Why Are Other Cultures Better at Eating Bugs Than We Are?

Originally published at Grist.

In 1845, John C. Fremont was exploring the state that would later come to be known as California. He met a man who had been traveling with a group of trappers, who told him a story. The trappers had run out of food, and decided that the best way out of their predicament was to steal several bags of dried fish from a nearby Native American camp.

So they did. The trappers made dinner. The trappers made breakfast. Then one of them looked at the fish a little more closely. It wasn’t fish at all. It was maggots, pounded into a thin paste and dried.

“The stomachs of the stout trappers were not proof against their prejudices,” wrote Fremont, “The repulsive food was suddenly rejected.”

Recently, I was walking through a grocery store in Manhattan, looking for something to eat on the train.  I found myself eye level with an energy bar whose label bragged about its protein content. All of this was normal — protein is the new low-fat (just as, once, “low-fat” was the new “high fiber”). But one thing was different: the energy bar was made with crickets.

I’d been following the world of insect-eating (entomophagy, to use the precise term) long enough to know that I was looking at a tiny shrink-wrapped miracle.  To get to this point, a lot happen behind the scenes in the American food system. Some people had to set themselves up as growers of insects that met the legal standards of food for humans, not just pet lizards. They had to get approval from the FDA, an agency that thought more about how much insect could accidentally make its way into your food than it did into developing food safety standards for people who wanted to put them there on purpose.

But why didn’t insect-eating become a part of this culture sooner? Not everyone who came across the insect-foraging cultures of North America had a terrible time, even in the 19th century. The botanist William Henry Brewer, who arrived at Mono Lake in Northern California in 1863, seems to have had a fine time eating the “fish.” Brewer came during the spring harvest, when tribes converged on the shores of the lake. The lake was filled with pupae who had grown chubby from eating the lake’s microscopic algae. The fat and protein that they had packed on would kickstart their metamorphosis into an adult fly, but until that metamorphosis happened, Mono Lake was an all-you-can eat insect buffet.

Samuel House

“The Indians come far and near to gather them,” Brewer wrote.

The worms are dried in the sun, the shell rubbed off, when a yellowish kernel remains, like a small yellow grain of rice. This is oily, very nutritious, and not unpleasant to the taste … The Indians gave me some; it does not taste bad, and if one were ignorant of its origin, it would make fine soup.

Mark Twain, who also visited the lake, described it in Roughing It as a “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert.” But appearances were deceiving. Mono Lake was never going to be a landscape that could be farmed — it looked like a science fiction film set. But people who knew how to make use of the flies of springtime were like any culture that figures out how to survive in an inhospitable climate — they had found a species that could convert something inedible (in this case, algae) into a complete protein, and then they ate that species.  “There is no danger of starvation on the shores of Mono,” wrote John Ross Browne, a journalist for Harper’s Monthly, “The inhabitants may be snowed in, flooded out, or cut off by aboriginal hordes, but they can always rely upon the beach for fat meat.”


Europeans and their descendants have experimented with insect cuisine here and there (See: the lively maggot cheeses of Europe). But mostly they have focused on getting rid of insects, rather than turning them into dinner.

Why is it that Europeans never learned to eat bugs? I’ve heard the theory before that it’s because of livestock: Europeans spent so much time hanging out with chickens, goats, sheep, cows, and pigs that going after tiny invertebrates was beside the point. I’ve also heard the argument that agriculture is the culprit: By planting all the foods we like together in one convenient place, we created insect buffets, which then turned insects into the enemy that must be destroyed. But ranching, farming and insect-eating coexist in many cultures in Asia and Africa — so much so that some farmers will use their own fields as bait, capturing the insects that come to eat their crops and then eating them or selling them at the farmers market.

It’s more likely that the limiting factor is temperature. If you’re cold-blooded, like insects are, you’ve got to live in a warm place if you want to have any fun. Insects in cold areas stay small; insects at tropical latitudes grow big and juicy and hang out together in large groups that make them an appealing target. The Native Americans living on the East Coast were not big insect eaters, while the ones living in balmy California and Mexico were amazing at it. When Europeans arrived in a climate like California’s, they simply didn’t have the background to appreciate the invertebrate smorgasbord that was in front of them.

