Dr. Brian Fisher smiling and examining a pinned wasp.
Photo: Kathryn Whitney. Courtesy California Academy of Sciences

Entomologist Dr. Brian Fisher on Why Edible Insects are Good for Your Health

By Aileen Kwun
June 27, 2020
5 minute read

Dr. Brian Fisher, an entomologist and curator at the California Academy of Sciences, has studied and identified countless species of ants around the world—making for a career that has earned him the singular title of “ant man.” For nearly 30years, Fisher has been conducting field work in Madagascar, studying Malagasy ant diversity and advocating for an insect-focused approach to nutrition and natural conservation. Here, Fisher tells us why eating insects is a healthy practice for both our bodies and the planet.

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in edible insects as a sustainable source of food. Could you tell us a bit about some of the environmental and health benefits?

In our Western cultures, we’ve entered into this conversation about insects mostly from the point of view of sustainability. Now, more and more, it’s in terms of health benefits, and we’re learning that if you eat insects, you can actually absorb more micronutrients, and iron, and others than you would if you ate a steak. More than that, you’re getting improved gut microbiomes. That’s really important, and a big advantage [from] eating insects. So this goes beyond sustainability, and that’s really interesting from a Western cultural perspective, where it’s clear we have a huge impact on the planet, and with a rising population, it becomes more evident we need to find alternative and sustainable food sources.

How did you come to study insects as a source of food?

I was on the ground in Madagascar, and it’s a different world, where people are more concerned about what they’re going to eat tomorrow. As a biologist, I was more concerned about how we were going to preserve the forests, and I was realizing that to preserve forest means also reducing bushmeat consumption. That comes right back to people, who, because of absolute need, are going to have to cut down the forest to grow a crop for one year, even that means it’s only going to grow from one year. So we had to find a new food source. The population’s growing, climate change impacting [things]—we have migrations of people across Madagascar moving to new areas. They don’t have more land to cut down forests and grow food—they don’t have more pasture to raise more cows. They needed an immediate solution. Insects are really the only sustainable option, and on top of it, the country already has had a huge, important history of eating edible insects. Every good housekeeper keeps dried crickets and locust powder on hand, in case of need, and it stores well.

What are some ways insects are prepared in Malagasy cooking, and how would you describe the taste?

Every insect is different—that’s what’s so cool. There’s one we call the “bacon bug,” because, yes, it tastes like bacon. It’s traditionally cooked with leafy greens and added to rice, but because it tastes like bacon, you can do so much with it: It amends so much to our Western or European palates, because we recognize that taste. Cricket powder is another traditional staple, ground to a fine powder and used as a component that adds a tasty roundness to sauces. They also grill fresh whole crickets and eat them, but the disadvantage of that is that they don’t store very well or take up space, so most people will boil then dry them after gathering them up, and grind them up to store.

They also prepare the cocoons of the silk moth, which are native species in Madagascar and are so tasty, and also part of a zero-waste model. They take the silk for their traditional local silk industry, and then these pupa, the stuff inside this cocoon, the baby larvae, is edible, and when you open it up, it looks like curdled milk. Traditionally, you can just fry them up and eat them. It tastes like veal brains.

What would it take to implement insect farming on a larger scale around the world, and what challenges lie ahead?

We’ve had hundreds of years of developing how to raise a cow, and eighty years’ worth of research on a chicken. But we’re just beginning to do this research on insects, so there are a lot of efficiencies to be gained in learning how to grow them faster, with less inputs, to yield a better product, and so forth. With Covid exacerbating so many issues related to hunger and our lifestyles, I think there’s a window for people to actually rethink what is required to keep our society functioning—that we’re not simply an entity away from Mother Nature, but a part of it. We’re connected. And that means we have to rethink our relationships in terms of sustainability and our food and agricultural systems.