Opinion | The Joy of Cooking (Insects)

Climate-conscious cooking means getting creative.

Climate-conscious cooking means
getting creative.

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Video by Tala Schlossberg, Kirk Semple and Jonah M. Kessel

Ms. Schlossberg is a producer and animator for Opinion Video, where Mr. Semple is a reporter and producer and Mr. Kessel is the deputy director.

“We’re Cooked” is an Opinion Video series about our broken food system and the three chances you get to help fix it — and save the planet — every day.

Mealworm soup. Chile-lime cricket tacos. Charred avocado tartare with ant larvae.

In the West, edible insects have long been the domain of food adventurers, with few other takers — even as billions of people elsewhere on the planet count insects as a part of their traditional diets.

But as we explore in the Opinion Video above, a growing tribe of environmentalists, academics and entrepreneurs are arguing that edible insects must enjoy a wider acceptance to help create a more sustainable global food system and save the planet.

It’s a matter of numbers. The world’s population is booming. So, too, is agricultural production to meet the growing demand for food. Yet agriculture, particularly the production of meat, is a big driver of environmental harm.


Meet the People Getting Paid to Kill Our Planet

American agriculture is ravaging the air, soil and water. But a powerful lobby has cleverly concealed its damage.

I get it. You’re angry. “Go home!” The oil companies lied to us for years to line their pockets. Our leaders talk tough and act weak, telling us to recycle more, as if that’s going to make a difference. “Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.” You recycle? Great. Drink through paper straws and join protests? Go you. But all your anger at politicians and big oil — it’s ignoring a major polluter, a web of industries churning out at least one third of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world, a system that’s polluting our water and degrading our soil. “I want to be blunt with you. I’m very frustrated that the incredible climate movement in America doesn’t talk enough about food.” Yeah, it’s our food system. And a big part of that is agriculture, the industry that farms your food. And in the United States, it’s a significant polluter. Annual emissions? About the same as 143 million cars. Annual profits? About $116 billion. Environmental regulation? Very little. So keep being angry about power plants and planes and plastic straws, but you’re missing a huge piece of the story. “You cannot solve the climate problem unless you fix the American and global food systems.” It’s time to tell that story, and it begins on a farm. Ah, American farming. Young, honest, hardworking families at one with nature bringing forth plentiful bounty using ancient techniques. It’s hard to imagine this being bad for the planet. [ENGINE TURNING OVER] It’s time to ditch your view of the farm. During the last hundred years, the number of farms has plummeted, but their size has soared. Today, much of your food is produced on a small number of very large farms. They look like this and this. “It’s really hard to call many of these places farms.” Yeah. If anything, they’re — “ — much more akin to a factory than they are to anything like a farm.” Meet Peter Lehner. He’s an attorney with an unusual client. “Yes, I’m a lawyer, and my client is planet Earth.” We could go on for hours about all the harmful ways industrial farming is turning up planet Earth’s thermostat. But there are three consequences you really should know about. First, plowing and tilling. That releases carbon dioxide from the soil, as if we needed any more of that floating about. Second, fertilizing the crops. That’s a big source of nitrous oxide, a nasty greenhouse gas. And third, the cattle. More specifically, their burps, a major source of methane. Now methane doesn’t linger as long in the atmosphere as, say, CO₂. But you should know it’s potent stuff. “A bullet doesn’t last a long time, but it can have a big impact.” It’s not just their burps. Industrial farms have so many animals producing so much waste, they have to wash it into these ponds. “That lake is a manure lagoon.” Cue more methane. Oh, and this manure sometimes seeps into nearby streams and rivers. “Toledo’s water supply contaminated because of this algae bloom in Lake Erie caused by runoff from farms and livestock pens.” “Putting poop into our drinking water.” [RECORD SCRATCH] “I don’t know if you want to say that, but that’s what it’s going, what it’s doing.” Now humans have been farming for millennia, but never at such an industrial scale. You probably don’t live near a farm, and maybe you’ve never been on one. But from up here, it’s clear America basically is a farm. Agriculture uses much of the country’s land and a lot of its water. And in some places, it’s still expanding. In 2019 alone, another 2.6 million acres of North American grassland became farmland. Acres of land that were once storing greenhouse gases are now pumping them out. “Industrial agriculture today is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the U.S., one of the largest sources of air pollution, one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution.” And get this. The five biggest meat and dairy producers in the world together produce more emissions than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP. And if all the cattle in the world were a country, it would be the second-biggest greenhouse gas polluter after China. The stakes couldn’t be higher. But wait, did someone say steak? Given all this, why aren’t we angry about the agriculture industry in this country? Why, when we think of climate change, do we think of big oil, not big ag; Exxon and not Tyson? Well, don’t beat yourself up. A lot of people have spent a long time, not to mention a huge amount of money, to hide the environmental harm of industrial farming. It’s time you met the big ag lobby, one of the most powerful influences on policy in America. Just how powerful? “Well, how many vegans do you know?” This is Jennifer Jacquet. She’s been investigating the ag lobby. Along with Peter, she’s going to pry open the lid for us on how the lobby works. And now our story moves from a farm to a hill. You don’t have to walk far around Washington, D.C., to find a group lobbying for big ag. There are loads of organizations, all of them within a taxi ride of Congress. But if you remember just one, make it — “The American Farm Bureau Federation.” “They are a force to be reckoned with.” Run these days by this guy, Zippy Duvall, a man with friends in high places. “Where’s Zippy? Zippy? Zippy? Hi, Zippy. What a good name.” Now, some argue lobbying is an important part of the democratic process. But when we started digging into the big ag lobby, we discovered it’s basically — “The most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. They’re phenomenally powerful.” Big farming corporations are making huge profits at the planet’s expense, and they’d really like to keep doing that without any interference, thank you very much. So the big ag lobby has one key aim — block environmental regulation. “The 10 largest meat and dairy companies, they are all actively working against regulations in one way or another. The lobby will fight anything, whether it’s access to grazing land, climate legislation that potentially will increase costs.” The lobby strategy involves three big plays, starting with a myth. “— was 6 when I knew what I wanted to be.” This slick film, produced by a lobbying group called U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action, shows just how they want you to think about farmers. “That’s what you’ll see on the side of your milk carton. It’s the bucolic family farm. It’s the mom-and-pop farmer, often with a little kid in their arms.” “Truly becoming more and more sustainable? I felt like I was on a mission.” [RECORD SCRATCH] Here’s a quick reminder of what farming actually looks like. “Those practices are only used on about 2% or 3% of American cropland.” “I mean, this is just pure propaganda. It’s a Marvel movie for agriculture.” “We’re superheroes.” And like a Marvel movie, it’s building a myth, a myth where industrial farmers are superheroes defending the Earth, not destroying it. Their archenemy? “Any type of mandatory regulation or even reporting of their pollution.” And as long as we all continue to believe this myth, they’re winning. During the last two decades, the agriculture industry spent $2.5 billion on lobbying. That’s a lot less than the fossil fuel industry, sure, but try telling that to the shareholders at Tyson. “In terms of the percentage of revenue that they’re willing to spend on political action, Tyson, one of the biggest meat companies in America, spends more on political lobbying than ExxonMobil does.” That cash buys the industry friends in powerful places. “We know this involves a revolving door between industry and government positions. John Boehner, who is an infamous climate denier — he stood in the way of climate action through many administrations. He is now on the board of JBS.” And if there’s cash to spare, hey, why not sponsor a major sports team or two? You would think this would be a crisis the Democrats could unite around. But because everyone has farms in their state, politicians on both sides are easy to persuade. Meanwhile, environmental activists? They’re busy fighting everything else. “Most environmental groups will only spend maybe 1% or 2% of their budget on agriculture, despite its enormous impact.” “We don’t control the conversation, they do.” And perhaps the lobby’s biggest advantage is that all this pollution? You can’t see it. “It’s pretty easy