My father used to talk about things coming in two sizes—too big and too small. When it comes to protein much of the world’s population fits into two categories—too much or too little. The Western Diet emphasizes meat at the center of the plate. That concept leads to overconsumption of protein. As incomes around the world have increased, more people have gained access to meat. More meat contributes to a need for more land. Some of that land encroaches on populations of wild animals. Devastation of wildlife populations occurs due to loss of habitat. Such losses increase the chances for regional or global pandemics. The war in Ukraine and inflation threatens to plunge many families back into poverty and low-protein diets.
In many areas of the world vegans by circumstance, not by choice, fail to consume enough protein. Not enough protein leads to subclinical deficiencies short of a full-blown deficiency disease. Such a state leads to a weakened immune system. Weakened immunity increases susceptibility to other deficiencies and microbial diseases. How do we make up for that protein gap? One way is to incorporate alternative sources of proteins into processed foods. Plant-based alternatives have been in the news lately. Insects are the alternative protein that Westerners are reluctant to talk about. Such is the vision of Insect and Hydroponic Farming in Africa.
In January 1973 I was on an all-expense-paid cruise to the Gulf of Tonkin, courtesy of the US NAVY. Charlie was one of my shipmates, known on the ship for his consumption of live cockroaches. I am afraid that this story is hearsay as I never observed the act in person. Part of the legend was that one could see legs flapping outside his lips as the roach was consumed. I never had the desire to eat a whole roach or other insect either dead or alive. BTW, roaches are NOT a species marketed as a source of food or protein.
When I was at the University of Georgia, I taught a Freshman Seminar in Chocolate Science. A colleague in Entomology taught one at the same time in Edible Insects. He held his eating sessions in our Sensory Evaluation Lab. We could have met together on chocolate covered ants!
A Circular Food Economy can improve food security. 24% of sub-Saharan Africans do not consume a nutritious diet. The pandemic pushed many persons into extreme poverty. Impoverished Africans suffer from fragility, conflict, and violence. Poverty claims over half the population in 9 of the continent’s 20 countries. Taking advantage of insects reduces the need land and water to produce protein. An insect circular economy starts with organic waste from industry, agriculture, and humans. This waste feeds into hydroponic and insect farming. Protein, micronutrients, and biofertilizers are products that feed both animals and people. Insect-fed fish and animals also become sources of protein for humans. Food waste feeds back into the cycle.
Food security derives from meeting four basic needs. Availability comes from an adequate production of nutritious food products. Access for everyone in the populations is a must. Utilization by the population is necessary to maintain food security. Stability leads to confidence that affordable, nutritious food will be available. 53% of Africans are food insecure. Up to 87% of Liberians are food insecure. The return on investment for protein varies by country. Meat is a good source of protein when available and accessible. Otherwise, countries rely on other animal sources, grain, or root crops for protein.
Entomophagy, or eating insects for food, could be a solution to the protein equation. The disadvantages are limiting. Such practices are disgusting to many Western minds. The industry is in its infancy. Logistics need ways of scaling up production to supply large populations of consumers. Chances for acceptance are greater as an ingredient than as a whole food. As an ingredient, insect powders would become parts of industrial formulations, known as ultra-processed foods. High-insect-protein, low-cost cookies conjures up visions of healthy sustainability. Small-scale-food-processing facilities could deliver products made from local ingredients.
Once we get past the disadvantages, the advantages are many. Insect operations need a small land footprint. The feed source for insect farming is waste. Biofertilizers are a by-product. Production and processing fit into a Circular Food Model. Insect growth is rapid. Insect farmers are more diverse than in other types of agriculture. Farming of insects is more sustainable than farming with animals. It might not sell much in the West. But it could be a godsend to populations with little access to high-protein foods. High-insect-protein, low-cost cookies conjures up visions of healthy sustainability. Small-scale food-processing facilities could deliver products made from local ingredients, reminiscent of peanut-based, weaning foods.
