Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bugs, Hunger and Food (Part 1): A Source of Protein

Publications from the  Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) rarely attract as much attention in the U.S. media as the one released in May 2013.  The reason: The FAO was recommending that the global community look at a common source of protein in many parts of the world (insects) to help feed the world as the global population increases. This report made the rounds on the evening news, the daily newspapers and the weekly news magazines. (Time magazine put together a very comprehensive report).

The reality is that insects have long been a part of the diet in some Asian and African countries. We just haven't heard much about it (except for some shows on the Travel Channel).  And beyond their role as a source of protein, insects play an important function in the food production process.  We are going to look at insects as food and food-production enablers in a three-part series over the next several days. 

Insects as part of the Global Diet
When  I was in high school, my Civics teacher brought a box of chocolate-covered ants for us to try. This was a good-faith effort to broaden our horizons. So how was the experience?  The truth is that all I could taste was the chocolate, and the ant just felt like a tiny piece of tin foil going down my throat.  Ants are among the types of insects that are consumed regularly in some countries, although I doubt that they are covered in milk chocolate.  If you haven't associated insects with sweets before, then you might want to try a new flavor of ice cream laced with (gasp!)...cidadas! Desserts are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to consuming insects.

"From ants to beetle larvae – eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets – to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand, it is estimated that insect-eating is practised regularly by at least 2 billion people worldwwde," the FAO said in a book entitled  Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security. "More than 1 900 insect species have been documented in literature as edible, most of them in tropical countries. The most commonly eaten insect groups are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies."

An impetus for the book is the premise that the global community needs to start looking at at additional sources of food to meet the needs of a global population that is widely expected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

"To accomodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production," said the authors of the book. "To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food."

So, why not insects?  These critters are high in protein and  generally low in fat and cholesterol, and sometimes can provide more calories than those obtained from consuming soybeans, corn (maize) or beef.  (Read separate FAO Report: Forest Insects as Food: Human Bite Back).

 A Complex Solution
Insects at market in Thailand (Via Wikimedia Commons)
Before we start declaring that insects are one of the top solutions to address food insecurity in the near and far future, we also need to recognize some realities. As the FAO points out in the book, there's more to this proposal than simply encouraging folks to go out into the woods and the desert to harvest insects.

The subject of edible insects inherently covers a wide range of thematic areas, from the conservation of habitats where insects are harvested to insect ecology, the artificial rearing of insect species, the processing of insects into food and feed products, and the labelling and marketing of insect-based food and feed products. This publication, therefore, draws from a wide range of disciplines and areas of expertise. It is a multidisciplinary effort involving technical experts specializing in forestry, animal farming, nutrition, the feed industry, legislation and food security policies," the FAO said in the book.

So  is the world ready to embrace development of this food source on a large scale?  Probably not in the near future, but this is a solution that needs to be considered seriously.  According to the FAO, the concept of  insect rearing for food and feed remains a sector in its infancy, and key future challenges will likely emerge as the field evolves.

If you're interested in finding more about this fascinating topic, you can download the full FAO book or individual chapters via this link.

No comments: