Adventures in Food

Their ideas may seem radical, but these food revolutionaries aim to change how the world eats.

One of the main themes of the 2010 TEDGlobal conference in Oxford was food—where it comes from, how we buy it, and what it does for our brains. The subject couldn’t be more timely, though being optimistic about food news takes some patient searching. At first glance, the scene is not great. Factory farming, the increase in incidences of disease from poor food safety, and the decline of the small farmer in favor of corporations like Monsanto are only a few of the troubling realities we face worldwide.

The good news, however, is that more people than ever before are aware of these destructive and unsustainable practices, and they’re no longer waiting around for the situation to change. They’re becoming change agents themselves. These are people like Marcel Dicke, an entomologist who thinks we should eat insects instead of livestock; Heribert Watzke, a scientist researching “the brain in our guts”; Will Allen, an urban farmer and community organizer; and Fritz Haeg, an artist turned landscaper (Dicke and Watzke spoke at TEDGlobal). They may not be mainstream…yet. But like many grassroots efforts, they are signaling the kind of innovative thinking and adventurous attitude we can expect a lot more of in the coming years. So, pull on your gardening gloves, get a shovel, and fire up your stove. It’s time to dig into the wild and wonderful fringe of the food movement.

Eating Insects
When creepy and crawly is tasty and crunchy.
By Karen Eng

Marcel Dicke thinks we should all eat bugs. In fact, the entomologist thinks that before long, we’ll have to. World population is set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that to feed this number, we’ll need to increase agricultural production by 70 percent. Meanwhile, Earth is running out of arable land, the majority of which is currently used to raise livestock for animal proteins—not a particularly efficient use of already dwindling resources. In terms of biomass, insects are far more abundant than humans. Why not make better use of them? As it turns out, adding bugs to everyone’s diets wouldn’t be that big of a stretch. According to Dicke, 80 percent of the world population already eats more than 1,000 species of them.

Dicke didn’t set out to become an advocate for insect-eating. He made his name pioneering research into how plants communicate with insects, and in 2007 won the NWO Spinoza Prize for scientific research—the Dutch equivalent of the Nobel. But it was the idea of insects as food that captured public imagination. So, in 2006, Dicke and fellow entomologist Arnold van Huis convened 20,000 people at the City of Insects, an insect-appreciation festival in the town of Wageningen in the Netherlands. There, 1,747 people ate specially prepared dishes with six-legged ingredients. The event made news all over the world.

Since then, Dicke and van Huis have promoted the development of insect agriculture as a sustainable source of animal protein—both in countries where insects are already commonly eaten as delicacies, and in the West, where insect-eating is taboo. Van Huis recently presented a paper on the subject to the FAO, where it’s being considered as a solution to the rapidly growing need for animal protein worldwide. Dicke, van Huis and others at the Laboratory of Entomology at Wageningen University are leading research into commercial insect agriculture with the support of the Dutch government.

Dicke hadn’t anticipated that the campaign would turn out to be such an important part of the dialogue around feeding the world, but today he’s confident that insects will be on European plates sooner rather than later.

design mind: What were the first insects you ever tried?
Marcel Dicke: It was dried, fried termites that Arnold van Huis brought back from Africa, where he’d been working. We were traveling by train, and someone sitting in our compartment looked at us as if we were completely nuts. He packed up and left in such a hurry he forgot his coat!

dm: Why do people eat insects?
MD: They’re tasty and nutritious. People all over the world eat insects as delicacies similar to how you and I eat prawns. In southwestern Africa, they collect caterpillars during certain times of year, dry them, and can them. It’s a big industry. On the borders of Lake Victoria, people harvest mosquito-like insects that arrive in huge clouds and bake cakes with them. It’s almost like berry season in Europe or America. Sometimes it’s about making the best of a bad situation. During locust outbreaks in Africa, people lose crops, but they have an extra source of protein because they’ll collect the insects and eat them.

dm: Then why don’t we eat them in the West?
MD: It’s simply a matter of mindset. Westerners already eat an average of 500 grams of insects a year—mainly hidden in processed foods, but also in farm produce at the grocery store. Insects are everywhere. But taboos around insect eating exist even in countries where people do commonly eat them. People don’t want to tell Westerners about it for fear of being laughed at or seen as backward. In fact, the more people start adopting Western lifestyles, the more they tend to stop eating insects. If humans are to adopt insect-eating as a staple, we have to fight resistance on both fronts.

dm: Why do you think insect-eating is inevitable?
MD: We’ve already reached the limits of meat consumption. Currently, in the developed world the average person eats 175 pounds of meat per year—250 in the United States. In the developing world it’s 50 pounds, but as wealth increases, the figures do as well. If we were to replace some of the animal proteins we eat with insects, it would make far better use of resources while being easier on the environment. Insects are nutritionally comparable in terms of proteins and vitamins, but the efficiency of production is far higher. With 22 pounds of feed you get an output of 2.2 pounds of beef and 11 pounds of chicken—but 20 pounds of locusts. Insects produce far less waste, emitting far less ammonia and other greenhouse gases. In the Netherlands, we’re researching how insects can also be grown using vegetable wastes from restaurants.

