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Meet the New York chef who wants to change our diets one bug at a time

Tried meatless Mondays? How about black fly Fridays or scorpion Sundays?

New York City-based chef Joseph Yoon started cooking insects four years ago for an art project. He now wants to change our perceptions of creepy crawlies so that we can have “delicious,” “nutrient-dense,” and “sustainable” insect diets.

“I absolutely love insects,” says Yoon, who is the executive director of Brooklyn Bugs, an organization that promotes edible insects. “The fact that they are so diverse, the fact that there are so many species of insects, the fact that we rely so heavily on insects for our own ecosystem and biodiversity is absolutely fascinating.”

There are more than 2,100 types of edible insects in the world, and they come in varying flavors, such as nutty, citrusy, cheesy and coconutty, says Yoon. “What I’m trying to do is present people with this wonderful cornucopia of flavors, textures and ideas of how to cook with edible insects.”

A sustainable protein source

Insects are regularly consumed by an estimated 2 billion people, according to a 2013 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). However, the report says that feelings of disgust are associated with eating insects in most Western countries.

Feeding the world is an increasingly difficult challenge. Land is scarce and oceans are overfished, yet current food production will need to almost double to accommodate the 9 billion people that are expected to populate the Earth by 2050, according to the FAO report.

And food production is taking its toll on the environment. Recent studies show that the livestock industry generates between 14 and 17% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half the feed needed by pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein, according to the FAO. Protein-rich insect diets could provide a sustainable solution if Western attitudes towards them can change from “ew” to “yum.”

To help reduce the environmental impact of our culinary habits, Yoon wants “to normalize edible insects around the world, particularly right here where I live in America.”

Crickets, mac and cheese

But even for those who are willing to try, it’s not always obvious how best to incorporate insects into their diet.

“When people ask me how they should integrate crickets or insects into their food, one of the favorite ways I like to do it is simply in my favorite foods,” Yoon says. “You don’t have to think about making a new dish with a new ingredient but if you like to make fried rice like I do, I love making fried rice with crickets. I love adding crickets to my mac and cheese. You can add the cricket powder to the cheese sauce.”

He follows in the footsteps of other insect innovators trying to change Western attitudes.

Among the early adopters, in 2012 American entrepreneur Patrick Crowley introduced an insect-protein product to the United States, the Chapul Cricket energy bar, which was fortified with cricket flour. An edible insect farm, Next Millennium Farms, opened in Canada in 2014.

In 2019, about 9 million people in Europe consumed insects and their derived products, according to the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed. It forecasts that figure will be 390 million consumers by 2030.

“When you think about insects – quite possibly one of the smallest organisms that we can think of … can one bug make a difference? Can one human make a difference?” Yoon says. “One of the really big driving factors of my work is that, yes, each one of us has a responsibility. Incorporating edible insects into your diet once a week can make a big difference.”

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