KUNYANG - Li Jinsui is an ambitious man. He invested 250,000 euros of his own money in this insect factory, sitting amidst the hills of Kunyang, on the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of the southwestern province of Yunnan. With seven patents, production officially kicked off in 2009.
Since then, no visitor comes by without being offered a plate of bamboo worms, one of the dishes in his catalogue. Yunnan Insect Biotechnologies also offers dried larvae, protein powder from insect exoskeletons and actual insects for human and animal consumption.
Li could be a pioneer. Experts from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are increasingly looking to entomophagy as a substitute for meat and fish but also as a cheaper alternative to animal feed, especially in fish farms.
The nutritional qualities of insects (protein, minerals…) are quite high. They also have a much better yield than cattle and need much less water. Currently, 70% of farmland around the world and 9% of freshwater are used for animal farming, which emits 18% of greenhouse gases.
After 12 years of preparation, Li finally got the green light from local authorities to start his factory. He is at the forefront of an industry that is in its infant stage in China. “The market is ready,” says the 45-year-old. “We have a protein shortage in this country. We have to import fish from Chile or Peru. As humans, we don’t have enough information yet on the potential of insects as a source of nutrition.”
After some research, he focused on one species: the housefly. Flies are everywhere; they don’t harm the environment, are edible and can even be used in the pharmaceutical industry. Chitin, the main component of the exoskeletons of arthropods such as crustaceans and insects, can help build up the immune system.
Though Li is a pioneer, he already has rivals. But he says they wouldn’t be able to step up their production if a mass market emerged. “Technologically speaking, they are stuck in the 1970s; they only produce 50 to 100kg a day. They won’t be able to take it to the next level.”
Li says he can deliver about 150kg of maggots a day, but he says “step three” of the development of his factory will bring that figure to 10 tons a day by 2015.
As he walks into a room filled with two million flies, he admits his research isn’t finished yet. He would like to be able to feed flies with rice. Right now, they feed on animal feces, which makes them unfit for human consumption.
Another challenge awaits Li: convincing consumers to eat food that still causes more disgust than envy. Though the Chinese have warmed up to bamboo worms, maggots are another story. “Seeing them on your plate triggers a psychological reluctance that is hard to overcome,” he says. To get past that, Li believes that it is necessary to invest in education and convince people of the nutritional value of insects.
Insects have always been part of the culinary tradition of this province and its many minorities. In Mangshi, a small town near the border with Myanmar, you can buy a wasp nest for 20 euros a pound. You then have to pull the live larvae out of the nest one by one to fry them in a wok.
“Times are tough for people in this region, they can’t all afford to buy beef. Pigs need to be fed for two years and that, for them, is a long time and it’s expensive,” says Guo Yunjiao, a biology professor at the insect research department of the local university. He teaches residents of nearby villages how to develop sustainable insect farms. Instead of just burning the wasp nest and killing the queen in the process, Guo teaches villagers the technique of smoking them out.
With the price of wasp larvae on the rise, in the past five or six years, many villagers from the plains have turned to insect farming. Guo says he received thousands of letters and emails after a report on his technique aired on national TV.
Li is happy to see villagers from remote regions keeping traditions alive. But he says it’s about time China turned to a large-scale industrial production of insects. There are more than 200 edible species but only a handful can be farmed on a small scale and catching them in their natural habitat requires a big workforce.
Li has decided to open more factories and develop new techniques on the 27 hectares of land he bought. If one day, eating insects becomes mainstream, Li believes he could become the industry’s world leader and ensure a 60% return on investment.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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