Musings on new sources of proteins

In an age where the demand for protein has never been in such high demand questions of feeding an ever burgeoning human population spring to mind. In our land of fanatically faithful carnivores, many of us are only waking up to just how environmentally destructive, cruel and how polarising the animal slaughtering business really can be. The release and production of many horrifying reports are increasingly asking us to contemplate if there are any other more ethically superior alternatives.

Seated at a discretely sheltered Danish cafe on a balmy summers evening with a cherished friend we yapped on about the state of his province the West Coast in the South Island and the hardships the region were going through. “Buying meats a killer” he declared flapping his arms like a bird propelling itself into flight. “We’re bloody lucky we’ve got lots of ‘weta’ (cricket insect endemic to NZ) or we’d be eating our gumboots”. I’m sure that even the most famished Coaster would veer away from a tasty treat of fried cricket as to avoid a public lynching at the hands of the public. It was a sly bluff but I wasn’t buying it. That said, his position was understandable and his economic anguish.

However it did lead on to one very inspiring debate not solely about the future fortunes of a reeling community but about the dietary destiny of mankind. For if there was one thing the Coasties (West Coasters) could take consolation in was their ability to promote their well reputed *Wild Food Festival*. This was an occasion which pushed the average everyday ordinary Kiwi to push the limits of what he or she was prepared to stick down their gobs.

While a logger by trade, my rugged weather beaten calloused skinned mate had a sense of affinity for the Greeners. “We got some pretty unique bird and bush. We don’t want to be a mini Outback”. But it was when we came to farming that he became most spirited. “Yeah, it is (the farming sector) our bread and butter (economy) but there’s gotta be more to life than milkshakes and fillet steaks”. I nodded accordingly. “We Kiwis do some flipping crazy sh*t when we go ‘contiki’ and yet when we return we roll back into our conservative shells of conformity.” He did have a point, away from the roost we could be a lively bunch but back in the coop we could equally be a dour and dry lot of mopey Muppets.

He belted on “Nah, that Food Fest brings us to life gets us to mingle and gets us to think beyond the limited notion of either having pork, lamb, beef or chicken for tea each night.” I smiled for both of us knew that even these meats were the preserve of only a select number of economically privileged and soundly blessed New Zealanders. “Back when I was a wee ‘tadpole’ (young boy) lamb was as cheap as chips. The butcher was practically throwing the carcass at ya”.

Indeed I recall those times from my father’s recounts before neo liberalism forced our lamb industry to seek the greater remunerative rewards of the Asian market. And as far as “cheap as chips” the 90s potato blight had certainly reduced this phrase to the redundant file. “Yes” I agreed “Now chicken is the new lamb. That’s what we’d sink (eat) on special occasions”. “And pork” he interrupted flinging his finger in the air like a fierce composer. “But those industries… Mate they can make you ‘chunder’ (vomit)”. Local campaigns had certainly drawn attention to the cruel nature of pen and battery reared creatures.

My passionate friend sounded on. “We always claim we want diversity, choice and that we won’t be pegged and here we are having to live of only a few staples”. “Yeah, well farming is about maximising the mass amount of product which you can get out of your paddocks and from your well permits”. I stated smugly quoting my old AgriTech researchers sale pitch to the class. “True, but mate just look at all the resources needed to beefen up those heifers. Or the f*cking sh*t those pigs and chooks have to go through before they end up in your cauldron”. Brash that my friend was but I could not fault his logic. “Nah, those Maoris is who we ought to be getting lessons from. They know about what ‘kai’ (food) is all about.”

I do agree from a distant summer living at the ‘marae’ (communal house) of a former Kai Tahu (South Island tribe of the Canterbury region) Maori friend that the Maori had a national reputation for being indigenous gourmands. Over several weeks our tummies were satisfied with the unfamiliar delights of eel, trout, shellfish, duck, swan, deer, maku (shark) and wild boar. All deliciously palatable and an immensely memorable experience. Never had I been so surprised by such exotic delights.