Today, the alkali fly is still a major presence at Mono Lake, but the only thing humans harvest from Mono is the water. In 1941, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting the freshwater streams that feed the lake so that instead of pouring into the lake, it traveled 350 miles south to Los Angeles. The fly population dropped by half, until environmental activists limited the amount of water that was being diverted to protect the only species that still eat the fly larvae — birds. Millions of birds come to the lake during fly season, some of them eating so many insects that they become too fat to fly. Meanwhile, the California drought has left Mono Lake at its lowest levels in decades. Humans still make the pilgrimage out to the lake, but just to watch the birds, not to join the feast.

So we’re still pretty far away from pop-up shops hawking artisanal Mono Lake pupae. In the U.S., entomophagy enthusiasts have chosen to focus on farming insects, instead of foraging for them. Which makes sense: farming is what we know.

But how easy is it to apply farming techniques to insects? More about that in part 2.

Environment, Science

I Test-Drive a Futuristic Mini-Car

Originally published at Grist.

I hate cars for a multitude of reasons, both logical (I’m afraid of getting hit by one) and illogical (cars are just so boring).

But it’s a complicated way to be, hating things. Whenever I decide to just go ahead and full-on loathe, I find myself making exceptions. For example, I am actually pretty excited to be getting into a car right now. My excuse: It’s electric, and it looks like a jellybean on three wheels. Toyota has set up a little practice track in a high school parking lot not far from the Aspen Ideas Festival, where attendees have been disappearing for test drives. For the last few days I’ve been overhearing a lot of excited chatter about the test drives, in between all the fraught panel discussions about “What is America?” (Short answer: complicated) and “Is America a jerk?” (Short answer: probably).

The car is called the iRoad, because Toyota has been putting a lowercase “i” in front of its weirder projects for a while now, and Apple never did win those trademark infringement lawsuits. The iRoad is being billed as marrying the safety and ease of a car with the fun of a motorcycle. I am not sure about the safety part — to the eyes of someone who grew up in SUV country, the iRoad looks alarmingly small, like the clown car of the future.

But once I climb inside the clown car, the feeling changes. It has one very narrow seat in the front, which resembles the pilot seat of a Star Wars X-wing. “The steering is in the back,” says the driving instructor, Steve. “So it’s going to handle counter-intuitively. It’s a good idea to turn earlier than you usually would. There’s a gyroscope inside that will keep you from tipping over. See if you can get around the track and not knock down any of these cones.”

What I want to say is, suavely, “It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home.” But since I drive so infrequently, it takes a while for the muscle memory of the whole process to return. I stare down at my feet. Which pedal is the brake? Which pedal is the accelerator? I push my foot down on each, very slowly, while trying to look supremely confident, and like a person who under no circumstances should be forbidden to drive the prototype car.

Steve looks worried. I think Steve is on to me.

But it is too late, Steve, because I now know which pedal is the accelerator. I take off with a jolt, and round the first corner, sharply. The entire car tilts to one side with the force of the turn, in a way that feels eerily non-vehicular. (I later hear that the main engineer on the project, Yanaka Akihiro, is an ardent skier, and is obsessed with the idea of mechanically replicating the experience of skiing.) Cones topple all around me.

Steve wasn’t kidding about the turns, but each lap around the track feels like I’m getting more of the hang of it, though I’m still taking out the occasional cone. My time is up long before I’m ready to stop driving. I reluctantly step out, wondering, how would this work in the real world? Why don’t we have something like this already?

Well, we have. Many times. When I first saw the iRoad, it looked familiar, though it took a while to realize why. It’s a pint-sized ringer for the Dymaxion Car, the three-wheeled car designed by Buckminister Fuller (with design input from Norman Bel Geddes and Isamo Noguchi). The car was the toast of the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.

The Dymaxion car was much larger than the iRoad. The ideals were futuristic, but in practice it was, like many of Fuller’s later projects, heavily influenced by boat design — Fuller was an avid sailor. Even then, in a time that I (perhaps naively) imagine being rich with parking spaces, since there were so few cars in the U.S. relative to today, its parallel parking skills attracted attention.

Fuller had grand ambitions, which involved altering future models so that they could fly as well as drive. Then, one of the three demo models was involved in a car crash, and its driver was killed. Would-be investors evaporated. Only three cars were ever completed.

Buckminister Fuller insisted that the Dymaxion car had been cleared of fault for the accident, which was true — as the story goes, the crash was caused by an automobile driver who was trying to get close enough to the Dymaxion car to get a better look. But earlier this summer, Dan Neil, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, got a rare chance to take a replica of the original Dymaxion car out for a spin.

