Food Security & Edible Insects

Adequate nutrition and food security are things that we in the West often take for granted, and on some level, who can blame us because they really shouldn’t have to be luxury prospects for anyone, yet according to the 2014 Global Hunger Index from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), 55 of the 120 developing countries examined were classified as having a “serious” hunger problem, with 16 countries falling under the “alarming” and “extremely alarming” categories.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of these countries with the least food security were found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where accessible protein sources with adequate nutrition profiles are not readily available.

Infographic on malnutrition and stunting
Stunting Infographic | © IMosf, 1,000 Days

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2014 report, the number of people afflicted by hunger has actually fallen by 100 million to 805 million (one in nine people on the planet), but the target of halving this by 2015 has not been hit so there is clearly much more that needs to be done in improving food security. It is important to note that the above figures do not take into account what the report calls “hidden hunger”, represented by the effects of deficiency in micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A, zinc and iodine.

This affects over 2 billion people and not only weakens the immune system and inhibits both physical and mental development (as shown in this infographic by IMosf, 1,000 Days), but is estimated to cost a mind-blowing $2 trillion in global economic development potential each year. This kind of malnutrition is the root cause of 45% of deaths in children under five years old.

The FAO summarises the current situation in the videographic below. They suggest an integrated approach to addressing world hunger, starting with investment in agricultural productivity. It is important, however, to make the clear distinction between increasing agricultural productivity and simply increasing the amount of agricultural land, the latter of which is unsustainable as it would ultimately result in a range of negative effects, from further deforestation to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and water degradation. To further exacerbate the situation, the FAO predicts that the global population will rise to 9 billion by 2050 and our current food production will need to almost double as a result. Global agricultural methods require a significant boost in efficiency, and maybe I am biased, but farming insects is one way to provide this.

Improving Global Food Security

A previous blog post has already highlighted how mealworms, for example, require 10 times less land per unit weight than beef cattle (Oonincx and de Boer, 2012), and how crickets are almost 12 times more efficient than cattle at converting the energy they get from feed into edible mass (Smil, 2002). The UN understands this and has been working with forward-thinkers such as Professors Arnold van Huis and Marcel Dicke from Wageningen University NL to promote the use of insects in both food and feed since 2008.

The FAO began field testing in 2010 in Lao PDR with the mission to reinvigorate entomophagy in regions where it is already accepted but has been in decline due to western influence. Although many people in Laos collect insects for food, there were virtually no insect farms or markets in the country before the commencement of the project. Four years on, however, insect farms are now expanding from the outskirts of the country’s capital, Vientiane, mostly dealing in house crickets, and the mission has since been taken up by the Lao Government. The detailed FAO 2014 report can be found here.

Companies like Aspire Food Group and All Things Bugs, and charities like Bugs For Life are right behind the FAO in this quest and are on the ground in several of the countries that need the help most.

Aspire FG came together in 2012 to take part in the Hult Prize competition to address the issue of food security in urban slums, and they did (and are still doing) this using edible insects. They went on to win the competition and now work with partners in Ghana, Mexico and the US to continue their mission, which reads:

Our mission is to provide economically challenged, malnourished populations with high protein and micronutrient-rich food solutions derived from the supply and development of insects and insect-based products.

They identified the key problem in urban slums was not simply of an overall lack of food, but a lack of affordable nutrient-rich food – the primary cause of malnutrition in these areas. They use the nutritional benefits of insects as a backbone for developing affordable insect farming technologies to combat this problem, creating stability for rural farmers and reducing the market price of edible insects, improving their accessibility as a viable protein source.

Focusing more on research, All Things Bugs have developed a means of producing cricket flour without the need for dry roasting that would normally result in a scorched taste. The process is much more heat efficient, allowing for the relative conservation of the crickets’ nutritional profile. They have received funding from the US Department of Agriculture to further develop this process and conduct other much needed research on areas such as allergy testing. This will be crucial if insects are to be used as a means of improving food security in regions affected by natural disasters and other crises. The task of developing “ready-to-use therapeutic foods” (RUTFs) was originally given to All Things Bugs along with a grant from the Gates Foundation back in 2012. They have since developed a number of prototype RUTFs, ranging from the simple replacement of milk powder with cricket or mealworm powder, to ready-to-use and highly nutritious formulations completely derived from insects.

Bugs For Life are a small charity that focus their efforts in Benin, where over 50% of children are severely malnourished. Their work engages local schools and hospitals in order to educate the people on the nutritional benefits of insects and how they can use the indigenous species available to supplement their diets and fend off malnutrition. They also provide the tools needed for communities to develop their own insect farms for self-sufficiency. Their Paypal donation page can be found here.

So in conclusion, edible insects, through a combination of their high and varied nutritional content and their relative potential ease of accessibility, offer a unique remedy for malnutrition and hunger in parts of the world where other viable protein sources are simply unavailable. It is only through the continued efforts of people and organisations such as those mentioned here that light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps then will the IFRPI’s goal of ending world hunger by 2050 be achievable.

FAO, IFAD & WFP (2014). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition. Rome, FAO.

Von Grebmer, K., Saltzman, A., Birol, E., Wiesman, D., Prasai, N., Yin, S., … & Sonntag, A.(2014). Synopsis: 2014 Global Hunger Index: The challenge of hidden hunger (Vol. 83). Intl Food Policy Res Inst.

Van Huis, A., Van Itterbeeck, J., Klunder, H., Mertens, E., Halloran, A., Muir, G. & Vantomme, P. (2013). Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security (No. 171). Food and agriculture organization of the United nations (FAO).

Oonincx, D.G.A.B. & de Boer, I.J.M. (2012). Environmental impact of the production of mealworms as a protein source for humans: a life cycle assessment. PLoS ONE, 7(12): e51145.

Smil, V. (2002). Worldwide transformation of diets, burdens of meat production and opportunities for novel food proteins. Enzyme and Microbial Technology, 30: 305–311.