dm: Why not just become vegetarian?
MD: It’s possible to eat a healthy diet without animal protein, but I’m not going to convince anyone in the world that eating animal protein isn’t good. And we cannot say to the rest of the world, “We are consuming all this meat, why don’t you eat insects?” Plus, there’s such variety. The number of different kinds of meat we tend to eat ranges from four to 10, 20 at the most if you live in China. But there are at least 1,000 insect species that are being eaten around the world. Why not eat many different things?

dm: Do you eat insects?
MD: Yes, I eat locusts once or twice a month. They’re nice and big, so it’s like a prawn. You don’t eat the legs and wings—they’re too hard—but you can eat the head, no problem. I fry them with garlic and herbs in a frying pan and have them with rice or vegetables.

Karen Eng contributes to and is the youth editor of TUNZA, the United Nations Environment Programme’s magazine for young people. She attended TEDGlobal.

Food for Thought
Heribert Watzke helps to digest the brain-gut connection.
By Sam Martin

According to Heribert Watzke, what we put in our stomach has as much to do with our brains as it does our bodies. “Food is information that the gut brain uses to inform the central brain,” he says. A scientist at Nestle’s Research Center and a speaker at the 2010 TEDGlobal conference, Watzke has spent years understanding how the food we eat affects our behavior and well-being—and how we can better learn how to “talk” and “listen” to our guts for better health. By that he means figuring out how to strike a balance between hunger and fullness to avoid overeating. He also believes that the human species has been able to evolve as successfully as we have because we learned to boil veggies and grill meat. Or as he likes to say, “I cook, therefore I am.”

design mind: Why are our guts so important to our brains?
Heribert Watzke: Our big brain allowed our species to settle in almost any environment. We developed tools and changed the environment to our needs. One of the most important achievements has been the ability to adapt our eating habits to the available food sources in environments from the Arctic to the dry desert. Some call us “omnivores” because of the breadth of these different diets, but I think it was the invention of food transformation through cooking that allowed for further adaptation. That’s when the gut became the partner of the brain for our own evolutionary development. Consequentially, we should call ourselves “coctivors”—“those who live from cooked food.”

SM: Is there literally a physical connection between our brains and our digestive systems?
HW: Our gut has an autonomous, embedded “brain,” which controls the digestion of food. You can think of food as information. Food provokes the initiation and running of specific local programs to optimize absorption of nutrients through the gut and to protect the body from foreign substances. Together with the central brain it determines food intake and eating behaviors. But yes, the central brain is connected with the gut-brain through nerves, and both are part of the blood vessel network. The most important nerve in this relation is the vagus nerve. It branches off to connect to all sections along the gastrointestinal tract. It listens to the cross-talk of the autonomous gut-brain, reporting back to the central brain about the various programs that have been initiated during digestion. But it not only reports back, it directly interferes with the local programs by secreting neurotransmitters which change the behavior of gut sections. For example, it can initiate faster or slower gut movements.

SM: Is there such a thing as “brain food”?
HW: “Brain food” is an interesting metaphor. The fact that we can imagine being intellectually stimulated by giving the brain something “to chew on” shows how important eating and food are to us. Myth and legend are full of food items that allow for deeper insights into perennial truth or connections to cosmic forces. Of course, there are beverages and foods which have stimulating influence on the brain: coffee, tea, and chocolate. Water should probably be considered a brain food. Clinical studies showed that dehydration of our body can have negative influence on memory and concentration.

SM: Can we get smarter by eating more vegetables?
HW: Our body needs not only calories, but also other food constituents called micronutrients (i.e. minerals, vitamins). Vegetables are an excellent source for such micronutrients. Maybe the next step in smartness should be to creatively design new ways of transforming vegetables into delicious and healthy foods (i.e., asparagus nuggets with mousse au broccoli).

SM: Will I get “full” by reading more books?
HW: Never heard anyone losing an appetite by reading too many cookbooks. But “getting full” in relation to eating is too narrow a concept. That notion has its origin in seeing our body only as a machine which needs fuel. If this were all there is to food, you would only need to top up your inner tank and off you go. The more we know about the interaction of food with the gut, the brain, and the body, the more we learn about its functions beyond energy. Food and its constituents play a role as signals containing information for the “running” of a healthy body. We have only to learn how to properly decode that information.

