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|Heifer Zambia's Amon Phiri enjoys a plate of ifinkubala, or mopani worms, at a hotel lunch buffet in Ndola, Zambia. (photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee)|
By Sarah Schmidt, World Ark contributor
My snack was escaping. I guess that's what happens when you decide to whip up a batch of Chex Mix containing crickets. But after reading not one, but three articles in just a few months about how tasty edible insects are, I had to see for myself. So I bought a beginner-level cookbook and sent my husband to PETCO for live crickets. That's how I came to be frantically chasing several dozen hopping bugs into a plastic colander so I could rinse them. And eventually eat them.
I'm not the only one chowing down on six-legged creatures lately. Entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—is heating up. People are eating bugs at chic dinner parties in New York City, locavore food carts in San Francisco and celebrity chef cook-offs from Los Angeles to Indiana to the Netherlands. Enthusiasts say that in the next few years, insects are poised to become as popular as sushi did in the 1980s. But the trend is not just for intrepid foodies in Western countries.
In Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Latin America, where eating insects has always been common, development experts, including those at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, are stepping up efforts to include edible insects in the fight against poverty and malnutrition. Bugs, it turns out, are a sustainable, inexpensive source of protein. And raising, harvesting and selling them can be an excellent small-business opportunity for people in the developing world. So no matter who you are or where you live, chances are a tasty cricket, mealworm or dragonfly nymph is in your future.
Plenty of evidence suggests that it's actually strange not to eat insects. "Really, the only thing stopping us is cultural conditioning," said David Gracer, entomophagy proponent and owner of Small Stock, an insect-based catering, special event and distribution company in Providence, R.I. They're widely available after all, and at least 1,700 species are edible, according to the latest UNFAO estimates.
Most of those can be prepared in a way that is palatable or even a delicacy, and most are also highly nutritious. Typically, insects contain more protein per gram than meat, as well as a wide range of vitamins and minerals. And considering that the world population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, insects have an attractive sustainability profile compared with other sources of animal protein. They require much less space, water and other resources—10 pounds of feed yields just one pound of beef compared with six pounds of edible insect meat. They also produce less waste—80 percent of a cricket is edible after processing, compared with 55 percent of a cow or 70 percent of a pig.
Not So Quick to Flick
"Population growth is definitely going to strain food production. Already 70 percent of agricultural land is devoted to raising livestock, and meat has already gotten very expensive. The time is right to start looking seriously at alternatives for animal protein," said Marcel Dicke, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who has been traveling the world for the past 15 years lecturing on benefits of entomophagy. Dicke and other longtime advocates have also noticed that Westerners are much more open to the idea now.
|A scorpion dish by chef David Gracer is a crowd favorite at a Los Angeles cookoff. (photo by Shea Walsh / The Associated Press)|
The irony is that just as it's becoming more appreciated in the West, eating insects is falling out of favor in developing countries. "Over the past 10 or 12 years, global consumption is declining as developing countries are exposed to Western ideas of what's modern. That's something we're trying to combat," said Patrick Durst, a UNFAO forestry specialist who has become one of the organization's top experts on entomophagy. "We need to look at the science—insects are high in nutrients and abundant, and when you're addressing food security and hunger, that's what's important."
The FAO first became interested in edible insects about eight years ago when its researchers were studying the Central African bush meat crisis—steep declines in animals traditionally used for meat as a result of deforestation and unsustainable hunting practices. "One revelation was that up to 30 percent of the people's protein intake during the rainy season comes from insects," explained Paul Vantomme, a researcher for the UNFAO's Forestry Department. "Yet insects were, and still are, completely ignored in all of the international discussions of the bush-meat crisis." Vantomme began to look into the issue in depth and in 2004 published a study on the role of mopane worms as a food source in the Congo Basin.
The worms, the caterpillar of the Emperor moth, thrive in the forest during the region's three-month rainy season; women and children gather them by hand from trees or the ground. Gram for gram, they're higher in both protein and fat than meat or fish and are also rich in calcium, niacin and riboflavin. They can be stewed, fried or ground into nutrient-rich flour. In Central Africa, local people often make the flour into pulp to be given to children to combat malnutrition or to pregnant or breastfeeding women. They're also an important source of extra income for rural families. One study from Botswana found that the mopane worm generates about 13 percent of household income for rural families but accounts for only about 6 percent of the labor output. Rural people often sell them to traveling merchants, who then sell them at urban markets.
Vantomme's research generated a lot of interest, so much so that entomophagy has now become a major focus for the FAO. In 2008, Durst organized a three-day conference held in Chang Mai, Thailand, where scientists and development specialists from around the world gathered to try to fill the massive knowledge gaps in the field. Nutritionists reviewed the dietary value of dozens of common species, economists looked at expanding the insect market in Western countries, forestry specialists talked about the implications of deforestation and pesticides, and case studies looked at a host of future possibilities. In the Philippines, for instance, researchers want to attack agricultural pests like the mole cricket and June beetle by harvesting in lieu of insecticide use.
A team in Thailand wants to teach silkworm farmers to expand their market beyond thread production into snack production. And Japanese scientists think that termites would make the perfect in-flight food for astronauts on outer-space missions since the insects can be raised in tight quarters. More immediately, the FAO wants to encourage safe, sustainable edible-insect harvesting and breeding in countries where animal protein is scarce.
|A street vendor in Bangkok, Thailand, offers a variety of edible-insect dishes for hungry passers-by. (photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee)|
As a result, several initiatives are now under way, including a program in Laos, which is the first to take all of this recent knowledge out into the field.
Malnutrition rates in Laos are the highest in Southeast Asia, despite recent economic growth and adequate rice production. Forty percent of Lao children are malnourished or stunted, according to the UN World Food Programme, and inadequate protein is the most common problem. Many Lao children and adults also suffer from deficiencies in micronutrients like iron, iodine and many vitamins. Eating insects could address all of these problems, so the FAO has chosen Laos as a starting point for using entomophagy to fight hunger via a training program on raising crickets, palm weevils, mealworms and weaver ants for food.
"Eating insects has always been part of the Lao culture—90 percent of the population eats them regularly or has at least a few times. But 98 percent of these insects are still being collected in the wild," Durst said. FAO trainers are now teaching farmers from the provinces breeding techniques that should make edible insects more widely available. Earlier this year, the first class of trainees from the countryside spent three days in the capital of Vientiane learning how to raise crickets and other insects using techniques the FAO developed with universities in Laos and Thailand (one of the few countries where commercial insect farms have become popular in recent years).
Each trainee is given a starter kit of insects or eggs, feed, and a 3-foot-wide, cylindrical, concrete tank. "A cricket farm looks something like a sewer pipe laid on its side," Durst said. Cardboard egg cartons are placed inside to provide nooks for nesting and crawling; trays of wet cloth provide moisture. Tiny cricket eggs are placed inside, and once they hatch, the young crickets are fed either chicken mash or weeds and grass. Plastic tape and nets help keep them inside.
"If all goes well, they're ready to harvest in about 45 days," Durst said. A single family can run the whole operation as a sideline project. Palm weevils and mealworms are raised in similar ways, while weaver ants are bred in forests or fruit orchards since they pose little threat to crops.
By the end of the two-year project, the FAO plans to train as many as 250 farmers and about 60 teenage vocational school students, who are studying an adapted version of the workshop over the course of a semester, said Serge Verniau, the FAO representative in Laos leading the program on the ground.
The New Normal
The FAO also plans to use all the information being gathered to promote entomophagy to governments and nongovernmental organizations. A database of 1,700 species of edible insects, with information about nutrition, safety, and harvesting and breeding techniques will go online for public use in the next few months. And in March, representatives from the governments of Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as several development organizations, gathered in Laos over a lunch of lemon grass pork satay with crickets and bamboo worm sushi rolls to learn how to replicate the insect farming program elsewhere. Western governments are starting to get involved. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture recently allocated $1 million toward researching the potential for edible insects there.
|Volunteer judges from the audience sample the exotic fare at the Bug Chef Cook-Off in Los Angeles in May. Chefs David George Gordon, Zack Lemann, Daniella Martin and David Gracer all whipped up their favorites to wow the crowd. (photo by Shea Walsh / The Associated Press)|
Back in my kitchen, after I managed to herd the crickets back into the colander, I washed them and froze them, which made working with them dramatically easier. While I was removing their legs and wings, Alice, my 3-year-old wandered in, peered into my bowl of bugs, and asked, "Can I crunch one?" A-ha, so the cultural conditioning theory holds water. "Of course you can," I told her. "Just wait until I cook them."
Then I dry roasted them, coated them in butter sauce and baked them along with some more familiar ingredients—Chex cereal, peanuts and pretzels—so our first edible insects would be surrounded by a nest of Chex Mix. The verdict? Tasty. Both my husband and I thought the crickets added a nice twist—salty, a little bit chewy, and, we both agreed, reminiscent of oysters or shrimp. Maybe this could catch on. Given time to think about it, Alice wasn't so sure. When I did offer her a cricket to sample, she wrinkled her nose and passed on it like so much broccoli. It took awhile for sushi to catch on, too.
|If you like…||Try…||Because…|
|scallops||maggots||They make a tasty ceviche in a citrus marinade, says Louis Sorkin, entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History.|
|peanuts||locusts||In the Middle East, some actually look forward to invading swarms, which can be captured with a net, roasted and eaten as a nutty-flavored snack, Sorkin says.|
|fried eggs||witchetty grubs||Cooking this 2-inch-long Australian grub in butter is the best way to bring out its pleasant, egg-y flavor, according to a post at insectsarefood.com.|
|caviar||weaver ant larvae||The texture is similar to sturgeon or other fish roe, though flavor is a little different, "creamy rather than fishy and quite nice in an omelet," says Patrick Durst, UNFAO representative.|
|chanterelle mushrooms||wax worms||GirlMeetsBug blogger Daniella Martin attributes their "delicious, subtle flavor" to the diet of bran and honey they eat while in captivity.|
|herring||black witch moth larvae||They can be added to cheese fondue and tomato salads or simply grilled and sprinkled with lemon juice and chilies, according to Julieta Ramos-Elorduy's classic entomophogy cookbook, Creepy Crawly Cuisine.|