Eating insects

With the planet’s population steadily increasing, insects could provide a viable option when it comes to feeding livestock – and humans.

Doesn’t your stomach turn when you see people on TV munching insects? Mine certainly does. Yet when I was a little boy, I feasted on insects, as did many of my friends. It’s not that we were desperately poor and had nothing to eat at home; we were merely following the habits of previous generations. After the rain, the boys in our village would run outside with empty cans to collect what we called ‘dintlhwa’ (wasp larvae). We’d have fun gathering up these bugs.

Then, when our tins were full, we’d return home to make the tastiest meal. After boiling the insects in water for a minute or so, we added a little cooking oil and served them with pap – an authentic African treat. At the weekends when we’d help our parents to plough the lands, we’d also collect grasshoppers and locusts, which we would cook and serve with pap in the same way as dintlhwa.

With the exception of the well-known mopane worm, these ‘treats’ are no longer enjoyed by most people. Yet edible insects have always been a part of the human diet, so what’s changed? It’s an important question because, as everyone knows, the world has to double its food production to be able to feed the estimated nine billion people who’ll be inhabiting the planet by 2050. With essential commodities such as water and land becoming ever scarcer, thereby limiting the expansion of farming in general, experts are wondering if ‘insect farming’ would not help improve food security.

Needed: new look at nutrition
To be able to meet our growing food and nutrition challenges, a re-evaluation of what we eat – and how we produce it – has become crucial. According to Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed, brought out by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it’s estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least two billion people, with more than 1 900 species used as food.

Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (31%), caterpillars (18%) and bees, wasps and ants (14%). Following these are grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (13%), and cicadas (10%). Research shows that insect consumption, or using insects as feed for animals, could provide a viable alternative to conventional livestock and feed sources.

Convenient protein source
The FAO says that the recent high demand and high prices for fishmeal and soya, as well as increasing aquaculture production, is pushing new research into looking at other alternatives. This might be the development of insect protein for aquaculture and poultry. Insect-based feed products could be used in the same way as fishmeal and soya, currently the major components in feed for aquaculture and livestock. Apparently, insect-based feeds have the same benefits, and ‘insect farming’ will require significantly less land and water than, say, cattle-rearing.

It’s clearly an option worth considering. I wouldn’t mind tucking into dintlhwa again.