Farming insects requires less water than cattle rearing and they emit fewer greenhouse gases. Here’s why you should make them part of your diet.
The children line up in their blue and yellow uniforms. Three queues snake out from three huge, steaming pans of Uji, porridge, placed on the ground. Plastic beakers are piled in three large bins ready for filling – one light green, one orange, one red.
At 10 o’clock, the Uji is ladled into cups and drunk appreciatively by the pupils at Cheptigit Primary School, in Uasin Gishu County in the Rift Valley, 150 miles from Nairobi in the west of Kenya. One porridge is millet and maize, one is millet, maize and milk, and the last is millet, maize and cricket.
The person feeding children crickets is Carolyne Kipkoech, a scientist who is working with the research consortium GREEiNSECT to explore the effects of cricket products on the nutritional status, cognitive function and gut health of school children. The results of the study are currently being prepared for publication.
In a country ranked just 86 of 117 low- and middle-income countries on the 2019 Global Hunger Index (and classified as having “serious” hunger issues), Kenya must explore alternative food sources.
But are insects really the way to go?
Currently, millions of people in Kenya are thought to be in crisis (or worse), in terms of food security. According to the 2019 Long Rains Season Assessment Report published by the Kenyan government’s food security steering group, an estimated 2.6 million of Kenya’s population of just under 50 million people face acute food insecurity and require humanitarian assistance, as of July 2019.
Acute food insecurity, according to the report, is when populations face “food deprivation that threatens lives or livelihoods, regardless of the causes, context and duration”.
Over 600 000 children aged between 6 months and 5 years, and nearly 70 000 pregnant and breastfeeding women need treatment for acute malnutrition.
The report gives many reasons for the dire situation. Families in some pastoral areas have been hit by lower-than-average rainfall, leading to lower crop yields and an almost total failure of the maize crop in some areas. People are also having to cope with below-normal livestock productivity and higher staple food prices.
Farmers must trek their livestock further than usual, including into atypical grazing areas like reserves and game parks, and this has led to conflict and even loss of life.
As a result, there’s not only a general shortage of food, but because meat is so scarce, also of protein. According to Harvard University’s school of public health “the effects of protein deficiency and malnutrition range in severity from growth failure and loss of muscle mass to decreased immunity, weakening of the heart and respiratory system, and death”.
Insects may not be what we conjure in our minds when we’re daydreaming about what to eat for dinner, yet plenty of people around the world already chow down on some kind of creepy crawly as part of their traditional diet — and it’s an excellent source of protein, research has shown.
In fact, a 2013 paper of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, states that insects likely form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people.
Yde Jongema, a taxonomist (a biologist that groups organisms into categories) at the department of entomology of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, keeps a list of all published reports of edible insect species eaten around the world. There are currently 2 111 species on his list, including beetles, butterflies, moths, wasps, bees, ants, locusts, grasshoppers and crickets, termites, cicadas and more.
Are you getting hungry yet?
James Muriithi began farming crickets in October 2018, after attending a training course at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology in Kenya. His plan was to make flour from the crickets and use it to feed his chickens at his commercial poultry farm in Rongai Estate, Kajiado County about 20 kilometres from Nairobi.
Curious, one day he dropped some crickets into a pan of hot oil and onions for a few minutes, then popped the insects into his mouth. He slowly chewed the crispy insects, which he found delicious. Today, a white plate sits between us, piled high with dark brown crickets. He chews on some as we chat.
“When we were young, we consumed termites and some other black ants which appear during the rainy season,” says Muriithi, “But I have never seen anybody consume crickets in Central Kenya where I come from.”
Indeed, termites are a part of the diet for some communities in western Kenya. It’s not uncommon to find small containers of roasted termites being sold in the markets there. People catch the insects using traps set up by termite holes and eat them after frying, roasting or drying them.
Crickets are now a regular part of Muriithi’s diet, and he is trying to recruit more people to eat the nutritious insects which he learnt have twice the amount of protein found in beef.
