Oxford Insects for Food and Feed Conference

On the 4th December, the UK’s first public Insects for Food and Feed Conference (IFFC) was hosted at the Oxford Martin School, Oxford. Here are some of the salient take-home messages from the conference.

Diversity is key. 

The IFFC hosted a diversity of peoples from psychologists to insect farmers, from anthropologists to chefs, and from entomologists to 3D printing graphic designers. This diversity was respected – everyone had a platform to speak from, discuss, show their posters and research, provide homemade grasshopper and silk worm sushi.

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3D printing (top), honey ant (left), larvae dish (right)

This respect should also be fostered in wider debates and policy on entomophagy, not only in terms of embracing the numerous actors involved but also to the narratives surrounding insects as a food and feed (and potentially fuel) source.

With over 2000 species of edible insect, there is no ‘globally edible’ insect, nor is entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) a homogenised culinary, nutritive and sustainable practice. 

Peter Scarborough, an epidemiologist from the University of Oxford, opened the IFFC with the questions: how do we feed people, and how healthy are insects compared to other commonly consumed meats? In a recent systematic review, the nutritional profiles of edible insects were found to be highly varied, with no insect being significantly ‘healthier’ than meat products. In fact, if we are talking about combating over-nutrition and the health consequences of meat and dairy-rich diets, it is much more ‘healthy’ to just become vegan. However, if we look at under-nutrition, palm weevils are the most ‘healthy’, providing high levels of fat, protein and essential micronutrients.

 

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Bar graph showing Ofcom nutritional profile scores for insects, meat and offal. Higher scores indicate healthier foods (Source: Payne et al, 2015)

 

Peter’s conclusions set the tone of the IFFC wonderfully – it was not a place to talk superficially about insects as a ‘future of food’ revolution, and begged the question  of who is ‘the world’ is when we see the mainstream phrase ‘insects to feed the world’?

We need detailed research on each stage of edible insects as food and feed, from production via harvesting or farming to consumer health and acceptance. 

The IFFC succeeded in displaying this ‘supply chain’ from production to consumption, with themes such as traditional culture, health and nutrition, sustainability and environmental impact.

For example, one pertinent element of the insects as food and feed debate is the diversification of smallholder livelihoods and enhancing food security. Richard Quilliam from the University of Stirling’s ENTO-PRISE speaking of commercialisation and value addition and to what extent this will benefit small-scale farmers in rural Africa. He spoke of the potential for black soldier flies as feed in sustainable aquaculture, along with producing income and yield-enhancing biofertiliser through the flies digestion of food waste from local markets.

 

This focus on rural economy was contrasted with a ‘techno-utopian’ and artistic vision of using 3D printing as a novel way of producing edible insect products, particularly those appealing to Western cultures. The designers behind Insects Au Gratin called this the ‘3D Industrial Revolution 2.0’, enabling consumers to develop their own food digitally and conveniently.

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3D printer from Insects Au Gratin

While technical innovation and financial valuation of edible insects is important to consider – especially as several species are integrated into European and US markets – these should be on par with cultural, gastronomic, social and environmental values. This was suggested by the Insect Au Gratin’s use of insect ‘dances’ (e.g. the bee dance) to design their products; a process suggestive of ‘biomimicry’.

The emphasis on a holistic approach leads us to another take-home message: that ‘traditional’ and ‘innovative’ practices are not mutually exclusive. 

In fact, combining the two is incredibly powerful: Darja Doberman, a PhD student from the University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research, spoke of the biofortification of traditional foods, using modern scientific techniques to enhance the nutritional profiles of foods such as millet porridge. While millet is an accessible and resilient crop in semi-arid areas of Africa and Asia, essential micro and macro nutrients may be lacking: resulting in ‘hidden hunger’ particularly of women and children. Supplements in tablet form are often costly and inaccessible, patented and owned by external companies rather than farmers themselves. Fortifying millet foods with cricket flour may be one way to tackle this. Furthermore, the crickets can be fed on biowaste from millet husks (usually left after brewing millet beer), creating a nexus between food, waste, culture and health.

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Biowaste, crickets and feed and food – Darja Doberman’s research at IFFC. Full slideshow here.

 

Another important message is about taste, and what we deem to be ‘edible. 

This is very important when it comes to the entomophagy movement, where there is a three-millennia-long history of insect eating alongside a recent surge of (relatively) modern gastronomic experimentation, such as Anty Gin and grasshopper tacos.

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Hornet honey

Both hold a diversity of flavours, textures, recipes, and definitions of what is ‘edible’ or ‘delicious’. For example, Nanaka, from the Rikkyo University, Japan, gave a cheerful and aesthetically pleasing photo slideshow of insect delicacies in Japan. Following this, attendees were invited to make their own sushi at lunch – filling seaweed rolls with sticky rice, silk worm pupae, grasshoppers, wasp larvae and scarab beetles. This activity succeeded in combining the intellectual debates with gastronomic exploration and excitement; a marriage anyone new to entomophagy should wholeheartedly embrace.

Jonas House, a PhD researcher investigating public attitudes towards entomophagy in the Netherlands and UK, also spoke of edibility. In short, there are certain foods we find ‘edible’ and others we deem not. For example, one person may believe silk worm pupae sautéed in soy sauce is delicious; the other may be repulsed by this and prefer crickets hidden in bread.

Jonas found that, once we go beyond the psychology of disgust surrounding entomophagy, people are more interested in using edible insects as an ingredient in cooking rather than eating them ‘hidden’ in convenience snacks and pre-prepared foods. He concludes that sugar-coating (both literally and proverbially) insects actually hinders our gastronomic appreciation of insects.

This relates to a wider debate on whether insects should be a meat replacement. As the above shows, ‘edible’ is a socially and morally loaded term: meat has particular social status, tastes and textures. Can, and should, insects replace this or should they be diversified source of food in their own right?

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Source: Huffington Post

 

A final message is about the potential risks of such diversity. As insects scale up from local to global food and agricultural systems, the multiple actors and agendas involved may also risk some voices being sidelined relative to others. 

This is particularly important when it comes to ‘academic’ conferences such as the IFFC; we all had access to the educational platforms and funding requires to do research or set up businesses on edible insects.

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Entomophagy and power

A talk by Charlotte Payne, Andrew Muller, Joshua Evans and Rebecca Roberts asked the audience to repoliticise the insect movement: to understand that intended ‘solutions’ to global crises can play out very differently, with complex, unequal results. This inequality relates to underlying structures in our global agri-food system that dictate who produces, controls and ultimately benefits. This is not new, and we can learn from historical precedents such as soy and quinoa that have also been framed as ‘solutions’ yet yielded unintended, often destructive, impacts on global food and agriculture. 

The final panel discussion reflected on this, agreeing that, while a small group of people from similar cultural and/or epistemological backgrounds may be efficient in discussing insects as food and feed, progress is not effective unless the data and people missing from the current debate are included and appreciated. Perhaps, creative ways of communicating about edible insects as food and feed are needed, with suggestions of scientific comic strips (see below) and social networks being offered.

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Use of comic strips as an accessible, creative way to educate about entomophagy? Marc Schleunitz, Humboldt University Berlin

Overall, the future of edible insects as food and feed is unpredictable, uncertain and diverse, but this is what makes it so exciting. Here is to further detailed research, debate and conferences like the IFFC to continue delving into the diversity, voices and values surrounding edible insects as food and feed.

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