Marie Antoinette probably never said “Let them eat cake” when she was told that poor French folk had no bread to eat. But the French queen definitely thought they should eat potatoes, which, in the late 18th century, were hailed as a wonder food from the New World.
Spanish conquistadores were the first Europeans to encounter potatoes, in South America in the 1530s. It took botanists years to breed varieties that grew well in Europe, but it was worth it. Potatoes produced two to four times as many calories per acre as cereal crops – and they grew far faster, and in most kinds of soil. Potatoes were an efficient, reliable foodstuff.
Many ordinary folk were unconvinced. Clergymen warned that since the Bible didn’t mention potatoes, God hadn’t meant people to eat them. Herbalists believed that potatoes’ resemblance to a leper’s gnarled hands suggested that they caused leprosy. But attitudes began to change when Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French scientist, promoted the potato in a series of publicity stunts. At a banquet in 1785 he presented the French king and queen with a bouquet of potato flowers. The king pinned a bloom to his lapel and Marie Antoinette put a garland in her hair; eating potatoes soon became fashionable among the aristocracy.
Today Westerners are contemplating another exotic food choice: insects. Nutritionists and environmentalists regard locusts and mealworms as sustainable, protein-rich foodstuffs with a smaller environmental footprint than chicken, pork or beef. Two billion people already eat them. But many others are sceptical. They consider insects to be unsanitary because houseflies and mosquitoes spread disease.
How might people change their minds? Environmental arguments may sway some people. Insect fans also note that Westerners happily eat other arthropods such as shrimps, prawns and lobsters. Are locusts really so different? The squeamish can always consume crickets made into energy bars, or insect protein invisibly added to pasta sauces. At least this time the new food appears in the Bible – the book of Leviticus explicitly endorses the consumption of locusts. As Marie Antoinette might have said: let them eat bugs.•