Grub’s up: Insects as a food source

Should humanity be thinking more seriously about eating insects? While common in some cultures, there’s still a long way to go in contending with safety regulations and the yuck factor.

Every so often, our house is shaken by the piercing screams of my terrified wife. My blood freezes. Then, adrenalin churning, I reach for the closest weapon and charge madly in the direction of the terror, determined to protect my beloved from menacing intruders.

I have done this many times. Invariably, the home intruder turns out to be just another flying ant or moth.

I suspect that it is the determined flapping of wings that disconcerts her, inducing an irrational terror that these largely harmless creatures will fly up to her face and wound her, so I completely understand that eating an insect may be revolting or disconcerting to many people.

Just the thought of putting a creeping, crawling, squishy creature into your mouth will turn many a stomach. But as someone who has eaten a number of insects – and survived to tell the tale – bear with me during a brief exploration of whether humanity should be thinking more seriously about relieving human hunger by incorporating more insects into our daily diet.

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I ate my first insects while growing up in Kenya many decades ago. A bunch of us youngsters caught a tub of flying ants (wood termites) and cooked them in a frying pan, stripped of their wings. They had a buttery sort of taste, though you needed to catch quite a bundle to fill your stomach.

Some years later, while travelling in Namibia, I stopped at a cuca shop in the Ovambo region on a very hot day. The proprietor brought us ice-cold beers and a snack plate filled with cold, pre-roasted mopani worms. The worms tasted okay. A bit like very dry, firm chicken meat. I thought they could have done with a dash of spice.

Later, in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, I ventured into a restaurant where the menu was printed in Spanish. It had been a long day and I was hungry, so I ran my finger quickly down the menu items and settled at random on a dish described as “chapulines”. My chapulines turned out to be a plate of toasted grasshoppers. But they were spiced and salted and tasted pretty good.

But enough of anecdotes. Let’s turn to the real business of rearing and eating insects, for human food or for animal feed.

Food source

Coincidentally, we return to the capital of Kenya, where I ate my first bowl of flying ants all those decades ago. Professor Thomas Odhiambo, who dreamed of creating a new global centre of excellence for insect research, established the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) on the outskirts of Nairobi.

While most of Icipe’s work has focused on controlling insects as agricultural pests, the centre launched a new strategic research programme nearly five years ago to look at insects as a possible source of food for people and livestock.

Icipe entomologist Dr. Sevgan Subramanian notes that entomophagy (people eating insects as food) is nothing new, with a recent study showing that almost 500 insect species are eaten on a regular basis in Africa.

At a global level, almost 2 000 insect species are eaten by about two billion people, mainly in developing countries – anything from caterpillars to termites, locusts and beetles. Most of these insects are highly nutritious and some have higher protein levels than fish or soya beans, says Subramanian, noting that edible cricket species are rich in calcium and vitamins.

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10 March 2019: The pupae of the Black Soldier Fly are boiled and dried to create feed for pigs, chicken and fish.

Edible inventory

Four years ago, Icipe researchers began to compile an inventory of Africa’s edible insects and published a comprehensive review on the role that bugs could play in alleviating hunger and malnutrition in Africa.

The review article notes that mopani caterpillars are eaten in several parts of southern Africa, from Limpopo in South Africa to as far north as Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Malawi.

In northern Zambia and in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bemba people eat 30 different insect species, while insects reportedly make up 15% of the protein intake of the Gbaya people of the Central African Republic.

In Kinshasa, research showed that residents consume 96 tonnes of caterpillars each year, while lake flies, ants, crickets and grasshoppers are still eaten widely in parts of Kenya.

Another example comes from Nigeria, where edible moths sell for twice the price of beef in some villages.

The yuck factor

Subramanian says that while the centre is busy with several projects expanding the use of insects for food, there is still a long way to go.

One of the major challenges involves international food safety policy and legislation. Currently, insects are classified as impurities or contaminants under the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s global food and safety codes.

And, perhaps more importantly, there is the yuck factor.

Dr Chrysantus Tanga, a Nairobi-based researcher who studied at the University of Pretoria, says most people are happy to eat a chicken that has been fed on insects, but there is often a serious aversion to placing insects into human mouths. So, changing perceptions about insect-based food could take time.

Nevertheless, Tanga says, Icipe is busy with a variety of research experiments on insect species that could be “domesticated” easily or reared en masse for human consumption.

Two of the most promising candidates appear to be edible crickets and grasshoppers. The centre has also tried to rear mopani worms for potential commercial-scale food, but so far Icipe has not been able to find them an alternative diet to mopani tree leaves.

Animal fodder

The centre has also helped local entrepreneurs establish several projects to mass-rear the pupae of Black Soldier Flies for animal feed. More commonly known as maggots, the pupae of the Black Soldier Fly are being boiled and dried to generate feed for pigs, chicken and fish.

Adan Mohammed, the chief executive of start-up company Ecodudu, is leading one of the pilot projects near the town of Thika. Mohammed’s company has been collecting waste food from the kitchens of several hotels and universities for nearly two years to create two products.

First, the food waste is fed to soldier flies and their offspring to produce bags of dried maggots for animal feed. Thereafter, the remaining food waste (reduced and recycled by the pupae) is mixed with biochar to create a second product, organic soil fertiliser.

Mohammed, the 2017 winner of an African Entrepreneur award, says his small company produces two to three tonnes of animal feed a month but he hopes to expand production shortly to 15 tonnes a month.

The company has eight full-time employees and they cannot keep up with the demand for animal feed, which he sells at around 100 Kenyan shillings/kg (about R14/kg). This comes in slightly cheaper than fish-based animal feed.

‘Value from waste’

South of Nairobi, a much more ambitious (and contentious) venture is underway by the Sanergy group, near the town of Athi River.

Here, the pupae of black soldier flies are being reared on a much grander scale. They are also fed on a much stinkier diet: a mixture of food waste from kitchens and human faeces collected from the slum settlements of Nairobi.

Co-founder David Auerbach, a graduate of MIT, says the grand idea is to “extract more value from waste”, while also trying to resolve the growing sanitation crisis in Nairobi slums.

He estimates that 65% of the population of Nairobi lack access to proper sanitation.

Auerbach’s company, managed by Kenyan industrial engineer Michael Lwoyelo, has developed a new Fresh Life sanitation system that provides shack dwellers with “clean and dignified” toilet facilities designed to separate urine and faeces at the source. The human waste is collected by hand carts and trucks and transported to Athi River.

Testing and regulation

Initially, fly larvae are fed a diet of wheat bran and chicken mash. Once they become pupae, their diet changes to food waste and sewage, which they can reduce in volume from 100 to 30 tonnes in the space of ten days.

Just before the pupae transform into flies, they are sifted out from the reduced waste to be boiled, dried and packaged as animal feed. The leftover waste is used to produce organic soil fertiliser.

Lwoyelo says the facility produces about 15 tonnes of animal feed a day, with plans to expand production to 250 tonnes a day over the coming months.

According to Sanergy, the larvae are pathogen-free and the final animal feed products are “tested by third parties to ensure compliance with international standards”.

Nevertheless, as noted by Icipe researchers, there is still a long path ahead to ensure that future commercial insect production – whether for human food or animal feed – is tested and regulated scrupulously.

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