to measure what’s coming off of a factory. You’ve got smokestacks. You’ve got specific discharge pipes. But it’s hard to put a gizmo to measure what’s coming off of millions of acres of fields.” All these factors give the big ag lobby an easy ride. But make no mistake. “The P.R. firms are excellent. The lawyers are excellent. I absolutely envy how good these lobbyists are at their job.” It’s outrageous what the big ag lobby has gotten away with. Here are some big wins. Any suggestion that methane emissions should be regulated are quickly branded a — “— cow tax.” A catchy rallying cry that politicians and commentators can parrot. “— cow tax.” “— cow taxes.” “— cow taxes.” That flips a smart green idea into something that sounds absurd and won’t pass. That’s the big ag lobby in action. And when big ag’s lack of regulation gets challenged? “The industry was able to go to Congress, and within about six months, get Congress to amend the law to exempt animal factories from reporting their toxic air emissions. You can imagine how frustrating that is.” The big ag lobby. Meanwhile, while Congress hauls big oil execs in to answer for their lies — “You’re funding these groups. They’re spending millions of dollars in Congress to kill electric vehicles. You could tell them to knock it off for the sake of the planet. Would any of you take the opportunity to look at API and say, stop it? Any of you?” The big ag execs have never been grilled in the same way. That’s the big ag lobby, baby. Remember the Kyoto Protocol back in the ’90s, or the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill during the Obama administration? They never made it past the finish line in the United States, thanks in part to you know who. And how about this? “Sustainability is everything to a farmer because we want our farms to live on for other generations.” After years of denying climate change — “The American Farm Bureau Federation didn’t really recognize the reality of human-induced climate change until a couple years ago.” — and downplaying farming’s role in it — “Are we really causing climate change?” “The science doesn’t back up pointing to U.S. cattle as a major driver of increasing methane.” — big ag is now rebranding itself as the solution to global warming. “Sustainability is a buzzword today. But truth be known, farmers and ranchers have been working on sustainability from the beginning.” Since the beginning of when, last week? Seriously, that is some manure lagoon-sized BS. Oh, wait, there’s more. “JBS, the largest meat company in the world, took out a full-page ad in The New York Times committing to net zero.” But don’t be fooled. “Meanwhile, they’re also funding trade organizations, Republican congressmen, they’re fighting bills, but they’re doing it through these third parties so that they don’t have to take the hit reputationally.” As if it’s about turn isn’t outrageous enough, get this. “But we’re going to take the lead. We’re going to be part of that solution. We’re going to make sure that we’re at the table.” Big ag now says it wants farming to be more sustainable, but on two conditions. First, it’s insisting that measures be voluntary, and second, that farming corporations get paid by us to go green. “They want to get paid to clean up their mess.” It’s like oil companies demanding billions of dollars to clean up after a spill. Man, this lobby is incredible. What do we do about it? “I want to just interrupt. I think that what I need to go to is a caucus meeting. And as much as I’m dying to hear my colleague and friend Chuck Schumer speak, this is more important.” Senator Cory Booker is a member of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, and he’s one of the few elected officials who have taken on the big ag lobby. “I’ve been here eight years. From oil to pharma, the most powerful lobby to me is the big food, because again, they have allies and influence on both sides of the aisle. We also need to take the worst offenders, who are releasing extraordinary amounts of methane, who are ruining our rivers and lakes and streams, who are offsetting all of these collateral consequences to us and keeping all the profits for themselves. There must be regulation. And we need to take these big, multinational factory farms and stop them, put a moratorium on their growth and eventually phase them out.” Will big ag ever get regulated? One day soon, it will have to change its ways. “— historic drought across the West is already impacting the agricultural industry.” “Some farmers say they’re having to walk away from fields of crops just to get through this dry —” “— high water has delayed planting for many growers who can’t afford to miss out on a good crop this season.” “Rain has washed away parts of his fields.” In their greed, they’ve created a self-defeating feedback loop that’s harming us all. “We — we are past a national emergency.”

