Go to Mexico and you’ll see piles of grasshoppers, dusted with chili powder, roasted with garlic, etc. because grasshoppers are the meat of the future.
Grasshoppers are being eaten ground up in salsas and semi-pulverized in micheladas, their intact legs floating in the refreshing mix of beer, lime juice, and hot sauce.
If you’ve ever been served chili-dusted orange slices along with a shot of mezcal—surprise!
That chili powder was actually ground up grasshoppers.
By now you’ve probably heard that entomophagy—insect eating—is in our dietary future, or at least should be.
Put aside the yuck factor; insects are packed with protein, much less damaging to the environment than other livestock, and can even be killed humanely by popping them in the freezer.
It’s all so crazy it just might work; the United Nations published a whole book in 2013 promoting edible insects as a solution to global food insecurity.Wired.com
With Earth looking down the barrel of a population of 9 billion humans, all of them hungry for protein, it makes sense to cultivate animals with 80 percent-edible bodies (crickets) instead of 40 percent (beef), and that don’t require 10 pounds of feed to get two pounds of meat (pigs), in theory.
In Mexico, that’s more than just an idea.
With its longstanding tradition of eating grasshoppers—chapulines in Spanish—Mexico would seem perfectly poised to enter the coming age of entomophagy.
Ant eggs—escamoles—are another popular dish.
But there’s one problem: cCapulines are expensive.
They cost more than pork, or chicken, and sometimes as much as beef or shrimp.
Far from being a distasteful last resort for people who don’t have the money for meat think Snowpiercer chapulines.
Chapulines are an in-demand product more people wish they could afford.
The problem isn’t that bugs are rare, obviously.
A recent study led by René Cerritos, a biologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, estimated that 350,000 tons of chapulines live on Mexican crops every year.
But harvesting them is disorganized, often illicit, and just plain difficult.
Only a few hundred tons of chapulines are collected for food annually, and from only a couple of regions in Mexico.
Chapulines can be quite affordable if you manage to buy them close to where they are harvested, Cerritos says.
But once middlemen get involved and the grasshoppers get shipped around the country, the price can as much as triple.
Some chapulín operations maintain their own fields of alfafa—the bug’s favorite food.
But others fly completely under the radar and the catchers trespassing on whatever farms they can find.
Chapulines are agricultural pests, so you’d think farmers would be happy to get rid of them.
But the clandestine hunts can damage crops and pack down the earth in carefully managed fields, breeding ill will between farmers and chapulín catchers instead of cooperation.
In Oaxaca, for example, chapulín catchers gather before dawn on a farm—often without the farmer’s knowledge or permission—and run up and down the rows of crops, plucking chapulines from the plants one at a time.
“That’s not an effective way to catch your lunch, let alone make an affordable product,” says Gabe Mott, co-founder of the company Aspire, which is working to develop insect culinary products in Mexico, Ghana, and the US.
Just like the UN, Aspire thinks entomophagy can help address hunger and poor nutrition around the world; in 2013 the company won the Hult Prize, $1 million in start-up money to social entrepreneurship projects.
But before Aspire or any other company can turn these bugs into a feature, edible insects are going to have to get cheaper.
The chapulín industry, such as it is, is also plagued (heh) by a lack of transparency that’s shocking for a food product.
Even Mott, who has made chapulines his life for the past two years, has never been able to follow a single grasshopper from field to market to plate.
After catchers pluck them from plants (and often roast them), the grasshoppers disappear into unregulated, un-inspected storage facilities before emerging in markets all over the country, sometimes nearly a year later and always with a steep price increase.
Worse, Mott says, “I don’t know what’s on a chapulín if I’m eating it.”
The few dedicated chapulín farms may eschew pesticides, but plenty of other farms from which the grasshoppers are harvested use them liberally.
Are pesticide-drenched chapulines unhealthy?
Do they taste worse?
No one knows, and there’s no way to tell the difference when you’re buying them.
By introducing even the simplest of modern agricultural techniques—and helping independent chapulín farmers learn to apply them, too—Mott says Aspire can lower the price and raise the quality of chapulines all over Mexico.
The company is currently getting its first commercial chapulín farm up and running in Oaxaca, raising grasshoppers indoors to control temperature and humidity and feeding them a dedicated diet.
“Think chicken farming. Well, not the horrible, evil factory chicken farming, but the more humane side,” says Mott, who is a vegetarian but eats insects for work.
When harvest time comes, workers put the mature chapulines in a freezer, which causes their metabolisms to slow down almost like they were hibernating.
“It is a way to put grasshoppers to sleep without stressing them,” says Mott.
“And then they never wake up.” (Chapulines caught in the fields, on the other hand, most often get boiled to death or left to asphyxiate in plastic bags.)
Cerritos, though, is skeptical of Aspire’s model; in Mexico, the abundance of chapulines is “so immense that it’s not necessary to cultivate them,” he says, especially in indoor farms that spend money on air conditioning and food for the grasshoppers.
But Mott says his kind of farms can scale up or down, and that Aspire is also providing instructions for building small, DIY chapulín farms so that people in isolated villages can grow their own grasshoppers in a controlled environment.
Even if Aspire’s farms become the new standard in chapulín husbandry, another obstacle stands between grasshoppers and your tummy.
It takes a full year for chapulín to grow from egg to maturity.
Your standard agribusiness chicken takes about 21 days of egg incubation and six weeks to grow to market weight.
Reducing the time a chapulín takes to grow would reduce the costs of raising it, savings that could be passed on to the consumer.
In addition to its farm, Aspire has opened a smaller research facility in Oaxaca where it can conduct breeding experiments designed to drive down the time between birth and harvest.
Although Mott declined to share specific methods with me on the grounds that Aspire is a for-profit company, he is “confident that we’re going to get the lifecycle down to something considerably more viable than the natural number.”
Eventually, Aspire hopes to add processed chapulines to snack food products to increase their nutritional value, in addition to selling the roasted grasshoppers in markets the traditional way.
The company is also looking into the possibility of importing its chapulines to the U.S.
Already, “there seems to be quite a significant cross-border trade of smuggled chapulines,” most of which probably end up in Mexican restaurants, Mott says.
But since Aspire can document every step of its chapulín growing and harvesting process, it might have an easier time making the grasshoppers a legitimate import.
If mezcal can show up on the menus of high-end craft cocktail bars, maybe authentic, organic chapulines can, too.
And from there it’s just a short hop to the protein aisles at Costco.
Image By Monica Volpin