Bugs for dinner!

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UN recommends eating more bugs!
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A man with a fried grasshopper in his mouth
Photo: moomoobloo
A tourist who tasted insects in Thailand said, “They were crunchy and salty and seasoned with soy sauce. They tasted kind of like potato chips.”

It’s made people take notice. It’s made people wince. On May 13, 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a long report with one tasty conclusion: On a crowded planet, protein from insects makes ecological and economic sense.

And much as those in the West may feel squeamish, 1,900 species of insects — including caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, bees and ants — are traditional foods for at least 2 billion people.

The recommendation was premised on efficiency: While it takes 10 kilograms of feed to produce 1 kilograms of beef, insects in general can do that with a couple of kilograms. That’s because insects are cold-blooded, so they don’t waste energy staying warm.

That efficiency matters, as a growing population wants to get more meat from a planet where new farmland is hard to find.

In terms of protein content, insects vary widely, from 13 percent to 77 percent dry matter. Even in a single species, the proportion varies according to life stage.

Looking for progress

To increase the contribution of insects to the world food problem, FAO proposed:

Convincing more people to eat insects

Persuading those who now eat insects to resist pressure to adopt western diets

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Graph shows mealworms produce less carbon dioxide and demand less land than milk, pork, chicken, beef, and less energy than pork and beef.
Modified from original graph by FAO
In terms of land and energy consumed, and carbon dioxide produced, insects excel.

Figuring out how to harvest and farm insects sustainably and profitably and

Feeding insects to the livestock, poultry and fish in place of fish meal and other sources of animal protein

Now, insects are extremely expensive if you can even find them for sale. In Yunnan Province, China, ethnic groups including the Dai and Hani people have practiced eating insects for a long time, says Chen Hang, assistant researcher at the Research Institute of Resources Insects of the Chinese Academy of Forestry. “They don’t feel disgusted. It’s rooted in their culture. Insects are even more expensive than beef and mutton.”

In the Mexico City market, for example, giant winged ants cost about $225 a pound.

What’s for dinner?

Among the world’s many edible insects, the FAO highlighted:

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Fried grasshoppers and bamboo worms in a dish
Photo: Alpha
Deep fried grasshoppers and bamboo worms at the Tastes of Dai stall in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, China. The Dai are a minority group related to people in Thailand and Laos. The photographer reports, “It’s a pity both the bamboo worms and grasshoppers were deep fried to a crisp. I could still faintly taste the sweetness of the bamboo worm, but the grasshopper was just a crunchy snack.”

The large Macrotermes termites, which take flight after the first rains at the end of the dry season. Africans beat the ground around the termite hills to simulate heavy rain, provoking the termites to emerge. Syntermes species, the largest termites eaten in the Amazon, are gathered by sticking the rib of a palm leaf into the nests; the soldiers are fished out after they bite the leaf.

Palm weevil larvae, members of the genus Rynchophorous, are often barbecued in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The insects occur year-round in tropical places where host palms live. Many indigenous people have excellent ecological knowledge of the palm weevil and can deliberately increase production. The high-fat larvae are frequently seasoned with onion, pepper and salt.

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a basin placed on a tripod with a light hanging above
In western Kenya, termites are a delicacy, but difficult to gather. Three of these simple light traps gathered 4.5 kilograms of termites, free of the soil, ants and the dangerous snakes that devour termites in other types of traps.
Courtesy Monica Ayieko, Jaramogi Oginga University of Science and Technology, Bondo, Kenya1

The patanga locust Patanga succincta grows on maize in Thailand. Once deep-fried, is one of the best-known and most popular edible insects in a country where many insects are eaten. Some farmers even grow maize to feed the locust rather than for sale.

Red maguey worms – larvae of the moth Comadia redtenbacheri and white maguey worms – larvae of the butterfly Aegiale hesperiaris are common in central Mexico. When deep fried or braised and seasoned with a spicy sauce, the highly nutritious caterpillars are considered a delicacy. Red maguey worms are one of the gusanos (caterpillars) found in bottles of mezcal liquor. The gusanos are so popular that mezcal producers send security guards into agave fields during the rainy season to stop poachers.