Besides enriching the poultry feeds with cricket flour, he also sees an opportunity to sell cricket eggs to prospective farmers, and promote the consumption of crickets by people, as well as chickens.
“I had never ever imagined I would consume crickets,” he says, shaking his head, a big smile on his face. He says it’s an uphill struggle convincing Kenyans to give the crickets a try but he’s not discouraged. “I will keep trying to convince them and maybe with time they will accept it like I did.”
While many of us might turn our noses up at popping a whole cricket into our mouths, insects can be dried and ground into “flour”. This is a versatile ingredient, which can be used in ugali (mealiepap), chapati, pasta and – as we’ve seen – porridge. According to manufacturers, it’s gluten-free and high in protein. It has a nutty taste and an aroma with a “hint of grass”.
There are a number of positives to insects and insect products – if people can be persuaded to overcome their reflexive feelings of disgust.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry used a model of human digestion to compare the nutritional content of crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms and sirloin steak. They found that crickets and beef contained the most iron, calcium and magnesium – in fact, crickets contained more iron than the steak. The minerals in the insects were more readily available for absorption by the body than those in beef.
Insect production is also potentially more sustainable, depending on how they’re reared. According to the FAO paper, farming insects requires less water than cattle rearing, and they emit fewer greenhouse gases and ammonia. Moreover, insects need less feed than conventional animal food sources. A 2011 publication in the journal Animal reported that to get a 1kg increase in mass requires 8.8kg feed for cattle fed on cereal, 4.0kg for pork and 2.3kg for poultry.
A study published in 2015 in PLoS Biology fed insects on by-products of food manufacturing. The researchers found that yellow mealworms and crickets were as efficient as poultry in converting feed to mass. The authors concluded: “On suitable diets the insects utilised protein more efficiently than conventional production animals…”
Insects can also be fed on waste products of animals such as manure and slurry, then processed and fed back to the animals, a 2017 review article in Agronomy for Sustainable Development explains.
But, despite the positives, there are still many unanswered questions around the practicalities, ethics and potential pitfalls of eating insects.
Most insects currently eaten by humans are harvested from the wild, but wild insects are not an unlimited resource. Supplies are affected by habitat changes, pollution and pesticide use.
What’s more, increased insect consumption in tropical regions leads to higher prices and creates a further increase in the number of insects harvested from nature. This can threaten the sustainability of the insects in the long term.
That’s why researchers are calling for sustainable ways to farm insects.
Intensive farming practices involving pigs and poultry especially has been linked to the emergence of zoonoses – diseases that spread from animals to humans, according to a 2013 review published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. But the risk of zoonotic infections, that is those spreading from animals to humans, is thought to be low with insects.
However, there are other possible health risks of people and animals consuming insects, including that insects can themselves be infected by viruses, bacteria, fungi and nematodes, a 2015 review article in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, has found. Farmed insects would need to be handled hygienically and kept separate from wild species.
Lastly, there are the ethical and moral questions around eating insects, which are, still, living creatures. The question of whether insects feel pain is a contentious one, complicated by our own individual ideas of what exactly pain is. Still, it would be possible for farmers and handlers to use techniques that would minimise any potential suffering when rearing and killing the insects.
Many of us would need to learn to overcome our natural disgust responses if insects were to become an everyday foodstuff.
But back in Kajiado County outside of Nairobi, Muriithi says he’s not bothered by how the insects look, nor by their smell, which is overpowered by the aroma of fried onions when he cooks them. “I’ve never experienced any unpleasant aftertaste either,” he explains. “I’ve even managed to convince a few friends to try crickets. Others, however, avoid him because of their mindset about eating insects.”
From porridge to brownies, cricket products could be coming to a plate near you soon. But think before you screw up your face and push them away – might you be turning down the future of food?
Additional reporting by Chrissie Giles.