Why you should care
Mexico is getting left behind as edible insects turn into big business.
For several years now, eating insects has been touted as the next big way to save the planet, with many media outlets trumpeting the insect-eating revolution. And for good reason. Rich in protein and fiber and with similar levels of fatty acids as those found in fish, insects such as mealworms, caterpillars and crickets, among hundreds of others, are healthy food options. Raising insects also produces far less greenhouse gas emissions and uses much less water than beef, chicken or pork. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has argued that if people could get over the “disgust factor,” a strong edible-insect industry could reduce world hunger and malnutrition. In 2015, Oct. 23 was declared World Edible Insect Day.
Mexico is a natural to be at the forefront of the insect-eating revolution, which has an estimated global market worth of $607.5 million. According to the FAO, Mexico has the greatest variety of edible insects in the world and its bug-eating tradition dates back to precolonial times. But that’s not enough to make an industry. According to a report by market research firm Meticulous Research …
Mexico has 29 percent of the world’s edible insect species, but its share of the edible insect market is just 1.7 percent.
The same research predicted that the edible insect market will reach a value of $1.2 billion by 2023, as an increasing number of companies are developing insect-based products such as powders, protein bars, shakes and oils, among others. Mexico’s warm, humid climate is conducive to raising insects — but its industry lags behind that of the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and many Asian countries (Thailand is the world leader in the industry). What countries like Finland lack in bugs, they make up for with a willingness to invest in a form of protein that could be more sustainable than steak.
Mexico is home to an estimated 549 species of insects that are safe to eat and nutritious, and the country has a long history of eating insects. Among the country’s many culinary traditions, ant eggs are cooked in butter and eaten in tacos; dried worms are crushed and mixed with salt and chili powder to make a condiment; and stink bugs are cooked with tomatoes and peppers to make sauce. The country already has much to offer in making creepy-crawlies taste delicious.
But as insects are increasingly promoted around the world as an environmentally friendly alternative to protein, critics point to a widespread culture of fumigation and a lack of clear regulations and government support as major factors preventing Mexican businesses from profiting.
“The Mexican edible-insect market is lagging behind many countries’ mainly due to factors such as a lack of farming practices — as many insects are not farmed, they are caught wild in nature,” says Shubham Lawande, an alternative protein consultant at Meticulous Research and author of the report. “Moreover, there are very few edible-insect-processing companies because of the high cost of production, little funding and lack of government support.”
Salvador Álvarez knows this all too well. The Mexican entrepreneur has worked in the small edible-insect industry in Mexico since 2013, first as a liaison for foreign companies interested in breaking ground in the country and then as founder and director of his own mealworm startup, Órbita Verde.
Álvarez says there is a strong cultural division in the country: Central and southern Mexico have a long-standing tradition of catching insects to eat them, while people in the north fumigate them as they are considered a nuisance.
In most of Mexico, “eating insects is seen as a cultural vestige, an unusual and interesting thing from our indigenous communities and not a source of economic growth,” Álvarez explains. “Officials don’t see the potential in this as an industry.”
Facing a lack of information on the country’s sector — there is no record of all the insect-raising businesses in operation — Álvarez is rallying a handful of companies to organize and register as a nongovernmental body that could work to promote the benefits of edible insects and create a stronger market.
He has also approached lawmakers, Cabinet members and health officials in the past six years, he says, in the hopes of pushing for legislation that would recognize Mexico’s wide range of edible insects as a food source. Álvarez refers to the European Parliament’s recent vote that approved new insects as sources of food and unified standards for companies across that region.
“If that were to happen in Mexico, producing insect-based food would be far easier,” Álvarez says. “Everything, from importing the necessary technology to ensuring good-quality standards, it would just work.”