Don't yuck their yum: Insect farming's potential to ease malnutrition

Mealworms, the larval form of the mealworm beetle, and an edible insect (OakleyOriginals/Creative Commons)

Six spindly legs, latticed tissue-paper wings, and a small segmented body gently crunch between your teeth. The thought of eating a roasted cricket, or any bug for that matter, is a novelty in the United States.

For about 80 percent of the world’s populations, however, insects are an important protein source and a regular part of the diet. Some see edible insects as an untapped food source for communities suffering from chronic malnutrition. One such individual is Valerie Stull, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I don’t think there is any one panacea for all of our environmental and global health challenges, but I do think that insects represent an underutilized, underexplored food resource that has the potential to be revived and help protect the environment,” she said of the 1,900 edible insect species worldwide.

“I mean, think about how long we’ve been cultivating livestock, domesticating livestock,” she pointed out, “We haven’t yet done that with insects. We’ve domesticated silkworms, we’ve domesticated honey bees, you know, and a few other species but we really haven’t put that much energy into it compared to other animals.”

Stull leads the research collaborative MIGHTi, or the Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects. MIGHTi investigates how farming edible insects can increase food security while protecting environmental resources.

Farming insects requires few resources, takes little effort and time, and could provide a reliable protein source year-round. Some insects can be reared on agricultural byproducts, such as corn leaves, and many farmable species emit low levels of greenhouse gases, like methane and ammonia.

“The most exciting thing to me was the fact that you don’t have to have access to land or even electricity to be an insect farmer,” Stull enthused, “You could do this if you were living in a rural area, or an urban area with very limited resources.”

Stull speaks from personal experience, having raised mealworms under the kitchen sink of her one-bedroom apartment. She grinds them into a protein powder or roasts them, and likes their nutty flavor.

Her research is based in Zambia, which faces pervasive food insecurity and drought. There, insects are commonly gathered from the wild as a traditional part of the diet.

While insects are a great source of protein and fatty acids, Stull says foraging for insects is not always sustainable. The most sought after edible insects are often only prolific during certain times of the year, and unregulated wild-harvesting sometimes leads to cutting down trees.

In countries like Zambia that experience food insecurity, insect farming could dramatically improve nutrition. Additionally, it could create economic stability because insect farming is inexpensive, more reliable than other protein sources in times of drought and does not require transportation from farm to market. It seems like a perfect solution, but Stull cautions against taking a paternalistic approach to communities suffering from food insecurity.

“If you try to implement insect farming strategies you need to be very aware of the cultural and social implications of doing so,” she said. “We tried to better understand peoples’ relationship with edible insects currently because the practice of consuming insects, entomophagy, is much more nuanced than you would think.”

Stull uses the mealworm as an example. “It’s very resilient, very productive; they’re prolific breeders, and they’re highly nutritious, easy to process into a powder,” she said. “Mealworms can be eaten by people, fed to fish, fed to poultry.”

Adding to their allure, producing a pound of mealworms requires less than a gallon of water, which is ideal for drought-prone areas, and hardly emits greenhouse gases. In comparison, producing one pound of beef requires 2,000 gallons of water and emits 100 times the amount of greenhouse gases that mealworms do.

Farming mealworms in Zambia seems like a perfect solution to combat malnutrition, but the reality is more complicated.

As it turns out, mealworms are not currently part of the Zambian diet. They prefer termites and other insects.  

Termites are nearly impossible to farm because of their complicated, partially underground life cycle. Termites also produce a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas. But just because the mealworm is a more sustainable, secure food source than the termite does not mean that teaching farmers to raise mealworms would be feasible. Farmers must first accept mealworms as a food source and agree to farm them. If there is no interest, the program is unsustainable.  

Stull emphasized that “a long-term solution is to develop some of these insect farming systems in tandem and in partnership with local farmers.” Farming systems must be developed such that “you’re learning from them and they’re learning from you.”

“That’s just something that I personally think is really important but is a challenge because to work that way takes a lot more time,” she said.

It is a worthwhile challenge to face, considering the potential impact of insect farming. If Stull’s collaborative project works in Zambia, a country with low resources, a drought-prone climate, and a culture that does not view mealworms as food, how many other countries could this help? Could this break a cycle of dependency on local organizations for survival? Could low-income communities achieve economic stability if they had an independently produced and reliable food source?

Perhaps in the future, with adequate research, these questions will have answers. In the meantime, edible insects present an unconventional avenue to ease malnutrition. No matter the gut reaction to insects’ hard, honeycomb eyes, long probing antennas, or callous, crusted exoskeletons, it is undeniable they are a worthwhile subject for exploration.

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