The world is starting to embrace the idea of substituting insects for animal protein, but Mexicans are way ahead of the world.
Edible insects have never been far from the minds of those living in rural Mexico. Local populations were eating bugs centuries before Europeans landed on the shores of the Americas. In fact, they even used insects as a source of tribute to the Aztec empire, according to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, one of the country’s foremost scholars on edible bugs. For many of the country’s Indigenous communities, bugs are just another natural form of sustenance that remains integral to their seasonal diet.
Mexican mythology is rife with stories of insects as gods or as the messengers of gods. A red ant led Quetzalcoatl to the source of corn. In Anthropo-entomophagy: Cultures, evolution, and sustainability, Ramos-Elorduy describes the “sacred jumil”, “which is regarded by the people in the state of Guerrero as a ‘watchman’ or ‘guardian of the place', living in the high mountains and believed capable of direct communication with God.”
“After the harvest, the Nahuas thank the ants by leaving offerings of corn near the ant hills and in the four corners of the milpa [fields],” writes Esther Katz in Las Hormigas, El Maiz y La Lluvia. “They also leave corncobs near the ant hills to ask for rain.”
Insects were deemed sacred to Mexicans before we had understood their fundamental role as pollinators, pest control, and stewards of the earth; and long before the climate crisis put them at risk of extinction, which many of us are still yet to realize.
A report by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization found that insects are likely a viable sustainable substitute to meat. But this is far from the only reason why much of the world is opening up to what many now view as a delicacy, as the Mexican experience attests.
“They haven’t stopped being surprised ... to them, it seems crazy."
What is considered the best food today is better when it is exotic, hard to find, and hyperlocal. In restaurants across Mexico City, you can now find upper-class Mexicans and foreigners eating the chicatana ants, maguey worms, and roasted grasshoppers — once considered “poor people’s food” — for exorbitant prices. The trend is multidimensional; some people are eating them for the sheer thrill of eating something they think is “weird” while others want to try Mexico’s regional delicacies. Many of those gourging on grasshoppers are motivated by the idea that eating insects will save our meat-consuming planet.
“I feel like in general in the last few years, a lot of people that have come to Rosetta that are foreigners are curious about insects and are very open to trying them,” says the head chef and owner of one of Mexico City’s most popular fine dining restaurants, Elena Reygadas.
“They haven’t stopped being surprised ... to them, it seems crazy. We have a butter made with chicatana ants: Maybe a few people when you tell them it has ants, they [will] make a face, but they try it.”
As eating insects increases in popularity, proponents tend to tout insect farms as the wave of the future. Insect farming is growing in places like the United States and the EU, which already control the majority of the world’s food production (even though their populations don’t have longstanding traditions of insect eating and collecting).The carbon footprint of cultivating insects for food is tiny and requires much less land and water than cows and pigs. Insects also don’t require vaccines to stay healthy and hormones to bulk up. Insects efficiently convert waste into protein; reportedly 2.3 pounds of dry food waste can be transformed into a pound of edible protein. Some supporters even see insect farms as the solution to the factory farming nightmares exposed by a bevy of documentary films in the past decade or so.
But are insect farms really the solution? Industrial-scale insect farming risks reproducing the same systems of harm and exploitation as industrial agriculture, while further supporting factory farming by rearing the insects used to feed the animals. Reports confirm that, like most factory farms, insect farms generally use grains instead of food waste as feed. If you are feeding your insects corn and then feeding your chickens insects, why not just feed the corn to the chickens?
But the dilemmas don’t end there.
“The day we build those farms, who is going to be the most affected?” asks Irad Santa Cruz, who runs the Research Center for Tlaxcala Regional Cuisine in Mexico. “Farmers. The collectors. People won’t buy from them anymore, we will fall once again into the trap of food production falling into the hands of large companies, and not those of small-scale producers.
“We think that we are going to cultivate them, but why aren’t we thinking about cultivating ourselves?”
“I won’t say it’s a bad idea but there is a part of it for me that feels it’s taking away the heritage from the owners of that heritage. So the insects will no longer be the farmers’. Surely a company like PepsiCo will be producing them and I don’t agree with that.”
Zeferino Manohatl Tetlalmatzi, a collector of hormigas mieleras (honeypot ants) says that he thinks farms are possible, but that human beings don’t know how do to them correctly.
