Feature

Bugs & insects on the menu

1,400 species of insects are eaten by humans in over 90 countries. And, in fact, insects just may offer a solution to our coming food and climate challenges.

bug

Bacon doesn't look much like a pig, so there's no reason that insect protein has to look like a bug, says Durst.

Credit: iStockphoto

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For most people, insects are creatures to swat, stomp on or spray with pesticides. The last thing many folks want is bugs in their food - let alone as the main course! But while the idea of eating insects may seem unappetising to some, 'entomophagy', as the practice of eating insects is called, is not new or strange for millions of people around the world. And, in fact, it just may offer a solution to our coming food and climate challenges.

More than 1,400 species of insects are eaten by humans in over 90 countries. Some are grilled, fried, parboiled or roasted, while others are transformed into sauces and pastes, or rolled into omelettes and baked goods.

In most places where they're eaten, bugs are a regular part of the diet - and are often considered delicacies. In Thailand, for example, nearly 200 different types of insects are consumed, many as highly sought-after snacks and treats. Vendors selling insects are a common feature throughout the country, including in the urban capital, Bangkok.

As a food source, insects are highly nutritious. Some species have, weight for weight, twice the protein of meat or fish, and many are rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other elements needed for a healthy diet.

The idea that insects might help overcome global hunger and malnutrition, then, is not as far-fetched as it might first seem. Insects also offer huge advantages in food production in comparison with traditional livestock. By some estimates, there are as many as 10 quintillion (that's a 10 with 18 zeros) individual insects alive at any given time. Even with humans eating only relatively few species, that's a massive quantity of potential food!

And bugs also offer benefits to those wanting to reduce their eco footprint, as they're very efficient in converting what they eat into tissue that can be consumed by others. Factoring in their astounding breeding rates, the true food conversion efficiency of insects may be 20 times that of cattle. Plus they're mostly vegetarians, and feed on a wide range of plants that conventional livestock won't touch.

These factors are potentially very important for a world that is eating ever-increasing amounts of meat. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that livestock production contributes as much as 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Insect farmers in Thailand are beginning to demonstrate that beneficial insect-eating isn't just pie-in-the-sky thinking. In Khon Kaen Province of northeast Thailand, for example, there are now more than 4,500 families raising edible insects, with nearly 15,000 others spread around the country.

If we hope to increase the consumption of insects in the human diet, however, we'll likely have to change the appearance of the food so people don't have to 'look the bug in the eye' as they eat it. This is consistent with the way most protein foods are now prepared and served to humans; bacon doesn't look much like a pig and steak doesn't look much like a cow, so there's no reason that insect protein has to look like a bug!

Insects grown hygienically and processed into various powders and pastes could readily be used as ingredients in a multitude of foods. There are also major opportunities to rear insects as feed for fish, poultry and other conventional livestock, reducing the dependence on traditional animal feeds that are often grown at considerable environmental cost.

Still, a shift from livestock meat to beetle burgers is unlikely to happen right away. The introduction of new foods requires considerable efforts to build appreciation and to teach people cooking methods. But just think of the steady global growth in the popularity of sushi and sashimi: once appreciated by a relatively small portion of the world's population, these foods have now gained widespread acceptance.

Admittedly, entomophagy isn't for everyone. Nonetheless, if more people opened their minds and mouths to the possibilities of eating insects, the world would likely have fewer hungry people and less severe environmental problems.

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PATRICK B. DURST is a senior forestry officer for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United
Nations and is based in Bangkok, Thailand.