Saved from those dangerous dried caterpillars

The AP headline read “Thousands of caterpillars seized at UK airport”. Under it was the story that UK Border agents had seized several bags of dried caterpillars that they found in the luggage of a 22-year-old man from Burkina Faso when he landed at Gatwick Airport. Countless media outlets picked up the report and ran with it, from the Washington Post to the Jordan Times, from Fox News to the Winnipeg Free Press. The Independent in the UK produced its own version of the story and gave it a catchy headline that set a jocular tone, “Monkeys in my pants? No, just 94 kg of caterpillars in my luggage.” It cited an insect expert from the Natural History Museum who said that the caterpillars were likely mopane worms, the larvae of emperor moths, species name Gonimbrasia belina.

The British Government deemed the story so important that it ran a version on its official Home Office page and earnestly reported that the discovery of the dried caterpillars at Gatwick was “among the largest of its kind at the airport”. This struck me as curious — were smuggled caterpillars a common occurrence at Gatwick then?

But that was not all that struck me as curious about the story. Something bothered me about the way it was reported. At first, I wondered if it was just my own squeamishness about the caterpillars, which even as a child I was afraid to touch. Yet these dried caterpillars, according to the UK Home Office report, had been intended for “personal use” and “to be used as food”.

I’m not going to pretend that the idea of eating caterpillars appeals to me, any more than does the idea of eating a long list of creatures (or any of their body parts) that many of my fellow human beings consider true delicacies. I have no interest, for instance, in eating cockroaches, frogs’ legs, sewer rat, snake, bats, brain or testicles or raw meat from any animal, blood sausage, eels, fish eyes or eggs, worms, and yes, also caterpillars or insect larvae of any kind. The reason none of these appeals to me is quite simple: I didn’t grow up eating them and thus never developed a taste for them. But just because they don’t appeal to my culinary tastes doesn’t mean I have any right to cast aspersions on others for whom they do. And the dried caterpillars, those emperor moths, as it turns out, are a much loved and extremely nutritious, high protein food source in much of Africa.

Nor is the emperor moth an endangered species; it has even been known to cause serious defoliation of valuable trees when swarms of the moth go on an eating frenzy. While it takes only three kilograms of feed from leaves of the mopane tree to produce one kilogram of the caterpillars, it requires ten kilograms of cattle feed to generate one kilogram of beef, making the worms a low-cost and high-protein and environmentally friendly food source for many millions of people in Africa. To maintain a supply of the worms in areas where it has enormous economic and nutritional value, as it already does in southern Africa, the moth could be domesticated, much the way the silkworm has been in Asia. But none of this was even mentioned in the media reports from Gatwick. The Burkinabe man was not quoted or named and indeed there is no African voice in the story to offer some perspective on how absolutely normal it is to include insects in diets.

And that, I think is the main reason that this story sat as uneasily in my stomach as a whole gut load of wriggling caterpillars. It was dished up by the world’s media as an exotic, quirky and perhaps even a laughable little news item. There’s a subtext there, something that lies just below the surface like a smug and deliberately disparaging whisper, and it’s almost possible to hear the story being written so that it could make the rounds at the office water coolers and in the bars later on as fodder for jokes. “Hey did you hear the one about the African guy and his dried caterpillars? Ha, ha, ha. What wouldn’t those people eat? Well, why not worms, they don’t have anything else to. Ha, ha, ha. Want another Merlot?

The AP story quotes Border Force spokeswoman Ingrid Smith, who warns travellers “not to attempt to bring any products of animal origin into the UK without a permit, as they may not have been inspected to appropriate standards and may contain diseases”. Ms. Smith also informs us that the luggage full of dangerous creepy crawlies was intercepted thanks to “the vigilance of our officers” that “stopped these dried insects from entering the U.K., and possibly posing a risk to our food chain.”

I am sure that Ingrid Smith is sincere in her concern about the health of the Western food chain, but surely she’s stretching the truth to suggest that dried Gonimbrasia belina are a link in the industrial food chain that shackles and feeds us in the industrialized Western world. And I wonder if she’s considered the risk that a few bags of dried emperor worms really pose to anyone, compared with some of the other problems that have plagued our food system in recent years.

There was Mad Cow disease that the UK was exporting in its contaminated beef for years after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government permitted cow parts to be used in the feed for normally herbivorous cattle. In modern industrial agriculture, animal feeds also contain cocktails of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, fertilizers and protein supplements, all of which strike me as more of a threat than some tasty, nutritious free-ranging caterpillars.

There are also the frequent problems with industrially produced and processed meats becoming contaminated with deadly bacteria like E-coli and Listeria. These foods have led to deaths of the human beings that consume them, despite the fact that they supposedly meet all the safety requirements of our government agents and food safety agencies.

Then there’s the direct link between our modern diets full of processed foods and the epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes around the world. Not to mention the scandal — on-going at the time the caterpillars were seized at Gatwick — of horse and donkey meat showing up in meals sold in supermarkets and fast food outlets, when consumers thought they were buying and eating beef.

The whole overblown story of the smuggled caterpillars at Gatwick strikes me as a red herring of a tale to help distract the public from the real dangers to our health posed by the modern corporate food system. A useful little diversion to perpetuate the myth that our foods are safe and kept that way by vigilant food inspectors, government inspection agencies and customs officials always on the lookout for our health. If this were really the case, government inspectors and agencies would long ago have stepped up their vigilance against industrial foods, the “edible food-like substances” that author Michael Pollan warns against. They would have also mounted a strong defence of the small farmers on this planet who continue to try, despite all odds stacked against them by giant corporations and their lackeys in government, to produce healthy, diverse, agro-ecologically grown foods.

And the Border agents at Gatwick would be on the rampage in the airport itself, seizing and destroying all the industrial and processed food-like products full of sugar, oil, salt and chemicals masquerading as safe and healthy edibles on the shelves of the shops and restaurants there, instead of seizing and destroying those poor, harmless little caterpillars and making a big royal fuss about it.

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