“But, we live in the real world I asked. No one or not everyone wants to be a” bushwhacker”(live like an ancestor/person living without technological needs). “Farms exist cos masses exist.” Shaking his head from side to side like a windsock being slapped by the breeze my friend energetically displayed his disappointment towards my restricted remarks. “Who says you can’t farm other things though. There’s got to be even more potential out of farming less resource intensive species while avoiding the ethical perils bound up in it”.

It was then that his piercing ‘pounamu’ (jade/emerald coloured) eyes darted towards a snail sliding its way up the leaf of a gold and royal green hued wide leafed hosta plant. “Escargot, Monsieur?” I recoiled in shock retreating back from the statement that struck me like a venomous snake bite. He grinned. “Ya see, I tell yah. In a fancy Nancy posh Euro cafe enjoying pastries filled with Kiwi butter and cream while sipping a latte with our milk you’re a ‘wuss’ (coward/afraid/chicken/hesitant) but at the Wild food Fest you would have thrown the little sucker down to your gut (stomach).I confess I probably would have but as far as I was concerned the gulf between a one off pageantry of foraged feeds and the daily staple was a width spanning the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

However, in his quest built upon shock and awe my determinedly driven friend was intent upon stamping his case onto my impressionable nature. “Just think about it, Cobber (friend) we could have a bug bug-get (budget – his neologism not mine unfortunately). A Culture of Bugs I pondered, how eerily creepy. I was sceptical. It seemed about as rational as selling ice to Eskimos or bags of sand to bedouins. “Nobody likes creepy crawlies” I stammered. “They seek ways to eradicate them not to have more of them.”

My wise twinkle eyed friend quickly reaffirmed his commanding stance in the dialogue. “Yeah, a whole dirty industry (the pesticide one) which only survives because we allow them too by living upon a chemical obsession.” I respected his passionate plea as my mother had been the toxic chemical nemesis for ages believing in using only two very accessible, very organic and very inexpensive natural items to sanitise our family fort; baking powder and vinegar.

I tried to let him down gently with some dissuading words of reason. “You’re light years ahead of us in your thinking, Bud” I said in my most flattering of make believe tones. “But I just don’t think the masses would flock to your bugphoria craze”. With a wry smile and a quick wink he forced his way back into pole position.

“I know you think I’m deranged and a bit deluded but there have been plenty of nutty ideas over time that managed to make their way into the norm into the err mainstream.” “Like what? “I intendedly pressed on. Well like drinking alcohol, smoking dried leaves and buying sugared water for starters. And what about the fast foodies. Once upon a time we all went home or to the team cafe expecting to eat real grub (food) not the wam bam thanking you McDonald’s girl mam for the burger with the sh*tty dried out piece of jerky lodged between two overly toasted pieces of cardboard which they call a bun. How have we allowed ourselves to accept this? To actually put this cr*p in our guts and to sacrifice tea breaks, lunches and other rest periods with fine food and fantastic company?” “Well we can’t all live like the French” I retorted gruffly “otherwise we’d never get any work done”.

I was all for culinary opulence and indulgence but in the real world of deadlines and insufferably severe schedules le facon francaise seemed a bit too exuberantly lavish given the circumstances. That stated, the quick fix Soylent Green fluid diet which had come to dominate many of our rushed lives was arguably a substandard substitute. And yet, here we were. Some getting through the day on Gatorade, V, Tab, Coke, milk shakes, sugary ice slushies, healthy but not really that healthy smoothies and that king of Kings the caffeine hit in all its shapes and forms.

Thinking about this shambolic liquid intake my reservations about chomping on a bug chip or chewing on a slug pate cracker began to feel more feasible. “All this refined junk we’re throwing into our engine can’t be good for the ol’motor” my friend beat on like a drum in overdrive. “I guarantee you that if you go back to our earliest ancestors they were having a few grasshoppers in the salad bowl”.

Did the shift to agriculture which first appeared in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East lead us to neglect a once vital component of our nutritional intake? But wasn’t the point of growing wheat and domesticating cattle sheep and other creatures to get us away from eating ‘pests’ which carried plagues, ate our crops, bit us, stung us and generally irritated us with their presence? Why would humanity after entering the dawn and glorious light of civilisation ever wish to go back to this Dietary Dark Age? Yes, we probably once roamed around with the minimal fur we could muster but few of us yearn to return to striding the planet in our Birthday Suits.

