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June 10th, 2013 at 11:23 am

Insect-eating is the future of food

Insects may be the food of the future.

In Western societies, eating insects is considered disgusting or even primitive. But 2 billion people elsewhere consume insects on a regular basis.  According to a report released last month by the UN, the benefits of using insects as food is so great that it is high time we convert the other 5 billion people into insect-eaters.

Who eats insects?

As it turns out, at least two billion people actively consume insects as part of their diets. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, caterpillars are abundantly available all year round in markets. A quick Google search tells us that caterpillars have a nutty (to be more specific enoki-pine nutty) or fruity taste and clearly Congolese are fond of them. One household, in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, eats about 300 g of caterpillars a week on average. This equates to an astonishing 96 tonnes of caterpillars consumed in the city annually.

While in African countries, insects are mostly eaten by the natives, in Southeast Asia, a plethora of insects, prepared and concocted in different ways, is increasingly marketed to tourists. It’s no surprise really, considering the surge of tourists to this part of the world. And the fact that between 150-200 species of insects are consumed in Southeast Asia.

The most delicious insects? Globally, beetles and caterpillars are consumed as much as all other edible insects taken together. But bees (as my brother can attest to), wasps and ants are popular too, accounting for a whopping 14% global insect consumption. Cicadas, locusts, crickets, dragonflies, flies are not spared either.

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While two billion people are perfectly fine with eating insects, the remaining five billion are mostly on the opposite end of the “like spectrum.” It seems weird that such a common practice is frowned upon so much by others, isn’t it? The disconnect, perhaps unsurprisingly, stems from the westernisation of diets and cultures.

Why do most of us find eating insects disgusting?

Native American tribes, for instance, had a long history of eating insects. But as Western cultures began to interact with (and sometimes decimate) them, the West imposed their own values onto the tribes, discouraging and suppressing the practice. In their eyes, eating insects was considered primitive.

Some indigenous groups in sub-Saharan Africa were similarly afflicted—and much more recently too. In the village of Sanambele in Mali, children routinely hunt and eat grasshoppers as snack food. In a village where many children were already at risk of suffering from kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition caused by protein deficiency in the diet, grasshoppers offered a welcome source of protein. Sadly, since 2010, the fields where the children would hunt for grasshoppers are sprayed with pesticides to ensure maximum yield of cotton harvested from neighboring cotton fields. The Malian farmers were advised by their Western counterparts, who took no notice of Sanambele’s population and culture. Now the children are mostly forbidden to hunt and eat grasshoppers for fear that they may be intoxicated by pesticides. The insect population has plummeted anyway.

Funnily enough, the five billion people who are not fond of insects, are insect-eaters too, albeit unknowing ones, at the tune of “two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year.” Even more fascinating is that we are actually eating them as part of lunch and dinner. And the FDA knows all about it! Here’s an excerpt from Kyle Hill’s blog post about this at Scientific American:

“The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook lays it all out. Staples like broccoli, canned tomatoes, and hops readily contain “insect fragments”—heads, thoraxes, and legs—and even whole insects. (I won’t tell you about the rat hair limits…) Fig paste can harbor up to 13 insect heads in 100 grams; canned fruit juices can contain a maggot for every 250 [millimetres]; 10 grams of hops can be the home for 2,500 aphids [...]“

The disgust you may be experiencing right now is unfortunate. Because insects may be the key to our future. Looking at population growth alone, the global population will reach 9 billion people in 2050 and will require that we produce twice as much food than we do today. Now factor in the rise of the middle class, with its subsequent demand for protein, and harsher environmental conditions we will have to battle with, and it becomes vividly clear that our current food production systems will be taken by storm very soon.

Last month, the UN released a comprehensive 185-page document advocating the rearing of edible insects to be used as food by humans and also as cattle feed. In the accompanying press release, Eva Muller, Director of FAO’s Forest Economic Policy and Products Division, which co-authored the document, points out that “insects are pretty much untapped for their potential for food, and especially for feed.”

Why are insects so good? They have a high nutritional value, their cultivation is environmentally friendlier, when compared to other animal protein sources, and comes with great socio-economic benefits for a lot of people in the poorer regions of the planet.

You may be surprised to learn that insects are “a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and mineral content.” That’s a balanced diet for humans right there! And when used as animal feed, insect-based feeds are comparable to the popular soy-based or fishmeal formula, currently used today.

The Economist has a great graphic that showcases how “green” insect cultivation exactly is as well. The “green” benefits stem from the ratio of amount of food insects will eventually produce to the amount of food they consume. The greater this ratio the better since it signifies that they are fed less but produce lots. Compared to cows (and other large beasts), insects are much much more efficient a food source:

“The bigger the beast, the more food, land and water is needed to produce the final edible product, resulting in higher greenhouse-gas emissions. A cow takes 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of beef, but only 40% of the cow can be eaten. Crickets require just 1.7 kg of food to produce 1 kg of meat, and 80% is considered edible.”

Insects also emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than cattle or pigs and require less land for rearing. And whatnot, insects can also feed on organic by-products such as human and animal waste, which may help reduce environmental contamination. And to cap it all, the risk that insects may transmit zoonotic infections may well be less significant than the very real risk posed by cattle, pig and poultry, from which deadly influenza strains have emerged.

Importantly, consumption of insects can bring along direct and relatively rapid societal benefits. Rearing and processing of insects can be performed at a relatively artisanal stage without sophisticated machinery. This means that the poorest members of society can be encouraged to participate, giving them an avenue to employment and income, potentially lifting them out of poverty.

While in theory this all looks great, implementing it is another story. Research on the health and safety aspect of the entire chain from insect rearing to processing and storage is a must as is a comprehensive legal framework that can lead to the “full development [...] of production and international trade in insect products.” We must also move past the disgust factor that is embroiled in the cultures of many. To achieve this, educational programs and media communication strategies must be implemented rather soon.

Turns out my brother was a bit of a visionary then. Eating bees is well worth being proud of. (Also, I’m a pescatarian so…) So, would you eat insects now that you know how it can help the environment, consolidate your diet and potentially pull people out of poverty?

Photo credit: Signs of the Times

Via Nature

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