Entomophagy – What Is this All About?

Cuchama al ajillo. Lepidopteran larvae from Puebla, Mexico. Paradirphia fumosa (Saturnidae). Photo: Antonio Ibarra Jimenez

Entomophagy is a very simple concept: it refers to eating insects and saving the world in doing so. The added benefit of eating insects is that they are healthy and very palatable. I mainly do it for the flavours and the memories it brings, as I come from a country where eating chapulines (grasshoppers) and jumiles (stink bugs), among many others insects, is a scrumptious millenary tradition. However, I understand the ick-factor people associate with the consumption of what we generally consider pests. The goal of this article is to convince those with an aberration for entomophagy that eating insects goes beyond the flavours; it is a way of getting involved in a sustainable food culture.

Current practices for the production of animal protein release copious amounts of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide and methane, otherwise known as greenhouse gases (GHG). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock production accounts for one-fifth of the GHG emissions through irrigation, feed transport, tilling of fields, and all the other practices associate with farming.

Canadian prairies. Vast amount of land is required to produce animal protein. Photo: Matt Holl

Furthermore, growing livestock requires significant space compared to other food sources. In a world with a population growth projection of 9 billion by the year 2050, Dr. van Huis from the Wageningen University, concludes that the production of animal protein represents a serious challenge for the future.

Foreseeing these challenges, the FAO and the Wageningen University and Research Centre organized the “Insects to Feed the World” first international conference, where leading scientists, economists, and politicians met in May 2014. The most important message coming from the conference was that growing insects for human consumption is imperative given their high nutritional value. The attendees also underlined that human population growth creates higher demand for animal proteins, and that the increasing costs and quantities of feed for farmed animals can begin to affect the grain supplies used for human consumption. 

In their 'Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security' publication, the United Nations FAO points out that insect rearing does not require land clearing to meet demand, reducing the amount of space required for animal protein production. Also, in addition to lower GHG emissions compared to traditional protein production, the amount of ammonia emissions associated with insect rearing is lower than those linked to conventional livestock such as pigs. High levels of ammonia secretions are just another element that negatively impact air and water quality, as well as animal and human health.

If the reasons mentioned above are not enough to convince people that focusing on an insect diet is a good idea, there’s more! Insects can be fed on organic waste streams, with their harvesting/rearing being low-tech or very sophisticated depending on the level of investment. This potential for a low-capital investment insect protein production facility is an option for poor sections of society, and makes insect protein an option for both urban and rural people.

Chapulines grasshoppers with dry chiles, garlic, salt, and lime. Photo: Sebastian Ibarra Jimenez 

All these reasons outlined above led former US President Bill Clinton to award Aspire, a social enterprise based in Toronto, with the Hult Prize. Aspire is an enterprise that is improving access to edible insects worldwide. Aspire has current projects in Mexico and Ghana, and prospect projects in Kenya and Thailand. Their mission is to produce animal protein for human consumption with less farmland, less water, and less GHG emissions. 

Along similar lines to Aspire, a Vancouver-based enterprise known as Enterra has received recognition from renowned geneticist and environmentalist David Suzuki. Enterra converts pre-consumer food waste into high-value protein in the form of insect larvae for food production, such as fish. They also produce oil and fertilizer out of pre-consumer waste.  Their goal is to close the loop on food waste by transforming waste into animal feed and other agricultural products.

We live in a world where poverty, malnutrition, food security, pollution, and climate change  are realities that affect us all. By changing our perception on food (and overcoming our ick-factor), we could help ameliorate the environmental and sustainability crisis that defines our era. There is ample evidence to suggest that an insect-based diet will be neutral, at worst, for our planet, but will more likely be beneficial. So why not forget our negative preconceptions on what food should look like and begin to relish insect eating. Mmm, hexapodlicious!