Garden Burghers
Everyday people are increasingly taking food matters into their own dirty, calloused, sun-tanned hands.
By Alison Arieff

There’s a lot of bad food news in the world right now. The environmental and health costs of industrialized farming, Salmonella outbreaks, corporate monopolies, the mind-boggling disconnect of skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity combined with increased numbers of hungry kids—these issues are ongoing, regular topics of conversation and concern. Our collective relationship to food—how it’s grown and where it comes from—has inserted itself prominently into the global discourse. The inaction or inability of governments to effectively address broken food systems only compounds the problems. For many, the response to the issues tend to run the length of the spectrum from obliviousness to paranoia. So, what’s really being done to turn the bad headlines into good news?

In my role as Food & Shelter Ambassador for Good magazine I’ve come across a small but growing group of individuals who aren’t waiting for Monsanto or Tyson Foods to change their ways. They’re taking their own initiative to change the way their food is grown, prepared, marketed, and consumed. For them, digging backyard gardens, starting urban agriculture cooperatives, or improving their local school lunches has established a new personal connection to the earth. They’re having a blast getting back to the land with their modest, local, and personal agricultural efforts.

The Dirt Deviant

Fritz Haeg

As Fritz Haeg points out, spending an extended period of time around dirt has become a weirdly deviant act. “In our society we are not called citizens anymore,” the archtect/activist said during an interview with Good magazine in March 2010.

“We’re called consumers. Our role—our job—is to buy. Not only do we not need to have our hands in the dirt; it goes against this duty to buy, and not produce. We are subverting a passive role by getting our hands back in the dirt.”

Haeg wasn’t making a grand statement against industrialized agriculture when he urged people to rip out their grass and grow food instead as part if his project, Edible Estates: Take Back Your Lawn. But nearly three years after his book of the same name was published, it’s easy to read it that way, even though Haeg’s initial target was the seemingly benign front lawn.

A resident of Los Angeles, Haeg got fed up with the whole notion of resource-wasting carpets of grass. So, he began transforming them into urban garden plots to grow fresh produce. “There is nothing remotely new about what I am doing,” explains Haeg. “It’s really one of the most primitive and basic human occupations there is. The fact that it is a ‘story’ worth reporting on says a lot about how far we have come… and who we are today.”

The Urban Avenger

Will Allen

Since starting his urban agricultural center Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Will Allen has become one of the food movement’s undisputed heroes. His nonprofit operation, which helps teach individuals about small-plot farming and helps set up urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago, cultivates both food and awareness, especially of issues around social justice. Allen argues, quite simply, that food should be grown where the people are, and Growing Power aims to develop new and creative ways to improve the diets and health of the urban poor.

The Playmaker

Rick Delashmit

After learning from a study done by the US Center for Disease Control that 90 percent of schoolchildren weren’t getting the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, Illinois grocer Rick Delashmit had to do something. So he invented Taste Buds, an easy-to-learn, fun-to-play game for students, designed to increase their interest in and consumption of fresh produce.

Delashmit harbored no illusions that he’d change the way the country eats or the way food is grown. But he was confident he could get kids to eat their vegetables. Delashmit created Taste Buds in collaboration with his five-year-old son, Reece (who represented the effort’s key demographic). The classroom game challenges kids to try three new fruits and two new vegetables to earn a point. There is a catch: To earn a point, everyone on the team must sample the item in play for that round of the challenge. Playful peer pressure helps them find the courage to taste it.

Fresh produce may not be a regular thing at home for many children, and it’s certainly scarce in many school lunches. Delashmit’s game lets kids develop their palates in a positive way and gives parents an easy means to start introducing these foods into daily diets.

The Wild Man

Iso Rabins

Scavenger hunts can be entertaining and, when the object of the search is edible, delicious. After meeting a troupe of mushroom foragers in Northern California, Iso Rabins was hooked. “Wild food was something that I had never really given much thought to until seeing these guys who went out into the woods and came out with these amazing mushrooms. So I had them teach me.”

Soon, Rabins was foraging and selling mushrooms for a living. Then he started rummaging for all kinds of grub—wild watercress, acorns, fruit from urban trees, and more—and he started inviting his community to come along with him. forageSF now offers wild food walks, monthly deliveries of a boxful of found fare, foraged-food potlucks, and an Underground Farmers Market, where vendors sell veggies and prepared dishes they’ve produced in backyards and home kitchens. (This sidesteps the legal technicality that food sold in farmers markets must be cooked in commercial kitchens, a financial obstacle for many producers.) Rabins also whips up near monthly, always sold-out foraged dinners that feature dishes like wild boar porchetta with gleaned kumquat mostarda. For him, discovering wild foods is a cure for what ails him about the current food dilemma, and part of an evolving food movement that isn’t going away.

Allison Arieff is the By Design columnist for The New York Times and the food and shelter ambassador for Good magazine. She is the former editor of Dwell magazine.

And Now The Good News

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