climate change

Let’s Fight Climate Change Without Eating Bugs

Photo: Jair Cabrera/picture alliance via Getty Images

While scrolling through the New York Times’ home page this morning, I spotted the headline “Cooking in the Time of Climate Change,” which was accompanied by a GIF featuring prep bowls and oil being poured into a hot pan. I clicked, thinking it was a recipe video — a seemingly safe assumption, as it appeared just a few inches below a similar GIF and the headline “24 Brilliant Baking Recipes to Change Your Kitchen Game.”

But the headline on the actual article quickly revealed that it was not Times “Cooking” content. “The Joy of Cooking (Insects)” read the text hovering over rotating close-up images of fried bugs. Subhed: “Climate-conscious cooking means getting creative.” (Hours later, the home-page image was altered to a GIF of what appear to be crickets bouncing on a piece of bread, so perhaps I wasn’t the only reader confused on first blush.)

The piece, which serves as an introduction to an “Opinion” video, explains that the human population is increasing, driving up demand for food. But “agriculture, particularly the production of meat, is a big driver of environmental harm.” It continues,

Scientists have warned that unless we make major adjustments to the kinds of food we eat and how we produce it, we have no chance of meeting our climate goals. A change in dietary patterns, especially reduced demand for meat, would help relieve pressure on the environment and mitigate global warming.

That’s where insects come in.

Okay, but couldn’t it also be where beans come in?

With more context, it’s somewhat clearer why plant-based protein sources are overlooked here. The accompanying 15-minute video on nascent efforts to incorporate more insects into a western diet is part of a series on how our “broken food system” contributes to climate change and the “three chances you get to help fix it — and save the planet — every day.” This involves “major adjustments to the food we eat and how we produce it.”

Should “we” — as in the human species — be investigating the use of bugs as an alternate source of protein? Sure, it seems smart, and supposedly 2 billion people around the world are already regularly chowing down on crickets and the like (though that figure may be an exaggeration). But do we — as in individuals reading the Times — actually need to get over our squeamishness about eating insects lest we personally doom the planet? No, and framing the discussion this way could backfire by making efforts to fight climate change seem fringe and too arduous for the average person to even attempt.

The Times is not the only media outlet pushing a bug-eating agenda. Pieces like this have been circulating for some time; in just the past year, a story in The Guardian asserted, “If We Want to Save the Planet, the Future of Food Is Insects”; Wired said, “The Cicadas Are Coming. Let’s Eat Them!”; and WBUR declared, simply, “Why We Should All Eat Bugs.”

I am convinced that no one is being won over by these arguments, because they’re not working on me — and I’m their prime target. I was raised with the idea that a meal without meat was no meal at all, but eventually my identity as a coastal elite who works in media got the better of me. In a move that could not have been more clichéd, I started dabbling with a “flexitarian” diet (a.k.a. trying to eat more plant-based meals) in recent years after reading about Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6:00” diet and listening to a series of Ezra Klein podcasts on the moral, health, environmental issues around eating meat.

There were two factors that made Bittman and Klein’s arguments more palatable, both literally and metaphorically, than the pleas to go veg that I’d been rolling my eyes at for years. First, I had eaten Beyond and Impossible meat and found both to be genuinely tasty, unlike the gym mat-esque fake meat I’d previously encountered. Second, they were not suggesting that my inability to go 100 percent vegan was some kind of moral failing. Conquering my aversion to vegetables as a main course wasn’t something I “must” do to “save the planet,” it was an easy thing I could try. I kept at it primarily because I found a good bean-centric chili; the idea that my dinner was possibly contributing less to climate change was just a bonus.

Clearly, I am not a scientist or a climate-change expert; I’m just a lady who likes Beyond burgers and thinks shaming consumers for their individual choices (or culturally imbued distaste for bugs) is a dubious strategy for fighting climate change. There’s a 2018 Vox piece that I think of whenever I start chastising myself for forgetting to put a can in the recycling bin or my lack of interest in trying mealworms. It argues that climate change does not fit well into the individual choices frame, and gives this example:

If some earnest Gen X climate activist cancels the family vacation to see the grandparents over carbon guilt, the Earth is not going to give a damn. What will matter is if a business executive decides to fly back and forth from New York to London once a week instead of twice, or once a month instead of weekly. And it will only matter if all the wealthy travelers make the same decision, consistently, over time.

I respect the efforts of the Times “Opinion” page to get people to collectively open their minds to bug consumption and anyone who decides they want to give locust succotash a shot. But I reject the suggestion that I personally need to get over not wanting to eat bugs if I care about the planet. At the moment, this is too big a leap for me, and I’m betting that’s true for most people. Let’s get more Americans into “meatless Mondays,” Impossible Whoppers, and imperfect veganism first, and we’ll see where things go from there.

Let’s Fight Climate Change Without Eating Bugs