Casson Trenor says, "brings humility to the kitchen. Chefs don't like humility. Chefs are not humble. A chef wants to have a castle and rule it with an iron fist. What chefs do not do well is respond to pressure from outside the kitchen," whether that pressure comes from finicky diners or scientists deeming certain species endangered.

"Chefs are not scientists. It's not our job to decide whether any given organism is sustainable. But when we get that information" -- Trenor relies on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list -- "chefs need to say, 'Hey -- these guys who have PhDs in fisheries science are saying we shouldn't serve this type of fish, so we shouldn't serve it. I don't care how great it tastes. I'm not serving it. Whatever is sustainable -- that's what I have to work with. How can I approach it with reverence?'"

To be a chef and to learn that some popular, pricey species is off-limits: "It's as if you were a painter and someone came in and told you that you could no longer use the color red." But as scarcity prevails, "challenge is what makes it beautiful. It's about how you deal with your fear and allow your innovation come through.

"If six out of the ten types of fish on your menu turn out to be unsustainable and you take them off the menu, it's not a matter of having a greatly diminished menu. It's that you now have six opportunities to make that menu better."

And maybe the best way to do that is by looking down.  

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