Edible insects as sustainable alternatives to livestock products

21 Nov 2018, 12:00 am
Mojisola Karigidi


A paradigm shift from livestock to insects will go a long way to limit the impacts of climate change globally. The less meat we consume, the lower the carbon footprint we produce individually.

Fried crickets

I still vividly remember the excitement that overwhelmed children in my neighbourhood in the South-western part of Nigeria when I was growing up. A major reason for our excitement back then was the festival of winged termites. The festival took place in the evenings as young children coalesced with our bowls of water at the base of a street lamp that was very close to our home. The flying termites, which are highly attracted to sources of light, would swarm around the lamp posts and we would be happily ready to collect them into our water bowls.
Depending on how much each person was able to gather in their bowls, we would go back to our homes and put the termites in a dry pot or pan and roast them on a stove or on top of a kerosene lantern. Part of our excitement also came about as we watched the insects get roasted in their own oil, thereby making a delicious snack with or without a pinch of salt or other condiments.

When I moved to a big city in the Northern part of the country as an adult, I saw that children in that area, too, had their special insect delicacies. Theirs were grasshoppers. Street hawkers sold roasted grasshoppers, mixed with a particular kind of sweet, ground pepper tied in small, transparent polybags. These were sold as snack to pupils as they went home after closing hours.

The two scenarios presented above show that children generally love to eat insects and the little ones are also willing to spend their pocket money to savour the crunchy taste of insects. Since children are particularly keen collectors of edible insects, they can help solve the protein needs of children, especially those in poor communities. For children in cities, edible insects can be a good replacement for the junk food that urban kids consume as snack.

To be sure, the consumption of tasty insects is really not a lower-class affair. Last year, some colleagues and I were served a plate of dried caterpillars at an expensive restaurant in Johannesburg. It was a special treat for the evening and I enjoyed the smoky taste and crunchy texture. More so, there is nothing exceptionally weird about eating insects. In fact, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), in 2013, estimated that at least two billion people around the world eat insects as part of their local diet. Many cultures cherish the flavour and unique textures of insects. The Chinese seem to be ahead when it comes to feasting on insects; from ants, bugs to cockroaches.

According to a research by FAO in partnership with Wageningen University in the Netherlands, there are over 1,900 species of edible insects across the globe. These include crickets, locusts, palm beetles, larvae of palm weevils, grasshoppers, caterpillars and termites, which are commonly eaten in different parts of Africa.

Many times, they are eaten along with cassava meal or milled as condiments to enhance flavour in food. Agave weevils and aphids, for example, are very popular in Mexico. They are even canned for sale.

In terms of taste, edible insects have fascinating tastes. Some of them, like the lemon ants of the Amazon, taste like citrus, while some, like the leaf cutter ants, have a hue of bacon taste. These are very popular in Brazil and Columbia. Apart from the good taste, edible insects are highly nutritious. They have high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans. Many of these insects are also high in calcium, zinc and Iron. Some insect species contain other micronutrients like selenium, magnesium, manganese and copper, which the body cannot produce on its own but has to be taken in through diet. These nutrients are vital for growth, brain development, immune function and many other developmental functions that children need to be healthy.

We need to pay more attention to edible insects and allow them form a part of our regular meals because, in some cases, insects score higher in nutrients than animal sources. For example, the iron content of dry weight of beef is about 6 mg per 100 g, while locusts have iron contents varying between 8 mg and 20 mg per 100 g dry weight. This depends on the species of locust and the kind of food it consumed. So, locusts can replace beef to prevent iron deficiency in children, a situation that can affect their development and lead to anaemia.

Edible insects are also rich in good fat and oil. Some have polyunsaturated fatty acids and are cholesterol-free. They are not only beneficial in children but can also help prevent heart diseases in adults. Also, insects are light in calories. Therefore, consuming them alongside vegetables and fruits could help reduce the chances of being obese.  

Insect consumption is not only good for us. It is good for the environment as well. Our overdependence on livestock and its products as food sources will exacerbate the effects of climate change through the release of more greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens contribute as much as six billion tonnes of GHGs such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide to the atmosphere every year. A report by FAO states that agriculture is responsible for 18 per cent of the GHGs released worldwide. These GHGs are responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere, thereby keeping the earth’s climate warm.

The livestock sector alone accounts for between 14.5 per cent and 18 per cent of human-induced GHG emissions. A cow is estimated to, on overage, release between 70 and 120 kg of methane each year. Meanwhile, based on the 2016 data of 998.6 million cattle globally, cattle alone contributed 69.9 billion kg of methane in that year. Scientists say the negative impact of methane on the climate is 23 times higher than the effect of carbon dioxide.

For us to control emissions from livestock as much as possible, we have to reduce our consumption of meat and meat products, which will directly reduce their production. A paradigm shift from livestock to insects will go a long way to limit the impacts of climate change globally. The less meat we consume, the lower the carbon footprint we produce individually. The inference being that the more insects we consume, the better for us. For instance, mealworms produce only between 1 and 10 mg of greenhouse gases per kilogramme of GHGs produced by pigs.

There are other benefits of adjusting our taste buds to welcome more edible insects. One of them is the cheaper rates at which insects can be produced compared to beef. For example, insects use 2 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of insect meat. However, to produce the same 1 kg of beef, a cow must be fed with about 8 kg of feed.

More so, insects have a high feed conversion rate. Their ability to convert the food they eat into protein is much faster than in larger animals. Crickets, for example, can produce the same amount of protein as cattle when fed six times lesser than the latter. They also need four times less food than sheep and two times less food than broilers to produce same amount of protein, according to FAO.

Unfortunately, over the years, we have lost track of the numerous benefits of edible insects that should have encouraged us to exploit the world of insects around us. We have limited ourselves to animal proteins and dairy products and we have been contributing to the plagues of the climate around us ignorantly. Eating much less meat and dairy products will effectively reduce our negative impacts on the environment. Popularizing insect consumption will also help to tackle protein deficiencies in children in poor communities and limit the consumption of junk foods by children in big cities.

We must take advantage of the numerous nutritional benefits of edible insects, produce them in large amounts, depending on regional preferences, and process them into acceptable forms for the general public. I am looking forward to the excitement of doing some hunting of winged termites with my kids someday. More kids today can be a part of the excitement if we do not allow this interesting aspect of childhood to be forgotten.

Financial Nigeria Columnist, Mojisola Karigidi, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.


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