The headline — “A test drive of the death trap car designed by Buckminister Fuller” — gives you a good sense of Neil’s conclusion. The three wheels made it more likely to tip over than a regular, four-wheeled car, and the single back wheel began to oscillate dangerously from side to side when the speed got above 50 (which explains why the iRoad doesn’t go faster than 35 mph).

So far, there are only a few hundred iRoads out in the world, and none of them are for sale. A hundred of them are part of a test group in Tokyo, whose drivers are using them as personal cars. Another 70 are part of a car-sharing program in Grenoble, France. It’s been in the works for nearly a decade now; a predecessor, a three-wheeled wheelchair called the iReal, never made it past the concept stage.

What would be a good American location to introduce this vehicle? I am prejudiced, since I live there, but a place like San Francisco — with its moody weather, bad parking, not-so-great transit, and obsession with things that are shiny and new — would seem like a good fit. People in San Francisco will drive almost anything. Before the great pocket bike crackdowns of the early 2000s, the sight of huge men perched on tiny, insanely loud motorcycles was a regular part of the fabric of street life in the Mission. And San Francisco City Hall has four charging stations, which could be an ideal setup for a demo electric car fleet.

But there are issues with the California DMV. By California DMV rules, the iRoad’s weight (light) and number of wheels (less than four) means that it’s in the same class as a motorcycle — so drivers would have to wear helmets. The DMV has been “very accommodating,” according to Jason Schultz, who has been working on iRoad focus groups for Toyota —  but not so accommodating enough yet to waive the helmet law for the iRoad.

This debate over the future of the iRoad — what is it? how best to use it?  — is symptomatic of larger questions about the future of the urban car. Ten or 20 years from now, will there be enough of a market of solo people looking for a permanent, full-time car that they can squeeze into awkward parking spaces? Or will most city cars — no matter what size — be owned by carshare companies?

The carshare market makes some sense for the iRoad because, as Jana Hartline, environmental communication manager at Toyota Motor Sales, describes it, “Americans buy for the ‘what if.’” Someone who drives alone 95 percent of the time will still buy a car that seats two to four people, just in case. A carshare user could check out an iRoad for solo errands, the same way that a person listening to music alone will put on headphones instead of breaking out the boombox.

But would a carshare program go for an eccentric, three-wheeled car that requires at least 15 minutes of training for everyone who drives it, when it could go for something simple like the COMS, its four-wheeled equivalent? (Forbes described the COMS, brutally, as Toyota’s “attempt to capitalize on the diminished expectations of global slackerdom.”) And would drivers of more conventional vehicles share the road with iRoads?

Right now, there are no firm plans to put the iRoad into production, in the U.S. or anywhere. There’s no theoretical price — not even a potential price range. The iRoad is light years more advanced than the Dymaxion car, technology-wise, but it might wind up being an expensive toy (like many other three-wheeled vehicles). It could be perpetually-on-the-verge-of-happening vaporware, like Elio Motors, which claims to have 38,000 orders for its own three-wheeled car, but has struggled for years to actually get the funding to put it into production. (Elio has also struggled with the helmet issue.)

Or the iRoad could just live out its life as a flashy demo, bringing good PR to Toyota, a company which may believe in harmonious transit, but which also recently moved its U.S. headquarters to the suburban sprawl of Plano, Texas — which is one way to make sure that your employees have a lot more firsthand experience with driving than with public transit.

A vehicle like the iRoad won’t get far in a place like Plano. Its 35 mph limit means it can’t get on the highway. It holds about as much charge as a golf cart –- about 30 miles’ worth. And, quite frankly, when you get down to it, the iRoad is a golf cart — it’s just an awesome one. In the same way that Telsla’s big electric car breakthrough was in making the electric car a status symbol, instead of just something noble, the sexying-up of the golf cart is a plausible future for the metropolitan car.

That is, if you are car people. I may have loved driving the iRoad more than I ever expected, but if I want to haul things around the city, be protected from bad weather, and use renewable energy, I’ve already got my technology picked out. I’ve seen cyclists use these capacious rain ponchos in places like Shanghai. They’re kind of like a pup tent you wear on your body — and when this drought ends, believe me, I’m getting one.

It would be great to live in a future where the iRoad would be puttering through traffic. But as for actually buying one? I’m just not the target market. Call me when you put that gyroscope on a bicycle! Then we’ll talk.