Ant Eaters

Scientists are promoting edible forest insects as a protein-rich alternative to beef.

An Atta columbica queen with workers

Dining with the Colombian ambassador at his London residence is a challenging culinary adventure—and not for those of a delicate constitution. Mauricio Rodríguez Múnera is a renaissance man, with a background in business and journalism. He is partial to sharing his passion for Atta laevigata, an exotic leaf-cutter ant, which he describes with schoolboy enthusiasm: “Their bottoms are huge—in Colombia we call them hormigas culonas— roughly translated as ‘big-ass ants.’ I love them.” He has regular supplies sent to his ambassadorial kitchen in London’s Belgravia.

This particular ant species is indigenous to the Santander region, where Rodríguez Múnera used to catch them as a child in the rainy season. Only the queens, he tells me, are eaten; they are harvested between March and June, when they make their nuptial flight (and as a result are presented as symbolic gifts at Colombian weddings). After their wings have been removed, they are then soaked in salted water and roasted.

The ambassador invites me to try one. Feeling a tad squeamish, I select a queen and scrutinize her as she lies on the pristine white tablecloth. About an inch long, she does indeed sport a bulbous rear attached to her large black head by a delicate neck; her row of legs still perfectly intact, bent menacingly, as if ready to leap. Alive, she would have scared the pants off me; dead, she looks like the charred corpse of a wingless hornet.

Hesitantly, I pop her into my mouth; she crunches and crackles between my teeth, releasing a welter of salt and black treacle. The first successfully negotiated, a bowl of fellow queens is proffered; I have another and another. I stop at five. The ambassador awaits my verdict. “Pork scratchings,” I say finally. The photographer explains that this curious English delicacy is ordinarily accompanied by five pints of bitter. Rodríguez Múnera beams, and explains the hormiga culona is considered an aphrodisiac, a boast not yet associated with the humble English pig.

The tasting at the Colombian residence was no idle culinary indulgence. It was a rehearsal for a grand Banquet of Rainforest Insects, which I’m holding later this month in Oxford as part of my mission as an artist to highlight the “natural capital” of rainforests. Improbable as it may seem, edible forest insects are now being promoted by scientists as a protein-rich alternative to beef as world meat supplies fail to cope with the demands of our increasing population (predicted to rise to eight billion by 2030). Food security is fast becoming a hot political topic, and experts predict a worldwide meat crisis, leaving millions starving. Sir John Beddington, the government’s chief scientific adviser, believes the world faces a “perfect storm” by 2030 with the population rising by six million every month. With our food reserves at a 50-year low, Beddington estimates that by 2030 the demand for food will increase by 50 per cent, demand for water by 30 per cent and demand for energy by 50 per cent.

Edible insects are rich in proteins, minerals and vitamins and are being actively promoted by the United Nations as the secret weapon in averting a worldwide famine. According to a recent UN report: “Edible insects constitute high-quality food for humans, livestock, poultry and fish. Because insects are cold-blooded, they have a high [pro rata] food conversion rate—crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” Only a few countries “farm” insects, and the UN is now spending millions of dollars to investigate mass insect production.

Insect farms also tick all the environmental boxes: they emit only a fraction of the harmful gas emissions caused by livestock farming; require no fertilizers, little water and none of the land clearance needed for cattle ranching, a principal driver in deforestation. Insects also reproduce at a faster rate than conventional livestock: female crickets can lay from 1,200 to 1,500 eggs in three to four weeks. As Meg Lowman, a pioneer of rainforest canopy research, says: “Eating bugs is the most sustainable diet on the planet—insects are high in protein, low in cholesterol, and rearing insects has a very small energy footprint. You can grow thousands of crickets in a shoebox without petroleum fertilizers or forest clearance.”

Today, more than 1,000 species of insects are eaten as part of the regular diet of about 2.5 billion people, mostly in Africa and Asia, but the traditional diet is under threat as new generations imitate the western taste for meat.

The Colombian ambassador is not only a keen exponent of insect eating—or entomophagy—but is also active in conserving his country’s rainforests, which are being razed to grow the coca plant for cocaine. I met him by chance through an art project of mine, the Ghost Forest.

Like many others I have been alarmed by the depletion of our natural resources, and as an artist, I thought I would try and express this visually. The adventure began two years ago, when I found a commercially logged primary rainforest in Ghana, west Africa. I persuaded the loggers there to give me 10 mighty tree stumps—seven naturally fallen and three logged buttresses, with one stump weighing the equivalent of a London double-decker bus. The absence of the tree trunks was intended as a metaphor for the loss of the planet’s lungs, and my concept was to present them as a “ghost forest” in the middle of Trafalgar Square. The trees were first shown at the feet of Nelson’s Column, then outside the Danish Parliament during the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. They now adorn the lawn of Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Rodríguez Múnera, who saw the trees in Trafalgar Square, is now one of the “ambassadors” of the Ghost Forest project, and together with fellow entomophagist Meg Lowman, we decided to stage an insect banquet on March 27. We will invite food critics from the national press to sample dishes of grasshoppers, ants, tarantulas, scorpions … prepared by former Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers, who has agreed to be banquet chef.

Miers, who founded the Wahaca restaurant chain after being inspired by Mexican street food, is another insect aficionado. “Insects are really good!” she says. “Ants’ eggs—escamoles—are the real delicacy, and are called Mexican caviar. They taste creamy and have a wonderful soft texture.”

“Insects traditionally were part of the normal diet,” Miers says. “Before the Spanish invaded Mexico there was no pork and no cattle so protein was found from beans, amaranth (a protein-rich grain similar to quinoa), fish from lakes and the ocean and the occasional hunted wild turkey, goat, tortoise or armadillo. Insects therefore provided an abundant, everyday source of protein. It is funny how we don’t baulk at the thought of eating fish eggs and yet ants’ eggs sound weird. It is really just what you are used to …”

Miers once took 12 managers and chefs from her restaurants in England to Mexico where she introduced them to entomophagy. The reaction was very positive apart from that of one manager. “He refused to try anything. I thought it was very poor … eating a langoustine or prawn is just like eating a lizard or insect, one just lives in the sea and one on land. Ecologically we will have to start getting our protein from other sources as our population increases as the planet cannot support our growing demand for meat. Our rainforests are suffering as we slash and burn to grow animal feed and we deplete our oceans of fish.”

I am in wholehearted agreement with Miers. But I must confess my passionate endorsement is slightly tempered by my struggle to extract the black ant legs stubbornly lodged between my incisors. Ordinarily this would be of no consequence, were it not for my forthcoming appointment with the dental hygienist.

Some Worldwide Delicacies

Japan: Grubs of longhorn beetle marinaded in soy sauce and grilled.

Samoa: Insects fed on coconut shavings, roasted over charcoal and wrapped in banana leaf.

Cambodia: Baked tarantula cooked in a clay pot to remove its hair.

Japan: Aquatic fly larvae sautéed in sugar and soy sauce.

Bali: De-winged dragonflies boiled in coconut milk with ginger and garlic.

Italy: Casu marzu,” Sardinian cheese riddled with live insect larvae, sometimes known as “maggot cheese.”

Korea: Silkworm pupae boiled and seasoned to make a popular snack food.

Papua New Guinea: Sago grubs in banana leaves.

South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe: Mopane worm, fried until crispy and served with tomato relish.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.