- Can eating insects help fight hunger? 26 pages

Can eating insects help fight hunger and promote biodiversity?


Edible Insects
by Alison Fromme

Can eating insects help fight hunger and promote biodiversity?

Yes, but only if Westerners can get over "the yuck factor," explains Gene DeFoliart, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and promoter of insects as food. Although people worldwide have been enjoying edible insects since ancient times, their value—in terms of both nutrition and conservation—is often overlooked by the modern Western world. And because Western tastes are so globally influential, people elsewhere may begin to shun insects as an important food source.

Would you eat these termites? In some areas of Africa, termites and other insects are fried and eaten as snacks. (Scott Bauer/ARS)

An estimated 2,000 insect species are consumed around the world, and people do not just eat insects, they relish them as delicacies. In Africa, caterpillars and winged termites are fried and eaten as roadside snacks (after wings, legs, and bristles are removed, of course), and often considered tastier than meat. Grasshoppers and bee larvae seasoned with soy sauce are favorites in Japan, where pricey canned insects are also available. Papua New Guinea is known for its nutty-flavored sago grubs (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus papuanus or R. bilineatus), beetle larvae that inhabit dead sago palm trees and are honored at annual festivals.

Insects often contain more protein, fat, and carbohydrates than equal amounts of beef or fish, and a higher energy value than soybeans, maize, beef, fish, lentils, or other beans. According to a 2004 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, caterpillars of many species are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, as well as B-vitamins. In some African regions, children fight malnutrition by eating flour made out of dried caterpillars. Pregnant and nursing women as well as anemic people also eat caterpillar species high in protein, calcium, and iron.

Yet nutritionally important traditional foods such as insects have been ignored by agricultural aid efforts in Africa, wrote Jennifer Clover, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, in 2003. Dramatic increases in farming yields achieved through breeding programs during the Green Revolution between 1944 and 1975 helped to fill bellies in developing countries, but these crop plants alone did not provide a full complement of nutrients. Additionally, billions of dollars are spent worldwide to protect nutritionally inferior crops with chemicals that kill perfectly edible insect "pests," according to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy, a researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City, pointing out one global effect of the modern Western bias against entomophagy, the eating of insects.

Ramos-Elorduy suggests there are no fewer than 34 reasons to explore insects as a food source, including their impressive nutritive value, easy breeding in captivity, and high biomass. She proposes enriching consumer foods with insect flour in order to make them more nutritious. "Finding an economic and nutritional use for insect species provides an important means to avoid species extinction," Ramos-Elorduy says.

In some cultures, edible insects are already a hot commodity. In northeastern India, for example, edible silkworm pupae (Bombyx mori) are prized more than the silk they produce, and some Mexican restaurants charge a hefty $25 for a plate of butterfly larvae. Chinese consumers spend about $100 million per year on edible ants alone.

Linking Caterpillars and Conservation
The availability of high-quality edible insects is closely tied to healthy, intact forests. Without trees and foliage to munch, insect populations plummet, so triggering interest in preserving insects as food sources might be one way to protect swaths of forests and the biodiversity within them.

In many regions where forest degradation is acute, residents are too preoccupied with day-to-day survival to consider the luxury of protecting the environment. But wise management of natural resources could achieve two vital goals: raising living standards and conserving biodiversity.