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Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Paul Brennan of Reality Check Radio
Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Paul Brennan of Reality Check Radio

SocietyMay 14, 2024

‘Eat the bugs’: a short history of yet another global conspiracy

Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Paul Brennan of Reality Check Radio
Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Paul Brennan of Reality Check Radio

Seen comments on social media about eating bugs? Byron Clark explains the short history of our latest conspiracy.

“No, Bill Gates nor Klaus Schwab has not funded the research done here,” reads an August 2023 Facebook post from Otago Locusts, the first farm in Aotearoa rearing insects for human consumption. “No, the World Economic Forum doesn’t fund anything to do with insect production or consumption in NZ, if any of the above did provide funding your locusts would be a lot cheaper and we would have many products available.” Otago Locusts was responding to the comments that followed a 1News story about researchers at Otago University investigating the nutritional content of New Zealand insects. 

One of the more bizarre conspiracy theories to have come to prominence during the pandemic posits that the world’s elites are going to make us eat bugs, in the name of stopping climate change. The idea has origins with the 2013 report Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Domesticating and rearing insects was advocated in the report as a means to counter nutritional insecurity as the world population swelled. Farming insects requires less land, water and feed than conventional livestock, for the same amount of protein. In addition to that, the greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower. 

The phrase “eat the bugs” (or “eat ze bugs” imitating the German accent of World Economic Forum chairman Klaus Schwab) is now a common sight in comment sections under articles about climate change mitigation, even when insect farming is not mentioned. Disinformation analyst Sara Aniano has traced the beginnings of the phrase in conspiracist discourse to a 2019 4chan thread, in comments under a photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg users repeated “I will not eat the bugs”. (Thunberg, by the way, is vegan, and does not eat bugs.) 

Greta Thunberg in Davos in 2020. Image: WEF livestream

“It kind of started out and continues to be kind of a meme.” Aniano told National Public Radio (NPR), “So some people might be using it earnestly, and some people might be using it ironically.” According to Aniano, the phrase crossed over from 4chan to Twitter (now called X) by way of a white nationalist. 

Rather than insects, it has primarily been plant-based diets that have been advocated as more climate-friendly than the standard omnivore diet. While conspiracy theories about the supposed emasculating effects of soy products have been kicking around the online far-right for years, tofu just doesn’t have the same “ick factor” as insects, at least for Westerners. Which brings us to the dog whistling racial coding at play…

Some two billion people across Asia, Africa and South America already incorporate insects into their diet- largely for reasons of cultures and taste rather than the unavailability of other proteins. Attitudes of disgust toward the dietary practices of different ethnic groups is a common method of othering, and portraying the world’s elites as planning to force white westerners to adopt those practices is a subtle nod toward the larger and more overtly racist conspiracy that the West is under threat.

“Eating insects is repulsive and un-American.” Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson told the audience of ‘Let them Eat Bugs’ a 2023 episode of Tucker Carlson Originals, his documentary series on Fox’s streaming service.  “And of course, therefore, in the eyes of the left, it must be awesome.”

Tucker Carlson having a normal one over the metric system (Screenshot)

Carlson is saying the quiet part of the conspiracy out loud: foreign cultures are invading our homes and will force us to eat bugs, and a shadowy leftist cabal is behind it all. The bug-eating narrative took off alongside conspiracy theories about The Great Reset (conspiracies which Carlson also promotes), a set of policy proposals from the World Economic Forum (WEF) that were launched in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and were immediately picked up and misconstrued by right wing conspiracy theorists. 

According to WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, the pandemic offered “a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.” However, those who had seen Covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates as oppressive authoritarianism saw in The Great Reset a plan for further oppression of individual freedoms, an agenda that would see us all forced into 15 minute cities and made to subsist on mealworms and crickets. The misinformation environment was such that when these insects were approved as safe to eat in the European Union last year, the European Commission felt compelled to state explicitly: “Nobody will be forced to eat insects.”

