As climate change, resource scarcity and health crises (both obesity and undernourishment) become global epidemics, the benefits of indigenous foodstuffs as potential ‘solutions’ to these crises are being highlighted. Soy, algae, millet, quinoa and amaranth are all examples I could use, but in the past year I have focused very much on edible insects.
Edible insects as an indigenous foodstuff
Edible insects have been used for millennia in Africa, Central America and Asia as a food, medicine, and for ritual and cultural purposes. In indigenous cultures, up to 90% of insects are collected through wild harvesting, mainly by women and children. Of course, ‘indigenous’ shouldn’t suggest that practices, knowledge and uses of edible insects are stuck in a time warp. Instead, they vary over time, through trial and error, cultural change, climate change, ecosystems change… The result is a rich diversity of tastes, geographies, recipes, stories, and of course, insects. In fact, there are around 2000 documented edible insects in the world.
Edible insects as the ‘future of food’?
In ‘westernised’ economies such as Europe and North America, insects are often seen as disgusting, pests and inedible, despite the above richness. However, in 2013, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (UN FAO) published a report called ‘Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security’. Edible insects are framed as a nutritious and environmentally sustainable foodstuff that can: address global land, water and food resource challenges; reduce greenhouse gas emissions; act as a ‘protein alternative’ to livestock and dairy production; and enhance livelihoods and income levels in developing countries.
Edible insects rapidly became the new food ‘solution’, and in the past few years there has been a push for the mass farming of several select species of edible insect for human food, animal feed and edible oils. Entrepreneurs are a major part of this movement, capitalising on a growing economy for ‘ethical consumerists’ and creating edible insect snacks, protein-rich flours and gluten-free foods such as breads, muffins and pastas from edible insects.
Scaling up edible insects into global food systems?
However, the issue is, as we ‘scale up’ a foodstuff from its indigenous context and promote its mass production within globalised food and agricultural systems, we also include new actors with new values, uses and priorities.
How will a shift from the wild harvesting of edible insects to mass rearing facilities influence a) ecosystems diversity, b) welfare of edible insects, c) health and safety and d) long term nutrition?
How will the indigenous uses of edible insects as a medicine or local delicacy shift as there is a growing emphasis on incorporating only a few species (e.g. crickets, mealworms) into ‘known’ western foods? Who will actually be fed, and who will benefit in the long term from the ‘edible insects movement’?
Research is progressing fast, yet there are still gaps. Food safety takes priority over food security (e.g. the distribution, utilisation and availability of food around the world), and conservation and indigenous knowledge is less researched than nutritionism and consumer acceptance.
When it comes to the general public’s interpretation and knowledge of the ‘edible insects movement’, the media is playing a massive role. Marketing claims suggest that edible insects are the ‘new soy’, the ‘future of food’, the path to ‘feeding 9 billion by 2050’ and a ‘protein-rich, GMO-free, and gluten-free meat alternative’. The risk of these is that, without adequate research into the life cycle and benefits of edible insects, we risk just conflating all insects (and their diversity) into abstract claims, which are arguably much less about insects and more about just finding another solution to feed the world.
Edible insects in vegan diets?
I have found several articles giving varying views on this question. I, for one, believe that if we are fundamentally choosing food based on sustainability and seasonality, then wild foraging for insects and incorporating them into a vegan diet could work well. However, the choice to eat certain foods isn’t as simple as sustainability – it includes emotions, morals, values, culture, welfare. One article written by a long-time vegan suggests that, if vegans replaced plants with insects, they’d harm fewer animals. It’s an interesting read, looking at the difference between the intentional harm of an insect that suffers minimum or negligible pain to the unintentional suffering of mice, rabbits etc that are killed by ‘mass veganic agriculture’…
Another vegan journalist writes that she tried edible insects as: a) in comparison to other mainstreamed ‘faux meat’ alternatives, such as in-vitro lab grown burgers, they seemed more appealing; b) a huge amount of research and time goes into the ethics, sustainability and welfare of insect farming; and c) they have a very low carbon and ecological footprint. Finally, an article written for BUGSFeed opposes the above arguments – simply stating: “A plant-based diet can be healthy, delicious, and earth-friendly without any need to eat dead bugs”.
For more information…
Edible Insects: Future Prospects as Food and Feed (UN FAO, 2013). This report goes through the prospects of edible insects as livestock and fish feed, human food within global food systems, but also provides local case studies of edible insects and their role in livelihoods diversification and income enhancement.
4ento – One of the leading websites with a wealth of information on the most recent edible insect as food and feed news, reports, further links.
BUGSFeed – This website was only recently established, but is absolutely excellent. Not only does it ‘politicise’ the edible insect movement, realising that insects are not the solution but part of a diverse range of solutions to tackle environment, climate and health challenges, but it also has a ‘Bug of the Week’!
Woven Network – A UK based network for entrepreneurs, researchers, policy makers and others working within edible insects as food and feed.
The Nordic Food Lab (NFL) – The NFL have been working for four years on edible insects, gastronomy and deliciousness in diversity. A small team travelled around the world to explore local delicacies and take back this knowledge to the kitchens in Copenhagen.
Liberty Ruth – This research website is run by Charlotte Payne, a PhD researcher on edible insects, and provides fantastic information on local edible insect harvesting, uses and consumption within Central America, Asia and Africa.
Infographics are a visual and creative way of engaging people. Many serve one purpose: relating insects and their nutrition/climate footprint to ‘known’ foods. I am a bit stuck as to whether I like these ‘comparison’ infographics or not, as they conflate all edible insects into one homogenous category…but others are more detailed, showing where edible insects are consumed in the world, or providing information on health/sustainability differences between species.
Here are just a few of the infographics I find interesting:
TED Talks on edible insects are increasingly popular, including:
Why not eat insects? Marcel Dicke (2010)
Should we eat bugs? Emma Bryce
and then some wide-ranging talks on edible insects around the world, from primate consumption to the ‘grossness’ of insect eating in the west.
There are a few documentaries coming up about edible insects. Most are still in prep, but you can see a trailer for the BUGSFeed documentary here, in collaboration with the Nordic Food Lab.
Little Herds provides a list of upcoming events, including tastings, talks and workshops.
BUGSFeed provides a fantastic comprehensive list here. Woven (above) and 4ento (above) also provide events information, but less detailed.
The Food Geographer (yes, pathetic self-marketing here) can provide ‘taste education’ workshops on edible insects, indigenous knowledge and flavours, along with wider debates on climate, insect farming and policy.