“We have to warn everyone before they eat this that it’s not legally recognised as food.”
Danish director, Andreas Johnsen’s latest documentary, BUGS, invites the viewer to consider the psychology and politics behind humanity’s dietary habits, in relation to their location on Planet Earth, and the reluctance of some to embrace edible insects as part of their everyday meals. It’s quite understandable that from a Western dietary perspective, the notion of wasps, worms, locusts and larvae (et al) on the dinner table is an abstract concept. Johnsen therefore utilises the globetrotting exploits of Head chef Ben Reade and Lead Researcher Josh Evans from Denmark’s Nordic Food Lab, to take the viewer on a journey far from the safe, chic confines of waterside Copenhagen, towards something altogether more gooey, pulsating, multi-legged and many-eyed. Viewers beware, here cometh the insects!
With an on-screen presence reminiscent of the BBC’s former Top Gear team of Clarkson, Hammond, and May, Ben Reade and Josh Evans strike poses as both bombastic chef figures and morally-conflicted, foodie philosophers. Upon the discovery of a genetically-disadvantaged stingless bee’s nest in Uganda – complete with honeycombs that ooze their precious nectar – Reade remarks “It’s like Sauterne wine with all the good bits and none of the shit.” Yet to get to this bee’s nest, buried in a ochre-coloured mound of African soil, and one in which it communally shares space with colonies of termites and ants, the team must first pick-axe their way through half a metre of heavy, clay-ridden dirt. It’s a labour intensive, time-consuming, and heavily destructive method of work for a food product that humanity has already worked out a fairly efficient way at harvesting.
The documentary flits through Australia, Kenya, Mexico, Japan, Uganda, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland at such a pace that it quickly becomes apparent there is some serious capital invested in the research and development part of Reade and Evans’ work; financial backers that surely must expect a good return on their passionate culinary explorer’s exploits? In a scene that may seem familiar to any viewer who studied Food Technology at High School, Reade and Evans prepare a series of meals in compact Tupperware containers, for a panel of assembled tasters. Will their gastronomic experiments end up being the airplane meals of the 22nd-century? Are they really the first to think up the use of bugs and insects as food sources for the masses? It’s hinted that companies like Nestle and PepsiCola are already in on the act and looking at ways in which to increase the insect-ingredient proportion of some of their meals. The level of moral conflict this stirs up in Reade and Evans seems somewhat naive at this stage of the film, considering the moneyed culinary background in which they are both shown working in. Would it really be such a shock to discover a food giant is looking at a similar potential food source for profit-driven reasons and not conscience-driven, benevolent reasons to society? The jury is definitely out on that question.
Would it really be such a shock to discover a food giant is looking at a similar potential food source for profit-driven reasons and not conscience-driven, benevolent reasons to society?
Evans lends a more scientific hand to the proceedings, with his Lead Researcher hat on, somewhat contrasting with Reade’s eagerly eat-everything, dead or alive, raw or cooked approach – a natural history programme of the BBC’s Natural World-ilk this is not. The sight of an engorged, pulsating Queen Termite being taken from her colony and fried alive for the benefit of culinary experimentation can be a hard watch at times. To Reade and Evans’ credit, they are in no way speciesist: all creepy critters are more than welcome to meet their maker within a homo sapiens’ digestive tract. Legs are crunched through; bodies skewered; insides scooped out; and eggs lightly fried in a sweet butter sauce.
When Evans talks about shifting or even breaking the paradigm of the current food system, his honourable intentions for humanity’s sake are clear, but the enormity and practicality of what he proposes seems wildly out of reach. Is this cultural re-appropriation of a food source on a neo-imperialist culinary ship or something far more curious and innocent? Johnsen doesn’t appear to completely build in an answer to that question in his documentary. What he has created however is a work of filmmaking, which through its visceral shock value, manages to completely engage and engross the viewer on a subject which has the unique ability to disgust as a form of educational engagement, with a topic that few would want to consider on their daily or weekly trip to the supermarket. Delicious.