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Let Them Eat Bugs

A new, abundant and environmentally friendly source of protein is creating some buzz

The world is getting hungrier. After years of falling food prices, eating is suddenly getting expensive. With price-tags now rising some 75%, the World Bank estimates that the soaring cost of food will push 100m people into poverty. What with rising fertiliser prices, increasing concerns about deforestation and unreliable rains brought on by climate change, how will we find new sources of nourishment?

Scientists at the National Autonomous University of Mexico have an answer: entomophagy, or dining on insects. They claim the practice is common in some 113 countries. Better yet, bugs provide more nutrients than beef or fish, gram for gram.

Meat provides just under one fifth of the energy and one third of the protein humans consume. But its production uses up a hugely disproportionate share of agricultural resources. Feed crops gobble up some 70% of agricultural land, while a quarter of the world’s land is devoted to grazing. Brazil’s burgeoning livestock industry is responsible for huge swathes of deforestation in the Amazon.

As developing countries get richer meat’s ecological footprint is set to get even bigger. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the United Nations considers livestock “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” It predicts that the world’s demand for meat will nearly double by 2050.

Eating insects does far less damage. For one thing, the habit could help to protect crops. Some 30 years ago the Thai government, struggling to contain a plague of locusts with pesticides, began encouraging its citizens to collect and eat the insects. Officials even distributed recipes for cooking them. Locusts were not commonly eaten at the time, but they have since become popular. Today some farmers plant corn just to attract them. Stir-frying other menaces could help reduce the use of pesticides.

But insect populations vary with the seasons, and it is hard to control the amount on offer at a given time. “There is very little knowledge or appreciation of the potential for managing and harvesting insects sustainably,” notes Patrick Durst, a Bangkok-based senior forestry officer at the FAO. Those looking for a reliable source of protein might prefer to farm them. Protein makes up a high proportion of most insects’ weight. That makes them much more efficient at converting feed to protein than livestock. For example, a cow yields only 10lb (4.5kg) of beef for every 100lb of feed it eats, whereas the same amount of feed would produce tens times as much cricket.

Academics at Khon Kaen University in Thailand have developed a low-cost cricket-rearing technique, and taught it to some 4,500 families. On just a few hundred square feet of land a single family can raise crickets in numbers large enough to increase their income significantly. Or they can rear them on a smaller scale inside their homes, within large containers. The insects do not require much food or water, grow fast and reproduce quickly. And if they somehow perish, the financial impact on a poor family is far less devastating than the loss of a cow or pig.

Earlier this year the FAO held a conference in Thailand to investigate the benefits of eating insects. The mood was optimistic. “In certain places with certain cultures with a certain level of acceptance”, insects could be seen as part of a solution to end hunger, Mr Durst said.

Environmentally and nutritionally, insects are more appealing than meat: you get more for less. But persuading flesh-loving, ento-phobic westerners of this is going to be tricky. “We’re not going to convince Europeans and Americans to go out in big numbers and start eating insects,” Mr Durst concedes. The trick might be to slip them into the food chain on the quiet. Supplements composed of insect protein could be added to processed food and perhaps also to animal feed. That might help to make meat a little more environmentally palatable.