The buzz about entomophagy: Is eating insects more than a novelty?

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"The major question is, why would we not eat insects?" (Photo: Shutterstock)

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Jiminy Cricket may be able to do more than guide our consciences: he, or his kin, may also provide food security solutions for a growing and hungry world. However, the notion of insects-as-food struggles to find widespread traction amid problems with standardization of food safety standards, government disinterest and only a small body of research. So is there a future for cricket sushi or fried silk worms?

Insects as food has become something of a stalwart "weird" news story in the press, giving hacks plenty to buzz about (sorry). However there are many reasons to push the benefits: low environmental costs, high nutritive value, low farming costs, high value as a cash crop for poor families and a possible solution to what may be a looming food security crisis as the population grows and land for farms shrinks. These claims are all true – in fact some kinds of insects contain as much as 65 percent protein for every hundred grams, far above beef or chicken – but there are still some pretty serious roadblocks for any kind of mass cultivation.

Some two billion people eat insects as part of their diets worldwide but this occurs largely in the developing world; insects as food fell out of favor completely in Europe by the mid- to late-Nineteenth Century as the march of civilization made such diets seem “primitive”. Geographers Peter Illgner and Etienne Nel argued in a 2000 paper on consumption and harvesting of the mopane worm in sub-Saharan Africa that the global food system had to a certain extent marginalized traditional or alternate forms of food in favor of a more westernized style of dining, and that entomophagy was now seen in some quarters as primitive even as the moth grubs became a more important source of cash for some families.

Certain insects, notably bees and silk worms, have been cultivated across the planet by humans for centuries, but wider scale farming of insects for food lags. There are 20,000 cricket farms in Thailand, though little legislative support or government oversight, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The FAO has been studying entomophagy for over ten years now but even it admits, "the science of edible insects is still at a relatively pioneering stage, it boasts only a few scientists of renown." Until his death last year Dr Gene DeFoliart was one of the best-known and most-referenced. He ran the Food Insects Newsletter (which is still online and being updated) and the FAO’s 2013 report dedicates itself to him.

The FAO has bemoaned the lack of standardization or legislation that can deal with broader scale industrial farming. Many nations’ food safety laws can be applied to insects, or certain kinds of insect, but there is little being done to improve the situation, though the European Council has expressed political will. One of the few government initiatives was a partnership between the FAO and the Laos government a few years ago to set a series of standards on the commercial farming of insects. The Laos Technical Cooperation Project sought to impose Codex Alimentarius type food safety standards, but the project has since gone quiet. In fact, it is industry that seems to be taking up the slack and the insects-as-feed (not human food) is expanding rapidly; certain kinds of insects can be turned into fish, poultry or pig feed and are environmentally friendly, not requiring the same amount of land for grain or fishing from the seas to feed fish stocks. There are also many smaller gourmet companies providing insects, or insect products (such as cricket flour) and reports suggest interest in the West, where it remains a novelty, niche market, is growing.

Food safety when it comes to edible insects is a key issue: improper treatment or collection of insects that may have been sprayed with pesticides can cause health issues. Some other health risks identified by the FAO include heavy metals, mycotoxins, pesticide residues, pathogens, natural toxins, allergens, processing contaminates and veterinary residues.

In Vietnam some months ago media noted some deaths and comas associated with eating cicada nymphs carrying an apparently toxic fungi. The health department issued a warning against eating insects. Dan Dockery, a longtime British expat and one of the founders of Highway 4 restaurant chain in Vietnam told Gizmag that his restaurant did often serve insects.

”Consumption of insects is [even now] a rare thing in major urban centers in Vietnam and is a much more widespread phenomenon in the countryside," said Dockery. "Why? Because there insects are readily available, to all intents and purposes they are 'free', and they taste damn good as a drinking snack. However careful cleaning and processing is essential in order to guarantee a 'safe' product.”

Start ups have done well. In the case of Exo bars, the two Ivy League graduate founders received over $1 million in funding money from some major venture capital firms as well as running a crowdfunding campaign. Others, such as Ento, offer varied snacks and are, according to a draft FAO paper, leading the way in terms of standardizing treatments and farming for some insects. Other companies produce small farms for use in the home; live bugs are fed kitchen scraps and are later turned into food that can be thrown into a stirfry, rather like a pot of herbs on a windowsill.

Earlier this year the FAO gathered 450 experts from 45 nations and varied disciplines to discuss the potential of insects-as-food. All seemed excited by the progress made. For a quick, jump-cut precis of that conference and the many benefits of entomophagy and insects as feed this video is worth a watch. There are also fascinating nuggets of information such as the fact that given the tremendous variety of edible insects worldwide (between 1,500 to 1,900 different species according to varied reports) not only does treatment to make them safe for eating differ, but also, as Gizmag can attest, their taste – from ants with a fruity punch to of tea-flavored sun-dried emperor moth caterpillars.

Ultimately, food security may be one of the more pressing questions for the planet’s population but a move, either by governments, entrepreneurs, or both, towards finding a way to solve the problem will be needed and taking advantage of food that is environmentally safe and also high in protein and calories seems an intelligent move.

As Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, puts it: "The major question is, why would we not eat insects?"

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