Field Notes Society

Edible insects might be the future superfood

It’s yummy: A woman selling insects and tarantulas in a street market in Cambodia   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/Istock

The first time I ate eesal (winged termite) fried in its own fat — crispy with a typical south Indian tempering of mustard seeds, curry leaf, dried red chillies and garlic — I was disappointed at how palatable they were. Insects don’t have much fat on them, and are quite tasteless on their own. More crunchy than chewy. I prefer the fat, juicy deep-fried maggots you get in Thailand. But that’s just me.

Insects lend themselves to all kinds of textures. And they are the biggest species group in the world, outnumbering humans 200 million to one. Marcel Dicke, Professor of Entomology at Wageningen University, forerunner in the research of edible insects, says it best: “We are not on a planet of men, we are on a planet of insects.”

Simple math

Around 1,900 insect species are already being eaten by two billion people in the world. Two billion. They eat tarantulas in Cambodia, the Mopane worm has an annual trade value of over $85 million in southern Africa, and flying termites are a treasured

Fried worms and crickets.

Fried worms and crickets.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/Istock

delicacy all over the world — from Mexico to the small village in south India that I live in; treasured because they are only in season for the first 4-5 days of the monsoon every year (in both countries).

Turning to insects is not new. The Bible mentions it, South America does it, even ancient Rome and Greece did it. We should know, here in India insects having always been a part of our culinary tradition. From eesal in Tamil Nadu to the red-ant chutney made by the Gond tribals of Chhattisgarh. For the Bodos of the Northeast, insects are the main staple of their diet — caterpillars, termites, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.

But the gross-out factor for us in the cities is real. Ironic, because the UN’s Food and Agriculture Department declared Entomophagy, or eating insects, as the solution to feeding the growing middle-class around the world. As economies in the developing world get richer and richer, the demand for animal protein increases. By 2050, the planet won’t be able to feed the nine billion mouths it will house.

“The math is simple,” writes Pat Crowley, creator of the hugely successful Chapul bars (protein bars made from cricket flour). “If we shift even a small fraction of our protein consumption to environmentally-friendly, healthy insects, we can reduce the huge amount of water… which irrigates the massive, mechanised farms that exist solely to feed cattle and pigs.”

Let’s compare a cow with, say, a cricket. It takes almost 15,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef while it takes barely 8 litres to produce a kg of crickets. This is mainly because crickets use six times less feed than cattle. If a family of four ate insects once a week for a year, they would help save 650,000 litres of water. That’s the size of a lake.

A Cambodian girl having a deep fried tarantula

A Cambodian girl having a deep fried tarantula   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/Istock

Even better, you can actually use food waste to feed the crickets without having to use any agricultural land (only about 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year on this planet). Add to this, up to 80% of a cricket can be used for human consumption compared to only 40% of a cow. This makes crickets 12 times more viable than cattle.

And they are better for you. Two hundred calories of beef contain around 22 gm of protein, compared to 31 gm of cricket flour. Crickets have less fat, more than double the omega 3 and lots of fibre (beef has none). I’m not the first to say it — crickets are a perfect workout food. Oh, and the flour is gluten free.

But how do they taste?

This is important — top chefs around the world create food trends, literally dictating what we eat. And thus, what we grow. New foods are served up in fancy restaurants before trickling down to us plebs. Sushi is a great example — yes, it had to be hidden in a roll of rice but who would have thought raw fish would one day become so ubiquitous we would literally be causing tuna to disappear?

Money to be made

My fellow farmer Tansha Vohra once experimented with a red weaver ant chutney that she found delicious. The formic acid in the ants lends them their sourness. After carefully harvesting the nest, Vohra immediately put the ants in the freezer to kill them while saving their precious acid. Crushed in a mortar and pestle with coconut and some salt, the chutney was a bit coarse but still very tasty. It is also quite easy to sun-dry insects and grind them into a flour to use in biscuits and nutritional bars.

Farmers are already catching on to the new trend and there is some serious money to be made. Insect farming in Thailand now constitutes a multi-million dollar (and growing) industry, with up to 20,000 new farms exporting insects wholesale to Europe, America and the U.K.

Getting scarce

Gitika Saikia does food pop-ups in Mumbai, often serving insects. She is very certain of their ‘deliciousness’ but worried that wild insects in Assam are going extinct. Red ant eggs only come for 10-15 days in April, just in time for Bihu, the Assamese New Year. They now cost up to ₹1,000 a kilo, and every year, it gets tougher to get hold of them. She worries that they won’t last longer than five more years.

There might be a sustainable way to grow insects. Organic farmers spend a lot of time eliminating pests. But what if these ‘pests’ bring a value addition to your farm? Plucking insects would be no different from harvesting any other crop. Most people living in the countryside have a vast knowledge of insect life and this could become a viable source of income, creating new livelihoods, especially where organic crops are grown.

And so, as always, the answer to environmentally healthy eating is diversity in growing and eating good, locally sustainable foods. Insects or otherwise.

The writer is a permaculture farmer who believes eating right can save the planet.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 7:25:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/edible-insects-might-be-the-future-superfood/article24890756.ece

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