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cooked worms in a bowl with a fork aside
Red maguey worms are a Mexican delicacy.

An estimated 9.5 billion mopane caterpillars mopane caterpillars Imbrasia belina are harvested annually from the mopane woodlands in Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Seventy percent of the 8 million residents of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, eat mopane caterpillars. Primarily collected by hand, the caterpillars are degutted, boiled in salted water and sun-dried. In remote areas, collecting and selling caterpillars may provide more income than conventional crops.

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cooked caterpillars in an orange bowl
Photo: NH53
The mopane caterpillar is a mainstay food in southern, central and eastern Africa.

The potential

Even if you accept the idea of eating insects, the question becomes: how to get enough of them to make a meal? The late Gene Defoliart, an entomologist from the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was one of the first in the West to promote insect eating, “looked at insects that normally exist in high numbers, like the Japanese beetle and armyworms, so you didn’t have to rear them, you just collected them in bulk,” says his former colleague, Phillip Pellitteri, also at UW-Madison.

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Map shows the recorded number of edible insect species worldwide, with Mexico, Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Southeast Asia, and Australia boasting most of them.
Credit: FAO
China and Mexico are two hotspots for edible insects.

In certain locations, “locusts breed in tremendous numbers, make clouds two miles long,” says Pellitteri. “In the Bible, people were eating locusts, but how would you collect them? Would you use giant vacuum cleaners?”

And locusts and grasshoppers have good years and bad years, Pellitteri notes. Insects with a heavy skin of the indigestible material chitin are poor candidates, Pellitteri adds. “The hard-shelled beetles do not look to be as appealing as grubs, which are softer, but grubs have more of the yuk factor.”

The threats

Although the FAO estimated that 2 billion people are eating insects, many of them are members of minority groups, the kind of people who are becoming assimilated into western industrial society, where insect eating is rare.

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Graph shows that number of edible insects peaks during May, September and October.
Credit: FAO
Although insects respond to the seasons like other animals, they may be available during seasons when conventional crops are not.

And thus even though international experts are recommending an increase in eating insects, a decline could also be in the cards.

Another threat to the practice comes from the field of entomology itself — which traditionally has been a bit more interested in destroying insects than eating them.

Insecticide sprays don’t just cut bug populations, they also poison the survivors, as Florence Dunkel, of Montana State University, learned at a village she’s visited for years in Mali, West Africa. The American students she’d brought to live as “cultural entomologists” were working on problems identified by local people. One was kwashiorkor, a pernicious form of hunger marked by protein deficiency.

Kwashiorkor declined as the local adults learned about the science of proteins, and the diet was augmented by insects, “a favorite snack food,” Dunkel says. But in 2009, after expanded insecticide spraying of cotton crops, the kids were told to stop eating grasshoppers.

Paradoxically, one of the founding justifications for entomology, preventing damage to crops, was poisoning a free source of high-protein food. “It’s taken a long time for many of us to have the professional courage to say what we know” about the issue, Dunkel says.

Describing disgust

How about we dive into the heart of the problem? We don’t want to eat insects, either. In Western culture, says Pellitteri, a faculty associate in entomology at UW-Madison, “Insects signify dirt, poor hygiene. Even for head lice this is not true, but there is the association, and then the thought of trying to eat them. But this is learned behavior.”

In their quest for acceptance, advocates of edible insects point out that they are related to crabs and shrimp, both considered delicacies in the West. And they note that raw fish — AKA sushi — has become a Western delicacy over the past 20 or 30 years.

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 A hand picks up a taco with vegetables and worms inside
Courtesy Don Bugito
Plenty of worms add taste and a frisson of danger to a taco at Don Bugito in San Francisco.

Entomophagy, as it’s clunkily called, is becoming hipster-faddish in some maxi-trending venues. In San Francisco, for example, artist and designer Monica Martinez operates the “Don Bugito Prehispanic Snackeria” food cart with delicacies like chocolate covered crickets and spicy superworms.

