This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Mission St. Cuthbert / Pakuri, Guyana – In a small clearing, Leeland Clenkian rams his ax into the decaying wood of a palm tree and pulls out a wriggling tacoma worm.
Tacoma, which Clenkian tosses into a plastic bowl, is a delicacy in this indigenous Arawak community of around 2,000, located a two-hour drive from Guyana’s capital of Georgetown.
“They’re buttery, high in protein, and can be cooked without the need for oil,” Clenkian, a retired Arawak chief and 73-year-old army veteran, told Al Jazeera. “It’s very versatile, very tasty – good for licking your fingers.”
Eaten raw, sautÃ©ed or on skewers and roasted like marshmallows over an open fire, insects like this could help make food systems around the world more sustainable, Clenkian said. As he spoke, a group of worried visitors to town tasted fried tacoma with onions.
As the world’s population is expected to eclipse nine billion by 2050, and climate change-related emissions from livestock continue to rise, experts say diets must change to ensure a sustainable future – and insects could play a role. more than a limited role.
Globally, the livestock industry is responsible for about 15 percent of all human-made carbon emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) .
Insects are about eight times better for the planet than beef when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, said Arnold van Huis, professor emeritus of tropical entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He has spent much of his professional life studying the role of insects in food systems.
“I think everyone realizes that we need to change our diet,” van Huis, a spicy fried locust enthusiast, told Al Jazeera. âI think it’s safer to eat insects than chicken. Insects are taxonomically much more distant from humans than chickens or pigs. Diseases carried by livestock, like mad cows, are generally more dangerous to humans than anything found in insects, he added.
Producing livestock results in 8 times more greenhouse gas emissions and requires 6 times more water than what is needed for edible insects. These tacoma worms in Guyana are tasty when roasted on the fire #food safety #environment pic.twitter.com/5AhewRzgw0
– Chris Arsenault (@chrisarsenaul) November 19, 2021
Producing one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of beef requires about 25 kg (55 pounds) of feed, van Huis said, while one kilogram of protein-rich crickets requires 2 kg (4.4 pounds). of food. Insects are cold-blooded, so unlike cows, they don’t expend energy on producing body heat. Cattle also need about six times more water than an equivalent amount of insects would need, he said.
âAbout 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land is already used for livestock,â he added. “We must change.”
Western aversion to bugs
In much of the South, eating insects is nothing new or exotic. Some two billion people around the world enjoy insects in their regular meals, with around 1,900 edible species, according to the FAO.
There are spicy scorpions as street food in some parts of China; fried termites in western Kenya; dragonflies in curry in Indonesia; beetle larvae in parts of Cameroon; wok-fried tarantulas or silkworms in Cambodia; and gravy dipped mopane worms in rural Zimbabwe.
In Mexico, crispy grasshoppers are served with lime and chili – and of course the humble tequila worm to chase away a strong shot.
In Niger, grasshoppers harvested from millet fields sold for more in local markets than millet itself, according to a 2003 study.
In indigenous Guyanese communities such as Pakuri, the tacoma worm âis not an everyday delicacy,â said Michael Patterson, an indigenous traditional food chef who runs a catering business in Georgetown.
Putting a tree in place – chopping it down, making the right incisions and waiting for the insects to grow in the decaying wood – takes several weeks, and it can’t be done too often without damaging the forest, he said. .
Tacoma worms are normally prepared during cultural activities or festivals, Patterson told Al Jazeera. Their consumption, he said, âcomes down to all the basic survival modes of human beings. Humanity started with the ground; it is a return to these basic principles â.
For some consumers, however, eating bugs isn’t just gross; it is part of a dark and humiliating future. The opening scene of the dystopian sci-fi movie Blade runner 2049 shows the main character entering a protein farm, where a worker dressed in a hazmat suit grows insect larvae in a vat of toxic-looking brown mud.
Van Huis traces the Western cultural aversion to eating insects to environmental factors. Insects tend to be larger, easier to harvest, and available year-round in much of the tropics, compared to smaller insects in much of the western world, which are not accessible in winter.
Even in countries where insects are traditionally eaten, changing food preferences mean that some middle-class consumers are avoiding them, van Huis said, because they are “associated with the diets of the poor.”
Insects for animal feed
For people who aren’t comfortable eating them directly, insects still have a role to play in tackling climate change and making agriculture more sustainable, said Renata Clarke, Barbados-based researcher at the FAO. She is working on a project to make it easier for small farmers to produce insects, mainly mealworms and black soldier flies, to feed chickens and pigs.
âUsing insects as a food source is much less costly for the environment than traditional foods,â Clarke told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. “He’s also less likely to bring up the ‘yuck’ factor than people who consume them directly. Who knows; maybe that’s a way to think differently about insects?”
About 17 percent of the world’s food is wasted, according to a recent FAO report. Leveraging some of this waste as a food source for insects, which could then be fed to livestock, would be a win-win solution for local farmers and the environment, Clarke said.
Many Caribbean countries import 80 percent of their feed, and supply chain disruptions linked to the COVID-19 pandemic – coupled with recent price increases – have made insects more palatable as a source animal feed, she added.
Getting local farmers to produce the insects, rather than importing food from “monopoly” traders, could also strengthen local economies, she said.
Back in Pakuri, Leeland Clenkian and current chef Timothy Andrews hope the tacoma worm can one day be an export for their community – or at least a potential draw for tourists looking to try something new.
They are working on the construction of an ecotourism project where day trippers from the capital or foreign tourists could bathe in the river, watch colorful birds, take a forest hike or try the tacoma worm.
âI’ve heard that bugs are becoming a delicacy in Southeast Asia,â Clenkian said. âSo the tacoma has a good chance of tasting global. “