“I’m not sure people would embrace this blast from the past concept, mate” I said hesitantly. “I just think it’s too radical”. My friend laughed in a mildly mocking manner trying not to wound my injured ego any further. “All it takes is an ideological shift. Then, you’ve hit the jackpot. You’ve found a winner”. “An ideological shift?” I queried. “Yeah ya know like Italian in the 50s and 60s. Seeing Julie Child, Jacque Cousteau whatever. There sceptic at first, curious a moment later and converted two minutes later.”

My friend did lead a compelling case. It was true that after the immigration legislation was softened after the 2nd World War that our foodie revolution really began to take off. “You know what I’m on about” he buoyantly babbled on “those days of just the corner Chippery and nothing more. Now you can chose from Thai, Japanese, Korean or whatever fusion feed ‘floats yer boat’ (makes you happy). Indeed I could attest to most Kiwis shunned away from me in revolt when I recounted to them of having eaten raw fish in sashimi and sushi and even when I told them of how I savoured eating udon noddles with ‘hashi’ (chopsticks). Certainly what we Kiwis know now about food makes me and my ancestors seem like dusty relics.

Bug fever may have seemed implausible upon first appearances but the possibility that it may catch on was by no means a foregone conclusion. How would it catch on though I wondered? My perceptive friend read my mind. “All it would take is for one of the eateries to create a trademark dish. It’s probably gonna come from the Oriental side but ya never know”. Bug dumplings, caesar salad with beatle croutons, it all made the mind spin just thinking about how uncomfortable it made me feel. But, that didn’t mean that I was completely closing the door on the affair. After all, I was one whom believed that everything merited at least a chance.

Still, many doubts flooded my perplexed mind. And I imparted these concerns with my cafe companion. “It would be a mammoth task to manage. How do you exactly farm a bug? How would you contain their numbers? Wouldn’t spraying and the need for insect management control only increase? What if these critters broke free from the bug farmer’s paddock? How would the environment fair faced yet again with another ecological blunder founded on the avarice and ignorance of man. Don’t you think we’d be contributing to a biohazard of epic proportions?”

My friend smiled allowing me to go deeper into my tirade. “And then what will this mean for humanity? Will it create and enforce a culture of inequality between those who eat meat and those who eat bugs? Or what about the biosecurity threat these things might cause to border control, quarantine and the realistic risk of plagues and infestations? Will these creatures once released pose a threat to other species? Plants, animals and our agricultural industry? What will tourists think of us if we go down this road? Would farming bugs threaten our tourist sector? And what about the risks of cross breeding? Are we on the path to creating a Frank-insect? Is it right for us to play God with bug blending? How would this affect our trade industry? Would this turn nations off from trading with us for fear of receiving a Pandora’s Box? Could bugs be perceived as a biological weapon? What kind of reservations might this cause between trading partners and rivals? Could this lead to strained political and socio economic relations? Might one witness the breakdown of economic trade treaties? Wouldn’t this impact upon economies or maybe even contribute to a recession? Beyond breeding a potentially malicious little ecologically perilous nightmare what about that other issue of feeding mankind on bugs? Is that ethically right? What if a sprayed bug makes us ill? Will we be deprived of all other comestibles? Will it put certain other farmers out of their livelihood? How would it be both managed and inspected to ensure that we are getting an edible bug? What will be the distinguishing factors which determine an edible bug from an inedible one? Will bug harvesting be seen as morally complicated in the way we treat this particular type of living creature?”

My friend chuckled heartily. “Geez I never thought of all those possibilities” he said scratching his shaggy head. “I s’pose you have a point”. I grinned somewhat smugly like a living version of the Grinch contented with having made my case. “Still” my friend argued “who knows what we’ll be chomping in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years time”. His poignant words were certainly food for thought as I excitedly gazed down at my Danish “Spandauer” pastry shell bathed in a glossy sticky sweet glazing and hiding a deliciously gooey spiced apple surprise beneath its layers of golden radiance. An exotic foreign ‘postre’ baked item I would not have been eating nor have known about over 20 plus years ago. Maybe bugs do indeed deserve a palatal whirl to get this Cultural Shift ball rolling.

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