Don’t Eat the Bugs
Every few months a major news site runs a piece telling you to eat bugs. The headlines are almost always the same. “Insects Are Food Source of the Future, Experts Say”; “Want to Save the Planet? Eating Bugs May Be Part of the Solution”; “‘It’s Good for the Earth’: Why Climate Scientists Urge Americans to Eat More Bugs.” And so on. The articles usually cite climate change as the reason to upend the American diet, which—for now—is heavy on beef and light on cicadas.
The New York Times ran a three-part video series on its opinion page last week imploring Americans to eat bugs to save the planet. The first video discussed the environmental impact of Big Agriculture—methane from cows, pollution and water damage from factory farms, deforestation from the creation of new farms—and denounced the agriculture lobbyists arrayed against environmental regulations.
The second video takes viewers on a tour of a poultry farm, inviting them to see the “cost of cheap chicken.” The farm, like most farms, is dirty. The chickens are held in close quarters with little light and minimal space. Many of the chickens have distended breasts from a lack of exercise. It is unpleasant to watch, particularly during its conclusion, when a farmer described having entered into an agreement with a large poultry firm that effectively required him to treat his livestock poorly. The issues in the industry are structural, we are told. “In order for the chicken and the farmer to have a more dignified life,” one of the Times‘s experts said, “chicken should be closer to $6 a pound, not a dollar a pound.”
To these and other evils in the agricultural industry, the Times‘s third video suggests the remedy: “Eat more bugs.”
“A growing number of chefs, researchers, and entrepreneurs are urgently working toward a common goal,” the narrator begins, “getting us to eat more bugs.” Of course, the fact that “a growing number of chefs, researchers, and entrepreneurs” have come to a consensus on any matter of public policy is irrelevant, but the Times proceeds, noting that insects “offer a sensible alternative to the animals we typically eat.” The video features two “experts,” two insect “farmers,” and one chef who cooks insects at—this is the real name of his restaurant—Brooklyn Bugs. The experts interviewed said that bugs are a more “efficient” form of protein than traditional protein sources like cattle and chicken, and insect farming is better for the environment than traditional forms of agriculture.
Even if it were true that eating bugs would reduce global temperatures by one degree centigrade in the coming century, that alone would not be a good reason to eat insects. The environment exists for man, not man for the environment. But it turns out that Americans’ meat consumption is not responsible for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The United States is responsible for somewhere around 13 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and 10 percent of our total emissions come from the agriculture industry. Scientists estimate that if every single American became a vegan, emissions in the agriculture sector would drop by 28 percent. If every American ate bugs instead of chicken and beef, we would cut annual global emissions by less than 1 percent.
There are other reasons the Times might want to move away from traditional agriculture. The bug-farmers shown in the video—soft-faced, vest-wearing men with college degrees and uncalloused hands—look like compliant Democratic voters. The average cattle rancher can’t explain the difference between “gender” and “sex.” The “insect farms” shown in the video—large, Bauhausian buildings in the heart of urban metros—are seated in progressive territory rather than the hidebound American hinterlands.
Making you “eat the bugs,” as the meme would have it, also satisfies the liturgical dimension of liberalism—the shattering of long-held taboos and prejudices. The Times insists that “Culture, not taste, often defines what’s edible,” implying that Americans’ aversion to eating insects is parochial and irrational. That might be true. But some prejudices are good. Edmund Burke said people should “cherish” their prejudices—the unspoken assumptions and attitudes imparted by their culture—and “the longer [those prejudices] have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we [should] cherish them.”
I’m prejudiced against eating insects, and notwithstanding the Times‘s series, that’s a prejudice I cherish a great deal.
Editor’s note: This piece has been emended since its initial publication.