May 17, 2013

Edible Insects and Food Security

Stewart Patrick, of the Internationalist blog at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes of a new report from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization touting edible insects as the easiest way to meet the coming crisis over global food security. 
The notion of meeting caloric, especially protein, needs from insects (as well as grubs, worms and other creepy-crawlies) is hardly new. It’s something humans and their hominid ancestors have been doing for millions of years. Paleoanthropologists and biologists speculate that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed prodigious quantities of insects—a fact conveniently omitted by most contempoary aficionados of the “cave man diet”. More recently, nineteenth century European arrivals to Australia marveled at aboriginal tribes’ insatiable appetite for insects, and the dramatic impact such a diet could have on their health and appearance, as documented in a fascinating ethnography, The Moth Hunters.
What’s surprising is how enduring the human taste for class Insecta remains. According to the FAO, more than two billion people—thirty percent of humanity—already supplement their diet with insects. And given the number of insects out there—1 million distinct species have already been identified and nearly two thousand proven edible—diners have a crunchy smorgasbord to choose from. “The most commonly eaten insect groups,” we learn, “are beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies.”
Most of today’s insect-eaters live in the developing world, in countries where insects are perceived as a perfectly acceptable and convenient source of energy—readily (or at least seasonably) available, highly portable, and requiring fewer inputs than agriculture or animal husbandry. In terms of nutrition, insects provide an outstanding advantages, having “high fat, protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content,” and can be a particularly important diet component for children under the age of five in poor countries.
While many in the West may recoil in disgust, the FAO makes a compelling case on food security grounds for entomophagy (eating bugs, in science-speak). Often dismissed as “famine foods,” insects may offer at least part of the answer to the global food crisis. And a crisis is what we have on our hands. Based on current demographic and dietary trends, as I’ve written before, the world needs to double its food production over the next forty years—an effort that will require unprecedented productivity gains while risking ecological calamity. 
Here’s where insects come in. Insects, it turns out, are far more efficient than livestock—perhaps ten times so—in transforming feed into edible meat. And they largely avoid the huge greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other environmental pollutants, associated with livestock. While most edible insects continue to be collected in the wild, more organized forms of insect farming have emerged, including “cricket farming” in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Insects are also being increasingly used as animal feed, particularly for poultry and acquaculture. By providing employment opportunities, the edible insect sector has a potential role to play in rural development, from Southeast Asia to Central Africa. . . .
* * *

Stewart Patrick, "There's a Fly in My Soup? Can Insects Satisfy World Food Needs?, The Internationalist, May 16, 2013

Glaciers Retreat

From Yale Environment 360:
The glaciers on Mount Everest and the surrounding region have shrunk by 13 percent in the last five decades as temperatures have risen and snowfall has declined in that section of the Himalaya, according to a new study. Using satellite imagery and topographic maps, a team of scientists found that the majority of glaciers on Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, and in the surrounding Sagarmatha National Park are retreating at an accelerating rate. In the last 50 years, the snowline in the Everest region has shifted up by an average of 590 feet (180 meters), said Sudeep Thakuri, a Ph. D. student at the University of Milan and leader of the research team, which presented its findings at a conference in CancĂșn, Mexico. Because glaciers are melting faster than they are being replenished, researchers say, rock and debris that were previously hidden under snow are now exposed and absorbing heat. A separate study, published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that snow cover in the Rocky Mountains has declined by about 20 percent in the last three decades as a result of warmer springs.