Nutritional content is key for insects to become a player in alternate-protein. Crickets have the highest protein (60-75%) to fat (7-20%) ratios on a dry weight basis. Black soldier flies have less protein (30-60%) and more fat (20-40%). Protein quality varies between species. Insect protein may be more plentiful and digestible than meat. But protein blends may be necessary to achieve comparable protein quality (1). Insects or their powders contribute dietary fiber, calcium, and iron to the diet. Food from insects tends to be deficient in vitamins A and D. Insects and meat are good sources of B vitamins. Insect products could enhance the quality of diets that do not rely on meat or other animal products.
Distribution chains deliver higher quality foods at reduced prices. Supply chains differ for different insect products. They also differ based on whether the market is urban or rural. Development of a chain starts by understanding the consumer. “Taste” is the primary characteristic for consumers of insects. Urban clients seek out edible insects for their nutritional and medicinal benefits. Rural consumers are more interested in their availability. Quality preferences also differ between socioeconomic classes. Upper classes value termites and caterpillars. Beetles, cicadas, and bee larvae are poor-peoples-food.
Wild-harvested Mopane caterpillars are a product sold in Zimbabwe. The supply chain begins with the rural farmer/collector. This individual can distribute the insects to a local store, a transporter, and/or an agent. The local store sells direct to the rural consumer. The transporter sends the caterpillars to wholesale or retail outlets in the city. Wholesalers in turn deliver the product to a local market for sale to the urban consumer. Retailers sell direct to these consumers. Meanwhile, the agent sends these caterpillars to a packer or distributor. Packaged caterpillars sell within the country or on the export market. Supply chains can become complex in a hurry even for a small independent operation,
A more complex value chain encompasses cricket distribution. Note that supply chains deliver the product from the initial point to the consumer. Value chains add value through distribution from source to final sale. Animal feed ingredients and agricultural by-products provide feed for crickets. Production starts at the cricket farm where the egg transforms into an adult. The processing plant dries or boils adult crickets. The plant grinds up dried, whole or defatted crickets. Three products emerge from the processing plant: whole meal, defatted meal, and oil. These products become ingredients in processed foods for export. The boiled crickets become packaged, whole foods for sale in local markets. One further item leftover at the cricket farm is frass. When heated, frass turns into biofertilizer for use on local crops. The value chain for crickets is most advanced in Thailand. Locals there value crickets in snack foods and gourmet-restaurant dishes.
Note, both caterpillar and cricket chains are self-contained. They provide opportunities to reduce waste. Both chains encompass local and extended market distribution. The caterpillar chain features whole foods only. Crickets come either as whole foods or functional ingredients. Knowing the market and desires of the consumers limit waste and loss. Waste feeds back into the circular food economy as feedstock or a source for biofertilizer. Whole insects or insect ingredients can claim “chemical-free” or “all-natural” status. Distribution is not as fleshed out as for more conventional products. The major problem with circular food economies is that when one step fails the cycle can crash. Insect farming offers an alternative to GMOs. Could it coexist with a GMO culture?
The South Korean experience with insects is the most advanced in the world today. It has a detailed framework for governmental support and regulation. The central government assists the insect industry and provides subsidies. Governmental agencies and the industry collaborate in product research and development. At the regional level, agricultural research and extension programs emphasize yield. They also provide guidelines for quality and distribution for both food and feed.
Bottom line. Insect farming represents a major opportunity to grow safe food on less land. Western concerns are less of a problem in Africa and Asia where food insufficiency is a problem. The limiting factor is the need to scale up production and processing. The goal is to deliver acceptable products at reasonable prices. Other constraints include a general lack of knowledge and insufficient access to funding. Korea is developing a regulatory and support framework to make edible insects happen. Can they export this knowledge to provide food and alternate protein to areas that need it the most? American and European efforts to feed a hungry world are not advancing fast enough. Let’s give South Korea a chance.
Would I eat edible insects? The thought of eating whole crickets, caterpillars, or flies turns my stomach. I am not adventurous enough when it comes to satisfying my palate. Would eating a high-protein cookie containing insect powder as an ingredient be different? I would have to think about that more. Bon appetite!
Next week: Alternate proteins from plants
(1) Orkusz, A. 2021. Edible insects versus meat–nutritional comparison: knowledge of their composition is the key to good health. Nutrients 13(4):1207. doi: 10.3390/nu13041207