“I’ve heard about people moving entire [ant] nests, all the soil from one place to another, but it doesn’t work. What I would do is create the perfect conditions on the land first, and they will come on their own.” When Sliced suggests that it would make knowing yearly cultivation numbers impossible, he counters: “We think that we are going to cultivate them, but why aren’t we thinking about cultivating ourselves?”
Most of the insect collectors Sliced spoke with in Mexico have heard the whispers of insect farms but have not yet seen one with their own eyes. While reports suggest there are farms in Brazil, Canada, the EU, and the United States, insect farms in Mexico are either operating in secret or have yet to begin producing en masse.
“There are a couple bigger companies that are [raising insects],” says Roberto Celis Montenegro, who buys from small-scale collectors and sells to chefs in Mexico City. “But honestly what I’ve seen is that they don’t have very good practices, and I haven’t seen them grow very much. My perception is that they don’t really know how to do it well. I’m not sure: I mean if they were succeeding, we would hear about them, and we don’t.”
International companies are however already flocking to Mexico to buy insects in bulk, which they then reprocess for export while offering much higher prices than local intermediaries. And there is close to zero regulation of the industry across the board.
There are what some might call protocultivation projects, in which farmers are encouraged to plant pesticide-free fields of crops to “feed” insect populations, making their land attractive to certain kinds of crawling, hopping cattle that can be scooped up and collected more easily. Still, this is not full-scale industrialization of insect farming, or not yet anyway.
There is concern among opponents of insect farming that this, like any kind of mass production or monocrop, will harm the local environment. But champions of the idea also remind skeptics that farms would eliminate some of the most worrisome aspects of collecting insects in the wild: that the plants they consume might be full of pesticides, that their extraction from the local ecosystem damages the natural balance, and that in order to develop a truly green alternative to meat consumption, we may have to produce in bulk.
“[Insects] are very much of [the] earth in Mexico,” says Reygadas. “They taste of earth, they taste of something that I have never tasted anywhere else and I have eaten insects in Korea, insects in Colombia and they all taste different, like something not grown in a hothouse.
The real concern for the folks Sliced talked with was not how to produce more insects but how to safeguard the ones they already have.
“That’s why I don’t want to see insects grown in a hothouse because then insects are going to taste the same everywhere … we are all eating almost the exact same thing in the world now, flavours are more similar because of globalization. And for me, the beauty of food is its connection to culture, to who we are, to the earth. Food takes you to certain places ... so if everything starts to homogenize, including insects, it’s a little sad.”
For the time being, industrial insect farming is far from the minds of traditional communities in Mexico. The real concern for the folks Sliced talked with was not how to produce more insects but how to safeguard the ones they already have. Collectors here and some local chefs like Reygadas insist that we must think of insects as a seasonal and finite resource we have to avoid overexploiting. Insects bear some of the greatest effects of the climate emergency, which depletes insect populations with each passing year.
Celis Montenegro says insects are extremely sensitive to climate changes. If there is no rain for the plants that feed the insects, then there are no insects. If seasons shift and certain species don’t have the correct weather conditions to hatch in time for their yearly cycle, they throw off the fragile balance which all other species depend on. If farmers clear their land of traditional maguey plants, the maguey worms are cleared right along with them. If humans keep up their exhaustive use of pesticides, we will have poisoned the few bugs left for us to eat.
That’s why people like Zeferino — who knows just how many hormiga mieleras he can collect at a time in order for the nest to survive — or Jose Islas Barrera — who always leaves the last batch of ant eggs (escamoles) for the next season’s hatch — are irreplaceable resources in the edible bug industry. If people like them are cut out of the process by industrial insect farms, or if their knowledge is lost before the world can regain a semblance of control over the climate crisis, sustainable practices that make insect collection possible may be lost along with them.
The tradition of eating bugs in Mexico will not die out any time soon; after all, this country consumes more bugs than most. For the collectors who harvest them, the chefs who cook them, and the cultural ambassadors who extol the virtues of eating insects, there is a delicate balance to strike. How do you sustainably harvest a resource that is in such high demand while also addressing a climate crisis that was in part caused by overharvesting commodities in high demand?
For humans and for bugs, the solution may require going back to basics.