Margo White pon­ders the fu­ture of eth­i­cal pro­tein eat­ing.

The fu­ture of eth­i­cal pro­tein eat­ing.

North & South - - Columns - by margo white

Hav­ing tucked into rump steak for much of my life, rarely mak­ing a con­nec­tion be­tween that and the arse-end of the cow, it was only re­cently that I could bring my­self to eat part of a cow’s face. But the beef cheeks were slow-cooked for hours and served on a bed of mashed potato with truf­fle oil, and if you’re go­ing to eat the arse-end then you surely have some re­spon­si­bil­ity to the face- end.

This is what you tell your­self. And no, be­ing an in­con­sis­tent con­sumer, this “nose-to-tail” phi­los­o­phy has not yet been ex­tended to in­clude the tongues, ears, snouts or the feet of any an­i­mal.

There’s a lot of food to choose be­tween in our Western world and, in­creas­ingly, a lot of con­cerns about our food choices. If it was an an­i­mal, did it have a happy life? If it was a plant, was it grown or­gan­i­cally? Was the food grown or pro­duced lo­cally, or lo­cally-ish, and at what en­vi­ron­men­tal cost? All of these are im­por­tant ques­tions, but how we re­solve them is often based more on sub­jec­tive and sen­ti­men­tal val­ues than a con­sis­tent ethic.

Now, how do you feel about chicken fed on mag­gots? Ac­cord­ing to re­searchers in Aus­tralia, black sol­dier fly lar­vae is the chicken feed of the fu­ture, the fish-feed of the fu­ture and quite pos­si­bly the fu­ture feed­stock for a range of an­i­mals. The eco­log­i­cal virtues are nu­mer­ous. Black sol­dier fly lar­vae will turn all sorts of or­ganic mat­ter into a rich source of pro­tein, cal­cium, es­sen­tial fats and amino acids, so let them eat our house­hold waste. While half the world’s us­able sur­face is used to grow crops such as soy and corn to feed agri­cul­tural an­i­mals, black sol­dier fly lar­vae can be cul­ti­vated in small ware­houses stacked on top of each other, kept in the dark, and they don’t mind the over­crowded con­di­tions. They hardly need any wa­ter, ei­ther. Chickens, I’m told, can’t get enough of them. Why hasn’t sol­dier fly lar­vae been de­vel­oped as feed­stock al­ready? Prob­a­bly be­cause of con­sumer squeamish­ness about eat­ing chicken breasts fat­tened on mag­gots.

Still, if we get our head around fly lar­vae as live­stock feed, that could help us get used to the idea of in­sects as peo­ple-feed. En­to­mophagy, the tech­ni­cal term for in­sect eat­ing, is now be­ing cham­pi­oned by the United Na­tions Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion as a way to feed the ex­pand­ing pop­u­la­tion. De­mog­ra­phers pre­dict by 2050, the world’s pop­u­la­tion will have

grown to around 9.6 bil­lion, which is a third more than there is now. If we want to feed the masses with­out wreck­ing the planet with more in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture, we might need to re­frame our at­ti­tude to in­sects, see­ing them not as creepy crawlies but as “mini live­stock”.

Com­pa­nies around the world are in­tro­duc­ing con­sumers to the con­cept of in­sect-eat­ing through pro­cessed prod­ucts, such as cricket pro­tein pow­der and rhino bee­tle chips flavoured with cheese and ba­con. This isn’t too much of a leap; ap­par­ently in­sects find their way into pro­cessed foods any­way, with the av­er­age person eat­ing 500g of ac­ci­den­tally pro­cessed bugs ev­ery year. Ob­vi­ously, eat­ing a com­plete crea­ture will be more chal­leng­ing, given we’re used to eat­ing bits of an an­i­mal served on a poly­styrene tray and wrapped in plas­tic rather than the “whole food”. And what if the legs and an­ten­nae get stuck in our teeth?

Any­way, two bil­lion peo­ple in the non-western world al­ready in­clude in­sects as a reg­u­lar part of their diet. The Christchurch-based com­pany Anteater – “NZ’S sup­plier of fresh, high-qual­ity edi­ble in­sects” – is look­ing to main­stream in­sect eat­ing by sup­ply­ing a range of gourmet bugs to high-end New Zealand restau­rants. Its prod­uct range, mar­keted in the lingo of con­tem­po­rary food-speak, in­cludes “lemon­grass ants, wild har­vested from the Can­ter­bury re­gion” and “grass-fed lo­custs”. The ants ap­par­ently have “a dis­tinc­tive kaf­fir lime and lemon­grass flavour with a mild blue cheese af­ter­taste” and the lo­custs “a but­tery flavour sim­i­lar to freshwater prawns”.

