The unsustainable fear of insects

By Tamara Claire Fernandez

A fear of insects is hardly uncommon. In extreme cases of uncontrollable and irrational fear, patients are medically diagnosed with entomophobia (Shahriari-Namadi, Tabatabaei & Soltani, 2018). However, it can be argued that even the average person’s aversion to insects possesses a similar element of irrationality. While the evolution of human disgust towards insects has roots in disease avoidance and protection from parasites, this generalised repulsion towards all insects, including harmless and edible ones, is posing a new barrier in the 21st century. Novel insect-based food products offer safe and promising solutions to the current food crisis, yet they are often derailed by a lack of public support. Thus, conquering this fear could be the key to unlocking a new field in sustainable food development, allowing us to feed the world’s burgeoning population.

The general sense of disgust one experiences towards insects stems from both nature and nurture. On one hand, evolution has imbued in humans the urge to avoid coming into contact with insects. Selective pressures imposed by ectoparasites and ectopathogens have promoted the persistence of heritable traits associated with an aversion to insects. These traits include an urge to engage in grooming behaviours, itching sensations akin to insect crawling over one’s body, goosebumps, as well as shaking or shivering behaviours (Kupfer & Fessler, 2018). Similar adaptive responses include feelings of repulsion, nausea and lower gastric activity when sensing an insect’s presence (Curtis, de Barra & Aunger, 2011; Oaten, Stevenson & Case, 2009; Shenhav & Mendes, 2014). Such behaviour most likely evolved in a common ancestor of many animal species, including that of humans (Kupfer & Fessler, 2018). Further evidence supporting the evolution of this behaviour is seen in our closest relatives, the primates, who regularly engage in grooming behaviour (Tanaka & Takefushi, 1993). Apart from these inbuilt traits, many societies have also conditioned members to associate insects with disease transmission and general uncleanliness (Castro & Chambers, 2018). However, this varies widely across cultures and norms, as some communities commonly practice insect consumption, otherwise known as entomophagy.. For instance, locals in Madagascar comfortably gather insects as snacks, while certain tribes in Nagaland, Northeast India traditionally consume a variety of cooked and raw insects for sustenance (Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020; Mozhui et al., 2020). In contrast, followers of certain religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where a vegetarian diet is commonplace, could be more resistant towards insect consumption (Castro & Chambers, 2019). This proves that the repulsion one experiences towards insects and their consumption can be strengthened or diminished under different cultural environments (Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020). However, a global survey by Castro and Chambers (2019) aimed at unpacking the attitudes of consumers in 13 countries towards eating insects found that worldwide levels of support towards entomophagy are still low.

While there are some insects that spread diseases, the stereotyping of all insects as dirty and undesirable is unjustified. This is especially true when considering the environmental benefits of insect-based food production. Such techniques are highly space-efficient, potentially reducing forest conversion into agricultural land (Sun-Waterhouse et al., 2016; Oonincx & de Boer, 2012). In addition, insect rearing is less food- and water-intensive, while also boasting faster and higher yields due to the rapid generation times and high fecundity of insects (Abbasi, Abbasi & Abbasi, 2016; Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020). Moreover, insects are protein-rich food sources that generate fewer carbon emissions than traditional livestock rearing, and present fewer ethical concerns regarding the slaughter of produce (Dangles & Casas, 2019; Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020). Not to mention, consumption of the entire insect or larvae generates less waste when compared to traditional meat products (Mozhui et al., 2020). This, along with the use of biowaste as food for insects like black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) larvae, underscores the potential for insect food to greatly minimise waste from food production (Abbasi, Abbasi & Abbasi, 2016).

Evidently, fighting our fear of insects could help to pave way for a new wave of novel, sustainable, insect-based nutrition. There are several measures that could be adopted to ease people into this new lifestyle. Firstly, children could be gently introduced to bugs from a young age, as studies have found that increased knowledge can reduce fear associated with these organisms (Castro & Chambers, 2019). There could also be efforts to make insect-based products more appetising. One way to achieve this is by grinding or mashing the insects into indiscernible pieces, then shaping them to resemble familiar dishes and textures as done with Impossible burgers for plant-based meat substitutes (Meyer-Rochow & Hakko, 2018; Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020). At this juncture, critics may cite studies reporting that even when insect food products that taste better, people may still be less willing to consume them due to the overhanging stigma around such products (Mancini et al., 2019). However, a proven way to counter such sentiments is through education about the enhanced nutrition and environmental benefits of eating insects (Mancini et al., 2019). Thus, marketing campaigns for these products should highlight their importance as affordable and sustainable food sources, as well as underscore their high micronutrient content – a particularly advantageous quality in malnourished regions (Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020; Payne et al., 2015). Meanwhile, since attitudes take time to change, present-day insect-based food production could be focused primarily on the less contentious incorporation of insects into livestock feed (Meyer-Rochow & Jung, 2020)

It is good to note, however, that not all insect fears are unfounded. To illustrate, some people are scared of being allergic to insect products, which has actually proven to be true in certain cases (Castro & Chambers, 2018). An example of this is the link between shrimp and mealworm allergies (Broekman et al., 2017). Hence, screening for such allergies could be made readily available so as to allay concerns.

The fear of insects is understandable, but undesirable. In the face of mounting food pressures, insect-based food products seem to offer an easy solution to this food crisis. However, this is far from a ‘silver bullet’: the road to diminishing the stigma around direct insect consumption is one fraught with numerous social and psychological challenges. Nevertheless, taking steps to normalise such behaviour worldwide could breed a pioneering generation of global insect-eaters who will satiate world hunger, one bug at a time.

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