Scientists have warned that unless we make major adjustments to the kinds of food we eat and how we produce it, we have no chance of meeting our climate goals. A change in dietary patterns, especially reduced demand for meat, would help relieve pressure on the environment and mitigate global warming.

That’s where insects come in. Though the research is still nascent, the early evidence suggests that some edible insects offer a more environmentally sustainable alternative to some conventional livestock. Insects also offer tremendous potential as pet food and a feed source for conventional livestock.


See the True Cost of Your Cheap Chicken

Modern poultry farming keeps chicken cheap but steals the dignity of both animal and farmer.

“Got to walk the dog. What time do I need to pick up Andy? There’s nothing in the fridge for dinner again. Come on, just pick something. You haven’t got time to hang around. Hot dogs? No, not healthy. Lasagna? Nope, Adam won’t eat burned noodles.” [WIND CHIMES] “Wait. Of course, chicken — natural, organic, antibiotic-free. And, Mama, look at that price.” Hold on. Not so fast. “Huh? Wait. Who are you?” I’m the narrator. You think chicken’s cheap? “I never really —” Come on, let me show you the true cost of your cheap chicken. “I’m actually kind of busy.” Fantastic. Let’s go. “No, wait. I —” What I’m about to show you is very rare. It’s almost impossible to get inside one of these buildings. “Where are we?” On a farm, raising chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the biggest poultry producers in the country. “But I —” Sh-sh-sh-sh. “When I enter one of these houses, it’s like you’re entering a nuclear waste site.” This is Leah Garcés. She’s on a mission to end factory farming. She’s going to take us inside. “It’s going to smell really bad. I am not prepared for the smell, for this wall of ammonia that hits you. And it stings your eyes. You start coughing. [COUGHS] It is a sea of white. No natural light, no fresh air. It’s the most barren environment possible. All of these birds — tens of thousands of birds — are defecating, and the ammonia produces burns on their chest and on the pad of their feet. That’s a burn from the ammonia on his foot. Red, raw, bedsore-looking belly from laying on the litter like that all the time. It’s very hot to touch. You’d only go a few steps before you’d see a bird with the leg splayed out to one side or back deformed. And they have very labored breath, and you can see their eyes are glassy. There’s a really bad one up here. I don’t even want to — ugh.” If you eat cheap chicken in America today, this is almost certainly how it lives. “These are the birds that are going to supermarket, to restaurant chains, to wherever you’re eating chicken. If you’ve eaten one of these chickens, you’ve eaten an animal that had burns somewhere on their body.” These conditions are the byproduct of a system designed to maximize profits and satisfy your appetite for cheap chicken. Notice the dim light. It’s carefully regulated. More light makes the birds excited and burn more calories. Alongside decades of selective breeding, this means they now grow six times faster than a century ago, with lots of juicy breast meat. But look at this. Their small bodies struggle to support the extra weight. “Something’s wrong with her legs, and she can’t find her balance. A typical thing you will see is a flipped-over bird. So they’re on their back, wings up, and they’ve had a heart attack because their heart has been exhausted by this growth.” Yeah, chickens die before they even make it to the slaughterhouse — a lot of them — about 4,000 on this one farm alone in a six-week period, from dehydration, heart attacks and disease. That’s a mortality rate of about 5 percent, and that’s the average across the whole country. Add up every factory farm in the U.S., and you have around 450 million chickens dying every year. “They just burn millions of chickens? That doesn’t sound like a good business model.” Oh, that’s part of the reason the cheap chicken business model works so well. But to show you why, I need you to meet one of the farmers. The guy who runs this farm doesn’t want to talk. He’s scared for reasons you’ll understand in a few minutes. But this is a very typical farm. “The farm, it could be anywhere. It could be in Georgia, could be in Arkansas, could be in Alabama — anywhere where chickens are grown, in the United States, especially.” So here’s another farmer who will talk to you. “My name is Greg Kerry. I’ve been a poultry grower for 22 years now.” He runs a farm in Georgia, and he fell in love with chicken farming when he was just 7 years old. “There is a certain amount of exhilaration in getting 100,000 birds and day-old chicks and then raising them.” Greg is a hard-working American and an experienced poultry farmer. It doesn’t make sense that he’d tolerate animal suffering like this. Well, here’s the thing. He doesn’t have a choice. “You can’t control how much feed you get. You can’t control when they send it. You can’t control whether you run out of feed or not.” “Wait. If the farmers aren’t running their farms, who is?” Oh, glad you asked. The real reason all of this chicken is so cheap is because the whole process is managed by a small handful of big companies. You’ve probably heard of a few. “Tyson Chick’n Quick is today’s old-fashioned chicken.