During the French Revolution, it has been said that, upon finding out that the people were starving and had no bread while the Royal Family lived in opulence, Queen Mary Antoinette rudely declared, “Let them eat cake.” This week, the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) made a similar seemingly dismissive declaration as a way to combat world hunger and malnutrition: eat bugs, poor people.
"Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and mineral content," says the FAO report released in Rome on Monday. The document suggests that insects are a viable alternative to mainstream staples like chicken, pork, beef and even fish. Solve world hunger before breakfast: check! Well…except for the fact that people have been eating bugs for centuries and food insecurity continues to rise.
The human body needs a certain amount of calories to survive. "Food insecure" people are defined as those consuming less than the recommended 2,100 calories per day per person. According to FAO, 870 million people worldwide-—that’s 1 in every 8 persons—suffer from food insecurity. Most of those people are concentrated in developing countries in Asia and Africa. Though even in the U.S. where eating bugs still faces a social stigma, there has been record high numbers of Americans suffering from hunger since the great Recession. As the global population grows to an estimated 9 billion by 2050, and as living standards rise, people’s diets are shifting towards higher consumption of calories and meat. Based on the current model of food production, our ability to feed the world is becoming continuously strained. Globally, the rising cost of food, the consequences of climate change on domestic food production, the availability of water, and the impact of the global recession on trade all play a critical role in food insecurity.
FAO says that eating bugs is an environmentally friendly and sustainable way to help feed a growing global population and tackle world hunger. Bugs reproduce quicker than poultry or seafood and produce less greenhouse gas than cows (raising livestock generates up to 20 percent of the greenhouse gases driving global warming). Nevertheless, in most parts of the world, insect consumption is not a new concept. From termites eaten in Ghana to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles in Thailand, it’s estimated that 2 billion people worldwide already eat insects as a part of their diet. In Africa alone, there are 36 countries where insects are regularly consumed as a delicacy or dietary supplement; yet the USDA reported that food insecurity is projected to remain the most severe in Sub-Saharan Africa. What this tell us is that people are still going hungry in places where bugs are being consumed and those bugs alone aren’t providing the 2,100 calories needed for a healthy diet.
While it may be laudable for the FAO to discuss such important issues as food security and world hunger, and to attempt to propose a solution, bugs are simply a Band-Aid solution that fail to even begin to address the root causes of these problems. In 2011, Foreign Policy reported that rising cost of food negatively impacts the 50-70% of the world’s population that spend most of their meager income on feeding themselves and their families. Thus, when the price of grain or rice more than doubles, as it did that same year, this population has to chose between spending twice more on food or cutting back from two meals a day to just one. The choice here is obvious for most, and few would leave their source of income to go find more bugs to supplement their diet.
By putting it’s resources behind organizing efforts to ensure the adequacy of world food supplies, the FAO can ensure that no one will ever have to make such difficult choices. Bugs consumption actually does have the potential to become one relatively inexpensive way to supplement diets; however, we shouldn’t get so fixated on a one-size-fits-all solution without addressing global issues like rising food prices and institutional failures that cause people to go bed hungry in the first place. We technically live in a world that could feed everyone—bugs, cake, and all the nutritious things in between—if we made it a priority.
France François is the founder of the award-winning Black in Cairo blog. She has an M.A. in International Development and Conflict Resolution. Follow her on Twitter at @FranceF3