Eating insects for sustainability

Insects might be one of the most sustainable sources of protein we have, so should we all be snacking on crawling critters?

Like most savvy businesses, restaurants all over the world are embracing sustainability and using their green credentials as a selling point in the hope of bringing in ethical foodies.

When it comes to sustainability in food though, there are so many different angles to tackle the issue from that it’s hard to know exactly what steps restaurateurs are taking. They might be reducing food waste, embracing locavorism, carefully recycling or using less food packaging but it’s difficult for consumers to know exactly what food choices are environmentally friendly.

Starting on Monday 24 November The University of Sydney will be hosting the 21st annual AGRIFOOD conference, where academics from around the world will come together to tease out some of the food complexities that exist in a time where so many people are struggling to eat well – or eat at all.

Helen Greenwood, former food journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald, is currently undertaking her MA at the University of Sydney. She’ll be presenting a paper at AGRIFOOD, examining the role chefs play in our understanding of what good food is.

Helen says, “Well-known chefs have always influenced the way we eat so they have the potential to influence some of us to eat in a more sustainable fashion. It all depends on how visible these chefs are, how many people they are able to reach, and how palatable they can make sustainable eating.

“Many of them, Jamie Oliver and Stephanie Alexander, Neil Perry and Kylie Kwong, have already made a difference. The greatest reach they can have, of course, is through powerful food institutions such as supermarkets and government bodies.”

For her AGRIFOOD presentation she chose to focus on entomophagy – a diet supplemented by eating insects. It’s said that insects are one of the most sustainable sources of protein available to us, and cooking and eating insects is already a part of many food cultures around the world.

As part of her research Helen had to sample lots of bugs, “like any decent journalist or researcher, I had to try them for myself. I know that cockroaches and prawns are very distantly related so I figured I’d hold that thought. It wasn’t hard, in the end. The roasted crickets and roasted mealworms came in sweet little packets — some were even chocolate-coated. They taste nutty, crunchy, sometimes like dried prawns or dried scallops. It’s all in the mind.”

The idea that chefs can change our food culture is one that’s almost taken for granted, but Helen wants to know whether they can convince us to snack on sustainable insects.

You only have to look at Masterchef and it’s various lucrative advertising deals to see the assumption that the public wants to cook and eat like chefs. Chefs like Pete Evans and Stephanie Alexander have become important promoters and advocates for certain ways of eating.

However, how exactly chefs can use their influence to change our engrained ideas about food is something that hasn’t ever attracted much academic questioning. Some of Helen’s research focuses specifically on Kylie Kwong, who can be seen cooking insects most weekends at Everleigh Farmers’ Market in Redfern. Can a chef like Kylie Kwong convince us to eat roaches?

Helen says, “I think trust is hard-wired into us. We have to have a certain level of trust to maintain relationships, not just with friends and family but also with strangers, institutions, authorities and government for society to work. When we lose our trust in people and places and systems, we go looking for new ways of creating and extending our trust, outside of existing damaged systems. Take food security.

“We’re bombarded with reasons not to trust the existing system, so we turn to those chefs whom we believe have the knowledge and authority to reassure us in our food choices. How chefs earn that trust is to acquire the knowledge and the authority.”

As for why Helen went back to university to study her masters after such a successful career, she says “years of writing about food as a journalist opened up more and more questions and ideas for me about why we eat the way we do. I wanted the chance to take those questions and ideas, and research the possible answers thoroughly.

“My first research topic is women food writers which begs to be explored at length and in depth in a way that only postgraduate work (or a book) could do.”