What will the future of eating look like? I’ve heard a lot of different responses to this question. The daily, high-meat diet, best exemplified by American eating habits, surely isn’t sustainable in the long term. The artificially cheap meat US consumers have come to depend on is only made possible with heavy government subsidies and great environmental cost. Long before China and other up-and-comers reach a Western standard of living, resource exhaustion will put an end to factory farms. (Hopefully before one of these cesspools unleashes the long-dreaded “super bug”.)
A strong case can be made for vegetarianism as the new standard. A basic rule of ecology is that energy is lost with every link in the food chain. Over the course of its life, a rabbit consumes a great number of vegetable calories. When the fox catches up, however, only a small portion of that captured energy goes into his stomach. Ninety percent of the food energy a rabbit takes in over its lifetime is used up, with running, digging, procreating, etc. Only what’s left goes towards building rabbit muscles and other tissue, which can make a later meal for a predator.
For omnivores like us, therefore, strained resources can be made to stretch further if we eat the rabbit food instead of the rabbit. Or, to be more accurate, if we ate the grain we were growing, instead of force-feeding steers with it (who are naturally grass-eaters) and eating them for a fraction of the calories. So long as we can get all the nutrients we need, particularly protein, most arable farmland can be made better use of by growing food for people instead of animals for people.
Proof of concept of a balanced, meatless diet can be found in any number of largely vegetarian countries, India being the most prominent example. Of course, this is more easily accomplished in some environments than others. Not all land or climates are made equal.
In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan suggests that those of us who wish to continue consuming meat can do so, but we need to produce it differently, and perhaps in smaller quantities. As his paragon of sustainability, he holds up Joel Salatin. Salatin is the owner of Polyface, a multi-use farm that mimics natural ecosystems. He doesn’t use artificial fertilizers, increase animal density above healthy or humane levels, or exhaust the land by overworking it.
Of course eggs, chicken, and beef purchased from Polyface are pricier than the mass-produced stuff. On the other hand, paying more for our animal products will probably encourage us to limit our intake, which for most North Americans is way too high. There’s also evidence that Salatin’s grass-fed beef and free-range laying chickens are a whole lot better for our cardiovascular health than its industrially-raised counterparts. Save giving up meat altogether, a reduced intake of better-raised meat might be the best option for both public health and the environment.
A third option is foreign to most of us in the West, but commonplace in many parts of the world. We might consider raising a very different protein source than we are used to. Insects are even more sustainable than Salatin’s ecologically-friendly farming operation, requiring far less labor and no heavy equipment.
It has some advantages over straight vegetarianism because insects will feed on plants that we can’t eat, and thus might be a way for us to get calories out of land that is no good for human crops. In regions of the world where high-protein plants cannot be easily grown, insects, infinitely adaptable, may be the most efficient option, though it would take some getting used to at first.
A group of English design students recently created the Ento Box (a play on the popular Japanese convenience dish, Bento) as a way to make this idea more palatable for Westerners. The Ento Box is a single-serving meal of sushi, created with the help of real chefs, that doesn’t look like its made from insects at all. By disguising the ingredients, they hope to make it easier for people to forget what they’re eating and just enjoy it. This is just a transitional necessity for those of us set in our ways, as later generations may not think twice about eating an insect-based meal.
A few decades from now, each of these options may be the norm. Future restaurants may offer both vegetarian meals and insect-based choices. A menu option that is mostly vegetables and grains but includes a small amount of beef, pork or chicken may not be out of the question either. But a double quarter pounder with cheese may become more or less extinct.
Good riddance, I say. Bring on the bugs.
Photo credit: Meutia Chaerani / Indradi Soemardjan