Why aren’t Aus­tralians eat­ing more camels? Aus­tralia, where they were ini­tially in­tro­duced from In­dia to help colonis­ers ex­plore the arid in­te­rior, has more of them than any other na­tion. Un­like camels in the rest of the world, they’re now largely feral, or you could say “free range”. And they’re con­sid­ered a pest. There’s an es­ti­mated 300,000 of them (there were more than twice that be­fore a costly culling ex­er­cise a few years ago) and in dry sea­sons they can wreak havoc on en­vi­ron­men­tal and cul­tural sites, such as Abo­rig­i­nal wa­ter­holes. They’ve also been known to move in on hu­man com­mu­ni­ties, smash­ing through air con­di­tion­ers for a few drops of wa­ter. A re­port into the po­ten­tial of kan­ga­roo meat added that har­vest­ing feral camels would be “both prof­itable and vi­able”, al­though ul­ti­mately there’d need to be a “tran­si­tion to farmed camels to main­tain the sup­ply of camels to mar­ket and stay prof­itable”.

There have also been at­tempts in some Aus­tralian culi­nary cir­cles to re­vive tra­di­tional forms of bush tucker such as kan­ga­roos and wal­la­bies. As sources of meat, they should ap­peal to eth­i­cally mo­ti­vated om­ni­vores, be­ing abun­dant, wild, sea­sonal and lo­cally sourced. Yet it seems Aus­tralians aren’t that keen to tuck into their na­tional em­blem. The 1960s TV series Skippy the Bush Kan­ga­roo prob­a­bly didn’t help, with kan­ga­roos still be­ing thought of as too cute to cook. Still, peo­ple have got over the Bambi fac­tor and its as­so­ci­a­tions with veni­son, so per­haps it’s just a mat­ter of time. A change of name might also help witch­etty grubs be­come more widely ac­cepted as a sus­tain­able food source; they’re ap­par­ently quite palat­able and said to taste like al­monds.

Mean­while, chefs in the UK have put grey squir­rels on the menu – and they come with the same green cre­den­tials that kan­ga­roos do. What’s more, they aren’t even na­tive, but an in­tro­duced species that’s hav­ing a detri­men­tal im­pact on na­tive red squir­rels. But while grey-squir­rel meat has some nov­elty value, it’s hardly tak­ing the UK by storm, partly be­cause grey squir­rels are thought of as ver­min, a kind of tree rat.

There’s nowt so queer as folk and their ar­bi­trary food cat­e­gories.

If you want to pur­sue pest-eat­ing as a form of eth­i­cal con­sump­tion in New Zealand, you’ll need to find some­one who can pro­vide you with cuts of wild pig or wild deer or per­haps the odd rab­bit, the feral pests we tend to cat­e­gorise as “wild game”. Pos­sums, fer­rets and stoats would also fit into that cat­e­gory. If we took the idea of a preda­tor-free New Zealand se­ri­ously, which would in­volve killing count­less mustelids and ro­dents, it would make eco­log­i­cal sense to at least have an open mind about the culi­nary po­ten­tial of... well, maybe not rats, but fer­rets?

Mov­ing on to the more ex­treme end of eth­i­cal pro­tein con­sump­tion, the writer and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Ge­orge Mon­biot caused a stir on so­cial me­dia a cou­ple of years ago af­ter tweet­ing that he’d cooked and eaten a grey squir­rel found on the road­side. The typ­i­cal Twit­ter re­sponse was: “I thought I could look up to you, you mon­ster...” Mon­biot went into more de­tail in a fol­low-up ar­ti­cle in the Guardian; how he’d found the squir­rel “dead but still twitch­ing”, boned and skinned it, spatch­cocked it, mar­i­nated it in lemon juice for a cou­ple of hours be­fore slow-cook­ing it on the bar­be­cue. “It was ex­quis­ite: ten­der and del­i­cately flavoured.”

He also laid out a com­pelling ar­gu­ment against in­ten­sive agri­cul­ture and or­ganic farm­ing, and pre­sented a good case for eat­ing squir­rels, as well as other feral an­i­mals, such as rab­bits, pi­geons and deer. Which he says he does quite often. But se­ri­ously, road­kill?

Not for me, thanks. Still, I can see his point: waste not, want not and, when you stop to think about it, why not? +

Writer Ge­orge Mon­biot caused a stir on so­cial me­dia a cou­ple of years ago af­ter tweet­ing that he’d cooked and eaten a grey squir­rel found on the road­side.

Any­one for a camel burger?

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