Today I’m writing about insects (both as food and as feed) with a focus on food insecure, developing country contexts. I state this to be clear so as not to get drawn into arguments about how to introduce entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) into western diets. Nor will I attempt to discuss the complexities of large scale insect production and the EU regulatory barriers therein. And whether insects are considered animals and thus inappropriate for vegetarian palates is a conversation for another day.
The first thing I hear you asking is ” would you eat insects?” and to be honest, no I would not. But the point I’m trying to make is that it seems to me, initiatives hoping to encourage insect eating, would have more success if efforts were placed in helping food insecure communities access insects, increase their protein intake in areas where they would happily do so. Aiding these economically strained communities in farming their own insects, partly to address hunger and provide an income but also give them control over their own food is an essential component of food justice.
I’ll focus on how insects can improve the diets and build livelihoods for the two billion people around the world already regularly eating insects that never had the so called ‘yuck factor’ attitude. These include about 1900 edible species such as meal worms and beetles, commonly eaten in the forested areas of South America and central Africa, ‘mopane’ caterpillars (pictured above, aren’t they pretty?) consumed in Southern Africa, and crickets, enjoyed all over Asia and South America, to name only a couple.
Some of the benefits of insect eating is in their nutritional values. They are typically high in micro-nutrients like iron and calcium and have impressive levels of protein. One handful of fire ants, provide more protein than found in an egg, and meal worms have levels of protein that are comparable to fish (i). These sources of protein are important to the growing numbers of food insecure people around the world, and it just so happens that a large proportion of them would happily eat more insects if they were readily available. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo about 5 million children are hungry and it is the second cause of child death after malaria. The most common type of deficiency is protein, so the admirable levels of protein in some insects could make a huge difference to these children.
Insects are eaten in several different ways, they may be served as a healthy high protein snack like you would a handful of crisps, they are included in starchy meals alongside ‘pap/sadza’ (a thick porridge type of food eaten almost daily in African households), added in with tomatoes and onions as a saucy stew or cooked over fire, sometimes on a stick like a kebab.
How can we make insects more available? Well, I think one way is to promote including them in diets of people already familiar and accepting of the practice thus increasing the demand for insects, and another is to facilitate the sustainable farming of insects and so addressing the supply. There is an interesting government funded project in the DRC of this very nature in which one thousand Kinshasa residents receive training on caterpillar farming. They are encouraged to augment their diet with the tasty bug, shown how to farm it themselves and taught about sustainability. Insect farming really is a viable option to improve diets and supplement incomes in resource strained settings and by using very little land and water, it’s substantially more environmentally friendly than the traditional farming methods. This info graphic sums it up nicely.
Additionally, expensive or difficult to use equipment is not necessary in insect farming, even elderly or illiterate people who may have limited income generating options, can partake. Sometimes the only equipment that is needed is a collection of buckets, bottles, or perhaps a shipping container.
In terms of a source of income, some families gather and prepare insects for consumption and sell them at local markets. In Southern Africa 9.5 million mopane caterpillars are harvested each year and the sale of them is a multi-million dollar industry. They are either sold as street foods, tourist attractions or in tins with brine or tomato chilly sauce found in local super-markets.
How else do insects help the environment and provide incomes? Feed! Insects have always made up the diet of poultry, fish and pigs so this not an unnatural alternative. Arguments have been made that insect based feed should replace the fish meal that is contributing to over fishing and the soy meal, whose mono culture has devastating environmental effects, that animals are currently being fed on. Insect feed is also much cheaper than traditional feed. This is partly because of the small amounts of land and water they require, but also because some species can feed off organic waste. While its true that some insects used in animal feed can feed off manure, introducing manure into any point of the human food chain may be a big no no, but species like the larvae of the black soldier fly can feed off organic waste like kitchen scraps.
One exciting project uses waste from a juice factory and the larvae feed off pressed ginger and the like. Other projects collect food waste from restaurants, households and supermarkets. This addresses aspects of food waste and is another environmentally appropriate ticked box in insect based feed. Larvae also convert the organic waste into fertilizer that can be used on gardens or crops. Despite the huge global demand for animal feed, Africa produces only 1% of the worlds feed so this is a wide open market for African entrepreneurs.
I think the future of insect production for food and feed looks bright.