Political megaphones

Polish deputy agriculture minister Janusz Kowalski, a member Sovereign Poland, a hard-right Catholic Nationalist party who is a coalition partner in Poland’s government, proposed legislation requiring the labelling of food products containing insect protein, and suggested if the opposition were to win the next election, they would restrict meat consumption and make Poles eat insects. “We, as conservatives, as Poles, definitely prefer normal Polish food, Polish meat, Polish dairy products,” Kowalski told media.

Eva Vlaardingerbroek, a right-wing political pundit from the Netherlands, featured in the ‘Let them Eat Bugs’ documentary, told Tucker Carlson that “the push for insect eating is just a compliance test because our politicians know that when they control the food, they control the people.” The Netherlands, Europe’s biggest meat exporter, has been at the forefront of a conflict between farmers wanting to continue producing in the same manner, and a government introducing environmental regulations. “We understand that a traditional profession such as farming that we have been good at for centuries on end is not the cause of a modern-day so-called crisis such as climate change,” Vlaardingerbroek told Carlson. 

In recent years the Netherlands has experienced what it calls the stikstofcrisis or nitrogen crisis. Large herds of cattle eat grass before it can be replenished, so they are fed high nitrogen food stock such as soy. Cows can not absorb all the nitrogen, so it’s excreted out, it then mixes with other elements to form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and ammonia, which seeps into waterways creating dead zones where fish can’t live, and depletes soil of calcium, causing cascading negative effects for ecosystems. 

When the Dutch government announced the need for “drastic measures” to address the crisis, including a plan to purchase and disestablish farms, the response was a series of protests beginning in 2019, which saw farmers driving processions of tractors to the Hague, as well as causing further disruption by burning piles of hay and manure on major highways. Eva Vlaardingerbroek claimed a more sinister agenda was at play; “They’re doing this because they want these farmers’ land and they want it to house new immigrants,” she said in another TV appearance with Tucker Carlson. “They also want it because the farmers are obviously standing in the way of the great reset plans that they have for us.”

Support for the Dutch protests spread through social media and the cause was taken up by the worldwide movement opposing Covid public health measures. Canada’s anti-mandate trucker convoy, which served as inspiration for the occupation of New Zealand’s parliament grounds in the early months of 2022, featured Dutch flags flown in solidarity with the Netherlands farmers, with organisers making the connection with climate change mitigation policies in Canada. “We stand proudly with Dutch farmers in the continued fight against government overreach and the globalist elite. Welcome to the revolution,” read a Facebook post from ‘Live from the Shed’, a podcast dedicated to the Canadian convoy. 

“The far right wants to think of it as a transnational movement,”  Bàrbara Molas, a research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague told Canada’s CBC. Molas noted that there is actually a difference between “what the farmers actually might think and what the far right wants people to see the farmers as.” But the political right continued to make the Dutch farmers a cause celebre. Donald Trump claimed in a speech that they were “courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government”. While the right-wing news website Breitbart praised their resistance to a “green agenda”. 

There are echoes of this strategic co-option of farmer protests in Aotearoa. When Groundswell held its ‘Howl of a Protest’ in 2021, borrowing slogans like ‘No Farmers, No Food’ from its Dutch counterpart, organisers and high profile supporters including Grey District mayor Tania Gibson appeared on a special episode of Counterspin Media, then just a few months old. Today, as the hosts of Counterspin face objectionable material charges it’s unlikely that elected representatives would appear on the programme, but the online disinformation landscape is now much bigger than just Counterspin. 

The local groundswell

In March of 2023, Dutch MP Thierry Baudet, a member of the far-right party Forum for Democracy (FvD) tweeted a photo of himself holding a microphone in one hand and pouring out a packet of golden mealworms from the other. The all caps caption reading WE WILL NOT EAT THE BUGS. Four months later, Baudet was a guest on the Reality Check Radio (RCR) show ‘Greenwashed’ hosted by former Federated Farmers president Don Nicholson and Southland District councillor Jaspreet Boparai.On the show, he compared Netherlands to New Zealand and the “global agenda” being one relating to “LGBTQI+”, “climate change environmentalism”, “Covid” and “mass immigration”

This was not Baudet’s first interview with a New Zealand disinformation outlet – the pro-Putin politician was interviewed by Chantelle Baker before her sojourn in Ukraine. “We are reaching out to one another and we are building this, one could say, global anti-globalist alliance,” Baudet stated on Greenwashed. 

A “global, anti-globalist movement” may sound contradictory but an internationally connected movement, termed national conservatism, is in fact ascendant the world over, though there have been challenges, said Baudet.

“The reason that we’re we’ve been unsuccessful in building a platform together is that we are being played out against each other by these typical swear words that they use against us, the smearing campaigns where they take one of us aside and they bully us with words like ‘racist’, like ‘fascist’.”

The anti-vaccine movement, of which RCR backers Voices for Freedom are New Zealand’s most organised component, fostered distrust of supranational organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the WEF. The pivot to climate change disinformation continues the narrative of distrust, extending it to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the European Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There’s a conscious effort to connect the concerns of the anti-vaccine movement with the grievances of farmers. Though in the past Groundswell has aimed to distance themselves from Voices for Freedom, there’s a link between the two organisations via RCR.

When Groundswell hosted a tour for Tom Sheahen, an American physicist who calls nitrous oxide and methane “irrelevant greenhouse gases”, it was Don Nicholson who chaired the Invercargill speaking event, Sheahen also appeared as a guest on Greenwashed (and on Groundswell’s own podcast, hosted by RCR afternoons host Peter Williams). Groundswell is not actually part of the so-called “global anti-globalist alliance” that Theirry Baudet is advocating. 

They have pushed back on calls to support farmer protests in Europe, noting that the European farmers want subsidies, which they oppose. Ironically, one of the grievances of European farmers is competing with New Zealand imports, which are produced without being subject to the same EU regulations. Nationalist causes are not easily internationalised. 

Perhaps that’s why the “eat the bugs” conspiracy theory has gained ground and been posited as an existential threat to farming. It imagines that it’s not the very real threat of climate change that farmers should worry about, but rather a conjured threat of a cabal of “globalists” who will upend the current mode of food production in favour of growing insect protein. 

Voices for Freedom founders being interviewed by Newsroom’s Melanie Reid during the 2022 parliament protest (Screengrab: Newsroom.co.nz)

“Do people not realise that we make a lot of money from that?” RCR’s breakfast host Paul Brennan asked rhetorically on another episode of Greenwashed, in reference to Greenpeace protests against dairy company Fonterra. “And that’s essential to, you know, have a standard of living, and that we need to eat as well- I mean we’ve got to have food, I don’t know about you, but bugs ain’t gonna do it for me, never.”

Our current methods of producing food cannot continue without changes. Some of these changes will be to comply with regulations intended to keep global temperature below 1.5 degrees of warming, or to protect waterways and ecosystems. Other changes will be in response to consumer demand for more sustainably produced food. For example, global food giant Nestlé, Fonterra’s biggest customer, aims to have net zero emissions from its supply chain by 2050, and Fonterra will have to comply with these industry standards if it wants to continue to trade in a global market.

Anyone claiming that among the coming changes to food production is mandatory insect consumption is either misinformed, or deliberately spreading disinformation with the goal of undermining New Zealand’s response to climate change – likely as one part of a wider political agenda. It may seem silly now, but the last few years only demonstrate how dangerous speech – brushed aside when it’s still considered a joke – can take hold of political narratives, and can end up influencing our politics and policies more than we might ever have expected.

Byron Clark is the author of Fear: New Zealand’s hostile underworld of extremists. This article was made possible thanks to a grant from the Bruce Jesson Foundation.

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