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Eating bugs
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Could eating insects be the solution to our planet’s food crisis?

Turns out if you really want to save the world, you should start eating bugs…

Before you go into a string of “Ewws”, you should know that the tendency to react that way is probably genetically encoded into you. Centuries and more of associating insects with disease, garbage, and a general invasion of your home has calibrated a fear that is not entirely unknown or unexplored. That fear needs to be overcome. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2050 the earth will have 9 billion humans living on it, and current methods of food production can’t feed that many. There just isn’t enough arable land to be able to grow enough grain and vegetables for that many people, and we know meat isn’t the answer either. We need to reevaluate what we eat – and eating insects (entomophagy) might be the answer.

Good bugs

Insects have been considered as a viable source of protein by many cultures and regions around the world. According to estimates, insects already form a part of the traditional diets of more than 2 billion people – which includes more than 1900 species of insects!

Eating bugs
Bees are a major pollinating insect species – a lot of flowering plants depend on them for reproduction

Before we get into nutritional information, let’s first take a look at what insects contribute already. For instance, insects help in pollination so that plants can reproduce. More than 90 per cent of the 250,000 flowering species in the world depend mainly on insects for pollination. They also significantly contribute to soil fertilisation through waste conversion. Apart from these they have many other contributions such as natural control over harmful pests, by-products like honey, silk and medical applications as well. Insects actually contribute far more than we humans do to the ecology of the planet!

A la carte

As we mentioned earlier, eating insects is not a new food habit. In fact, if you take a map of the world and a list of the countries where insects are a major part of the diet, it is not hard to spot a trend. As you get closer to the equator, the number of insect species being consumed by the local population increases. Beetles make up about 40 per cent of all known insect species, and about 31 per cent of known edible species.

Eating bugs
Recorded number of edible insect species, by country

What’s hard to do is to put numbers to the nutritional value of insects. This is because there are way too many different species to keep a track of, and even within a known species, the nutritional value varies depending on the stage of its lifecycle, the locale and the diet of the insect species itself. Then there’s the preparation method (raw, or processed by frying, boiling, drying, pickling, etc.) which also affects the contribution to your diet. In order to bring more clarity, the International Network of Food Data Systems (INFOODS), established in 1984, aims to stimulate and coordinate efforts to improve the quality and worldwide availability of food analysis data. Their efforts include insect-based values as well.

When it comes to their composition, insects are mainly a source of protein, fat and fibre. Rumpold and Schlüter (2013) compiled nutrient compositions for 236 edible insects, based on dry matter. Even though this data might have been varied, according to another study, many edible insects provide satisfactory amounts of energy and protein, meet amino acid requirements for humans, are high in monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acids, and are rich in micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc, as well as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, biotin and, in some cases, folic acid.

They’re healthy eating!

Many of us want calorie counts instead, and even there, insects usually score above many other meat sources. For instance, according to an FAO 2012 study, an australian green ant, when consumed raw, contributes about 1,272 kcal/100g of fresh weight. Compared to that, the same value for whole chicken is only at 177 kcal/100g of edible portions. According to the same study, protein content of insects, on an average, is at par with that of cattle and fish.

Eating bugs
Common insect food stall in Bangkok, Thailand. Bon Appetit!

Apart from this, there are specific nutrients available in insects – in quantities significant enough to affect their preexisting consumption around the world. For instance, certain species of caterpillar are rich in lysine (an amino acid used in the biosynthesis of protein). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they are used to supplement the poor lysine content in their staple diet. Palm weevil larvae play the same role as tubers in the diet of the people of Papua New Guinea. In fact, countries where maize is a staple, there are high number of lysine deficiency cases that can easily be avoided by introducing termite species like Macrotermes bellicosus in the diet. Numerous such examples exist around the world.

Why should you switch?

Just because insects ‘can’ substitute many parts of your current flora and fauna-based diet might not be convincing enough for you to make the switch. But it’s not just dietary information that should sway you. One of the primary concerns regarding the current cattle and poultry-based cuisines prevalent around the world is the associated carbon footprint and impact on the environment. Comparatively, consuming insects has a number of environmental advantages:

  • They have high feed-conversion efficiency (an animal’s capacity to convert feed mass into increased body mass, represented as kg of feed per kg of weight gain).
  • They can be reared on organic side streams, reducing environmental contamination, while adding value to waste.
  • They emit relatively few Greenhouse gases and relatively little ammonia.
  • They require significantly less water than cattle rearing.
  • They have few animal welfare issues, although the extent to which insects experience pain is largely unknown.
  • They pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic infections

Overall, entomophagy has a beneficial effect on the planet without depriving us humans of our dietary requirements. And we all know how important that is!

A palate cleanser

There isn’t a distinct culture/region in India that has a preference for entomophagy. A large part of today’s diet, especially in urban areas, has been influenced by the west. And in the western countries, insects are considered plain disgusting. This westernization of the diet is also affecting areas like Africa and south-east Asia where there is a prevalent practice of entomophagy. This is a harmful trend that needs to be dealt with. Companies and individuals interested in insect farming need to be encouraged by setting up proper infrastructure for the practice. Information about edible insect species and their availability in regions needs to be disbursed as well. But perhaps most importantly, we, the everyday people who run for their slippers at the sight of a cockroach, need to stop looking at these creatures as “creepy-crawlies” that bite us, and learn to bite back, with a side of ketchup, of course!

This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.