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The protein source of the future

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 12, 2013 04:24 PM

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British food personality Jay Rayner issued a pointed message to squeamish eaters earlier this month: Get used to it, he said, because soon we're all going to be eating insects.

Rayner's presentation was provocative but his argument was serious. A lot of our dietary protein, he explained in a short item in The Observer, comes from meat, and meat, as we've all been told, is a resource intensive way to eat: It takes something like 5-10 pounds of grain feed to make 1 pound of meat, which is to say nothing of all the water livestock slurp on their way to the slaughterhouse. According to Rayner, who has a book on the future of food production coming out this May ("Greedy Man in a Hungry World"), this makes meat an unsustainable protein source for a growing global population.

Insects, however, are also protein-rich, but unlike beef, they're eco-friendly, and bountiful. Rayner doesn't expect Europeans to be chowing down on whole silkworm pupae anytime soon, but he says there will be subtler ways to turn creepy crawlers into food. He references European Union-funded academic projects that are working on ways to "liberate" protein from insects. Once fried freed, Rayner argues, this protein can be repackaged as some kind of euphemistically named ingredient (he suggests "NaturesBounty") and shaped into delectables like the-food-formerly-known-as-hamburger. Whether or not insect-based foods will take off is hard to say. They could be the food source of the future. Or, they could be a clever ploy by billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel to make his in vitro meat venture look delicious by comparison.

Image of fried grasshoppers courtesy of GrilledBabyPandas.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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