When Insects Become A Delicacy

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Earth is running out of food, but there are untapped resources below our feet.

The UN states that by 2050 our population will exceed 9 billion and that we Westerners will do what the rest of the world does now: embrace edible insects! Yes, from grasshoppers to ants to worms, these critters make up a food source both nutritional and ecologically low-impact, so why do we scoff at the idea?

A new film takes us to the places that serve things like fried ant larvae tacos and roasted termite queens to show us the delicious benefits of insects.

BUGS, described as “equal parts culinary documentary, political conversation starter and travelogue,” made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 16th. The film follows a group of chefs and researchers from the Copenhagen-based Nordic Food Lab on their quest to uncover new tastes and establish sustainable alternatives.

BTR speaks to Andreas Johnsen, creator, director and cinematographer of BUGS, and Roberto Flore, head chef and researcher at Nordic Food Lab, about the future of food production and the importance of connecting with local communities.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Why don’t we start out with a little bit of background about the documentary; why you wanted to make it in the first place? Did you have a pretty clear vision from the start or did it evolve?

Andreas Johnsen (AJ): I live in Copenhagen and I have friends who work at a restaurant called Noma. Nordic was started by René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, who started Noma, and René Redzepi still runs it. Nordic Food Lab was situated on a houseboat right next to Noma in the center of Copenhagen, and of course I knew of it, although I actually did not know them personally.

I heard about a project they were doing on edible insects and I had meetings with them and they explained everything to me. They had been going on all these fantastic field trips around the world, and I liked the fact that it was a project that took place over three years, so there was a great chance of it developing more. Not only the project, but the people themselves. I immediately saw that there was potential for a film here.

The first trip we went on was actually Sardinia, where we visited Roberto and we tasted the Casu Marzu and were introduced to the whole production method, and that’s where we all became friends, really, and that was the birth of the project. It was amazing, and from then on, we went to every corner of the world.

In the beginning, it was very much about culinary methods and traditions and the tastes of different insects around the world, but it became more and more about our current food systems, how they work and how they do not, and sustainability; and if we were to make an industry out of producing insects, how could it be sustainable? So, the project became more and more interesting for me.

BTR: What happens if corporations come in and take over this new, potentially financially rewarding system for themselves? What are your ultimate thoughts on this issue? Do you predict that insects are going to be the next big industry in food?

AJ: For me, when I make films, I don’t try to predict anything. I like to put out different solutions I’d like the audience to think about, to raise questions and through that, raise awareness, and to make sure people ask these questions, and not just go along with what the media writes or what they’re told in the first place.

Roberto Flore (RF): Our goal is to create a product that tastes the best it possibly can and takes into account all aspects of the food production chain, not only protein, for example. Today, people are talking about just protein and sustainability, but I don’t think the point of the film is to go against mass production. I think it’s more an overview of what is happening in the world right now, and if this film is going to open a new way of thinking for big companies, welcome! That’s a good goal because not all the big companies are bad and not all the small companies are good, in terms of practice, so this is something we always need to take into consideration.

BTR: What was the biggest challenge for you guys in terms of production? You traveled all over the place. Was that difficult?

AJ: For me, as a filmmaker, there are so many obstacles. Just the fact that I have to cut 400 hours down to an hour and a half is so much work and it takes such a long time, but I always choose to go along on the ride and be there. You could say I’m taking an active part, but I’m really letting, in this case, Nordic Food Lab, do whatever they need to do to get their research, and then my film comes in second place. There were times when the film was not fruitful at all, because the research was not fruitful. It was just waiting and waiting, but otherwise, it’s been a great adventure to go on this trip.

RF: In terms of the insect, for me, it was one of the most beautiful projects that I’ve done in the lab. I’m coming from a culture where the insect is an ingredient, so it was a moment for me to take my product and bring it to the world, and meet other people through food and go to Japan or Kenya, and feel a special connection. That has made me extremely responsible.

BTR: Does meeting these people in person have a really profound effect on you? Do you hold them in your thoughts when you go back and start creating dishes?

RF: Yes. As a chef, I’m always profoundly impacted by everything around me. Maybe as a person…

AJ: Totally, as a human being. Because we have these really deep experiences with beautiful traditions and other people’s hospitality, and the families, communities and different generations. It’s very deep. It’s a life experience and you keep it with you always and it shapes your personality.

BTR: Did you or the crew ever experience a little bit of nervousness filming people consuming insects?

AJ: Why should we be nervous? For us, it’s just food, and when you come with that approach, in a respectful way, that’s when you get the deep connection.

RF: The history of gastronomy is full of products that some people find disgusting. It’s not just insects. In Scandinavia, there are so many types of fermentation for fish, or for some people the idea of eating rabbit is just too much. So it’s just perception, and the way you perceive the edibility of a product is also affecting your relationship with the entire environment around you. This is part of the concept of sustainability.

Be sure to check out this week’s Scotch & Cinema to hear the full interview.