Still, says Pellitteri, “There are some things I would never consider eating,” recalling some birds that died after they ate beetles that had fed on willows. “Willow contains salicylic acid; it’s like aspirin [an anti-coagulant] and the beetles concentrated that. It’s a classic example that you have to be careful about what you eat.”

Lovin’ larvae

Fried bee larvae, Pellitteri says, “were almost like little Cheetos, high fat. If you get past the factor that it’s an insect and just taste it, some [dishes] have interesting flavors. But I would not open a restaurant that concentrated on insect menus. I don’t think you would do so well.”

Disgust at the idea of eating insects is hardly new to North America, Dunkel observes. In the 1800s, “Pioneers at Great Salt Lake lost their crop to drought, grasshoppers and other insects, and asked the Ute [Indians] for some food. They made traditional prairie crackers, pretty nutritious, and the pioneers survived, but the moment they knew what was in them, including katydids (which is now called the Mormon cricket), they would have nothing more to do with it. The disgust factor was there already among the Euro-Americans.”

Palatability is a perennial factor in the annual Bug Buffet that Dunkel stages at Montana State to introduce newbies to baby bites of the arthropod agenda.

Some people respond to their first bite with “a scary disgust, they get these odd expressions, swallow and think ‘Oh my gosh’ and wait for something terrible to happen,” says Dunkel, a long-time advocate of eating insects.

A second group tastes quietly, and their faces usually register surprise, she adds. “They think, ‘This tastes really good, familiar.’ It doesn’t faze them a bit. When we start cooking, they hear the crackling of insects in butter, smell the butter, everything looks normal, and then they try it.”

The black soldier fly is native to henhouses, compost heaps and decaying flesh in Ohio and other states. Life is short but productive, as the larvae feast on waste products from the ethanol or beer industry. (Rollover image) EnviroFlight is growing flies by the millions to make protein for fish feed.
Both courtesy EnviroFlight

Raising Superfly!

One way to dodge the “yuck” factor is to feed bugs to animals. After all, chickens and fish will never know the difference. In Yellow Springs, Ohio, EnviroFlight, LLC is raising millions of black soldier fly larvae and selling the larvae and frass — a waste product — to the aquaculture industry.

The company is its the second year of commercial production, and is selling to 12 prawn farms in Ohio, with an eye on other aquaculture markets.

As the insects feed on waste grain from distillers and breweries, they secrete enzymes to break down and extract nutrients, Courtright says. “The insects pull out the carbohydrates, fats and minerals, and leave behind a waste stream that they excrete. We are able to take these materials, get them stabilized and converted. We recapture the nutrients in a socially responsible way. We sift out the adult bugs and other big pieces, and everything else is a plant nutrient or a vegetable-based protein nutrient.”

In 12 days, in a 3-foot by 5-foot tank, EnviroFlight can make 250 pounds of nutritious feed ingredients, Courtright says. “I can control their amino acid, fatty acid levels by how we feed them, which makes them more valuable to everybody.”

At this point, EnviroFlight’s product is “generally recognized as safe,” and the company has started feed trials with yellow perch fish. “We are pretty close to victory, have gotten through many hurdles of commercialization and are trying get on an industrial scale, with the engineering and best practices defined,” Courtright says.

As the FAO and a few pioneers try to promote entomophagy to a skeptical public, EnviroFlight has a key advantage, Courtright says. “The public has never had trouble with fish eating bugs.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Yilang Peng, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

Bibliography

  1. Constructing and Using a Light Trap Harvester, M.A. Ayieko et al, Research Journal of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology 3(2): 105-109, 2011
  2. Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, FAO Forestry Paper 171, 2013 http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf
  3. For most people, eating bugs is only natural
  4. Insect eating won’t solve world hunger
  5. Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security
  6. Eating bugs: A lucrative market in Mexico
  7. 11 Edible Insects and How to Eat Them
  8. [Video] Mealworms in candy store
  9. Countries that eat bugs
  10. Edible insect recipes
  11. We can make insects taste like buttery popcorn