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Gold’n Plump — good chicken is our mission.” In fact, more than half of America’s chicken is produced by just three megacompanies. “Pilgrim’s Pride.” “Sanderson Farms.” “Tyson chicken nuggets.” The birds you saw earlier, they’re owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, producer of almost one-fifth of all chicken eaten in America — chicken that has been sold and continues to be sold to places like KFC, Chick-fil-A, Walmart and, yep, your local supermarket. “You mean the farmer doesn’t even own his own chickens?” No. He’s more like a babysitter. The companies control almost everything. “They tell the farmers exactly how they want the chickens raised, what temperature to keep the houses at, the static pressure to keep the houses at, the wind speed.” “Who’s this?” Oh, this is Tyler Whitley. He spent four years answering calls from poultry farmers like Greg on a crisis hotline. He knows this system inside out. “The farmers don’t have independent control over how the chickens are raised.” “The farmers can’t even decide how much light to give, how many chickens to put in. They can’t give the birds windows if they want to.” There’s almost nothing farmers like Greg can do to improve the lives of his flock. “I don’t get it. How does treating these farmers so badly make my chicken cheap?” Well, the industry invented a genius scheme that squeezes every last drop of ruthless efficiency out of both chicken and farmer. Companies only pay the farmer for the chickens that make it to the slaughterhouse. And the ones that don’t, well, they’re just collateral damage in the name of maximizing profits. This farmer is incinerating his own income, and that’s not the only burden offloaded onto him. See this multimillion-dollar farm? Guess who took out the loan to pay for it. The farmer. Upgrading this equipment — guess who had to pay for that. The farmer. And when footage like this finds its way into the world, guess who gets punished. “Yeah, OK, I get it. But if I were him, I wouldn’t stand for this.” Like I said, they have no choice. “They cannot get out of the contracts because they have taken out enormous loans, which are tied to the land, tied to their property, and require them to keep growing chickens in order to pay off this loan. So if they stop growing chickens, they lose everything.” And so America’s poultry farmers, they’re trapped in this cruel system. That’s why the guy who runs this farm wouldn’t speak on camera. He’s got a lot to lose. The industry, meanwhile, works hard to make sure you never see pictures like this. They’ve gone as far as to make filming on commercial farms a crime in some states. Think how much of a powerful lobby you need to make that happen. “What do you want me to do — stop eating chicken? Come on, can’t we fix this broken system?” “It’s not broken. It’s working how it’s supposed to, and it’s working extremely well. Extremely well.” Here are some poultry farmers begging for legislation 12 years ago. “John, we need you all’s help. We need the rules passed, but we need you to be watchdogs for us as farmers.” “But we really need these rules, and we need them quick.” But no help ever came. By investing their huge profits into lobbying, the companies keep an iron grip on the status quo. To get you your dinner, both the chicken and farmer have lost their freedom and their dignity. “So today’s industrial chicken farmers, their job is to walk through their house one to two times a day and find sick, dead or dying chickens and hand kill them. It’s called cervical dislocation, and they pull the legs and the neck, and they kill them.” The inevitable byproduct of a system that puts profits over dignity for people and animals. “There’s a slow progression of humiliations and indignities that these farmers go through that actually robs them of their humanity.” “Regardless of how tough you think you are inside mentally and physically, you eventually just get worn down.” Last year, the poultry company that controlled Greg’s livelihood terminated his contract. He’s left in debt, with no other way to make money from chickens. “Just Bare all-natural chickens.” “All natural.” “‘Natural’ literally means nothing. Nothing.” There’s nothing natural about your cheap chicken. While a few companies are proving it’s possible to produce humane, affordable chicken, the overall industry still condemns billions of chickens to short, miserable lives bred to their biological limits. They trap thousands of farmers into exploitative relationships, burdened by debt, devoid of agency, and they spin a story to the rest of us that what we feed ourselves and our families is natural. And guess what. The poultry industry is making billions from it. “All right. OK. Enough. I get it. I want to feed my kids organic chicken that’s been raised in good conditions, not these Franken-birds, and I want it from a farmer who leads a dignified life. Is that really going to cost much more?” Leah? “In order for both the chicken and the farmer to have a more dignified life, chicken should be closer to $6 a pound, not $1 a pound.” “I guess it’s lasagna after all.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

This video is the third in a series of short films we published this month examining problems with the food system. The first one explored the environmental harm of agriculture and the powerful lobby in the United States that has fought to maintain the status quo. The second exposed some ugly truths about the modern poultry industry.

Now it’s time for bugs. Whether you regard them as agents of filth or sources of nutrition, integrating more of them into your diet, this video argues, is among a suite of dietary changes that we urgently need to consider to deal with food insecurity, biodiversity loss and climate change.

Tala Schlossberg (@TalaSchlossberg) is a producer and animator with Opinion Video. Kirk Semple (@KirkSemple) is a reporter and producer with Opinion Video. Jonah M. Kessel (@jonah_kessel) is the deputy director of Opinion Video.

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