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

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