I don’t generally eat insects, except on the rare occasion when that green worm that lives in the arugula makes its way from the garden to my salad. And then, it is that squishy, uncomfortable mouth feeling that causes shudders and elicits laughter (and closer inspection of their own greens) from friends around the dinner table. Accidental entomophagy — the eating of insects — aside, I wonder why such an easy and abundant source of protein remains stubbornly taboo on the western plate.
A 2013 United Nations report, "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security," notes that insects are part of the traditional diet for nearly 2 billion people who utilize close to 2000 species as food. The subject of entomophagy has been popping up with greater frequency over the past decade in the U.S. (Well, at least in the Bay Area. I have recently learned not to extrapolate local experience for national reality.) We encounter youngsters daring us to try a “new” delicacy at street fairs or on sunny days in the park. Hmmm, crunchy and a little nutty…
Coinciding with the rise of gluten-free cooking, more packaged products (protein bars, pasta) are being produced with cricket flour. Moving away from the fringe and toward the culinary mainstream more traditional recipes (from Mexico, Thailand, Botswana and beyond) are being passed around for adventurous eaters to try — usually deep-fried — beetles, ants and crickets, among a host of other insects.
This persistent chirp will get louder when the SF DocFest (May 31 - June 15, 2017) kicks off its 16th anniversary at the Roxie, Vogue and New Mission theaters. The festival opens with the world premiere of Corbett Redford’s Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, and features films that document huge swaths of real life, from art to activism to the environment and beyond. The festival features two food-related documentaries: Charged, the miraculous story of chef Eduardo Garcia's recovery from electrocution and The Gateway Bug, the reason I am contemplating eating insects (again).
While Johanna B. Kelly's The Gateway Bug (Saturday, June 10, 9:15pm, Vogue Theater; Tuesday, June 13, 9:30pm, Roxie Theater) outlines the efforts of several (most notably young) entrepreneurs to produce and package insect protein in acceptable edible form for humans, its real subject is denial. It has been evident for decades that current farming, ranching and fishing practices that produce large amounts of greenhouse gasses, food stream waste and pollution will not be up to the task of effectively feeding a population projected at over 9 billion by mid-2050. “The conversation about re-examining our assumptions around what food is is something we had to have 45 years ago, and we didn’t. So, now we’ve got to be responsible adults and have the conversation that our parents didn’t have.” So says, Big Cricket Farm founder Kevin Bachhuber, whose story is interwoven with a cast of other millennials attempting to address the need for sustainable calorie production for the future.
Insects are much more efficient at producing protein than any of the other food sources currently in cultivation. Crickets, for example, require 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of body weight. Insects utilize organic side streams, emit far fewer greenhouse gasses and less ammonia than cattle or pigs, and require less land and water. While the figures vary across insect species and depend on metamorphic stage (larva vs. adult) when consumed, insects tend to be highly nutritious with high fat, protein, fiber, vitamin and mineral content. Mealworms contain as much omega-3 and other fatty acids as fish (and substantially more than pigs or cattle).
But there are challenges to the development of an at-once traditional and novel source of food. Yes, the characters in The Gateway Bug must first overcome the "Yuck" factor, but beyond that lie other, more institutional challenges. Insect nutritional values must be more rigorously documented and contrasted with traditional sources alongside comparisons of the environmental impacts of farming animals versus insects. Meanwhile, clear regulatory frameworks must be produced and standardized to ensure food safety.
The Gateway Bug's most heartbreaking story follows the above-mentioned Kevin Bachhuber’s Big Cricket Farm in Youngstown, OH. The start-up's young entrepreneurs wager their own futures alongside the revitalizing efforts of a rust belt city, faithfully locating their business in an area where a history of lax regulatory standards once brought the municipality close to self-extinction. What happens to Big Cricket Farm is a demonstration of a generational divide that seems to only get wider with each passing year. Many of The Gateway Bug’s characters demonstrate fortitude similar to Bachhuber’s, overcoming tests that only clarify their vision and solidify their determination.
Speaking of determination, there is probably no more personal portrait of endurance than Charged (Wednesday, June 7, 7:16pm and Saturday, June 10, 2:45pm, Roxie Theatre). While hiking in the Montana backcountry, chef Eduardo Garcia encountered the corpse of a bear and moved to investigate further, taking 2400 volts of electricity from an unmarked power source. Miraculously, Garcia stumbled through the wilderness, found help and was airlifted to the burn trauma ICU in Salt Lake City, UT. He was joined immediately by his ex-girlfriend, business partner and best friend, Jennifer Jane, who immediately began filming the ordeal, hoping to give Garcia something to concentrate on outside of his pain. The chef lost his hand and forearm, four ribs, part of his skull, and several patches of dead muscle mass from his legs and arm.
Phillip Baribeau's documentary follows Garcia's struggle back to health over the next several years. But it is through Jane's intimate footage that we see the power of love to heal and witness Garcia’s transformation from a callow youth to a changed, super-charged man.
SF DocFest runs May 31 - June 15, 2017 at various San Francisco locations. For tickets and information visit sfindie.com.