Two billion people eat insects today, but for many, they are not part of mainstream diet. With global population soaring, humans will be forces to seek them out as a food source.
There was a news report about scientists in a Belgian university experimenting with larva fat in waffles, cakes, and cookies. The idea is to replace butter. Insects are more sustainable than cattle. They use less water, and less land. This news report may have attracted media attention. But, the idea of entomophagy (eating insects) is hardly new, though larva fat isn’t entomophagy, at least directly. For instance, there was the 2013 Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) paper, “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”. A few years earlier, in 2010, there was another FAO publication, with the catchier title, “Forest insects as food: humans bite back”. The 2010 publication is a collection of papers presented at a workshop in Thailand in 2008, and it is only about edible forest insects.
Since the second is a diverse collection of papers, let me quote from the first paper in the collection—a bit like an introduction. “Insects offer particular benefits to those who want to reduce their environmental footprint, because they are exceptionally efficient in converting what they eat into tissue that can be consumed by others—about twice as efficient as chickens and pigs, and more than five times as efficient as beef cattle. Factoring in their astounding reproduction rates and fecundity, the actual food conversion efficiency of insects may be 20 times that of cattle. Moreover, insects feed on a far wider range of plants than conventional livestock. Insect consumption may also help to reduce the adverse environmental impacts of livestock production as insect rearing requires far less space and generates less pollution…As a food source, insects are highly nutritious.
Many insect species contain as much—or more—protein as meat or fish. Some insects, especially in the larval stage, are also rich in fat and most insects contain significant percentages of amino acids, and essential vitamins and minerals. Insects that are collected from forest areas are generally clean and free of chemicals, and in some areas are even considered to be “health foods”…Even with only a relatively few species being eaten by humans, the incredible numbers of insects in the world—by some estimates, there are as many as 10 quintillion individual insects alive at any given time—add up to massive quantities of potential food.” The collection also had papers on individual countries, local entomophagy practices, so to speak. Not unexpectedly, there was no paper for India. (There was one for Sri Lanka.)
With global population headed towards 9 billion, humans will, perforce, seek out other sources of food. Food habits aren’t constant over time. Before the advent of agriculture, even mono-culture, and animal husbandry, food habits were different. Social norms change over time, a fact worth remembering, before saying “ugh” at the sound of a bug. Everyone knows about Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri. At one point, in the 1940s, Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri lived in Delhi. Not too many people may know of (or remember) Amiya Chaudhuri (born Amiya Dhar), Nirad Chaudhuri’s wife. She was an author in her own right, and published two instalments of her autobiography in early 1990s. (She died without completing the third.) I don’t know whether these have been translated into English (from Bengali). In the second volumes, she spoke about her life in Delhi in the 1940s. At that time, Delhi used to be frequently visited by locusts.
That’s the reason the 1949 East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act applied to Delhi, and if you were a male Delhi resident (aged more than 14), the Collector could requisition your services to destroy locusts. (This legislation still exists on statute books, though there have been suggestions for repeal. It featured in the list of Delhi laws that the Centre for Civil Society identified for repeal.) To get back to Amiya Chaudhuri’s autobiography, when Delhi was invaded by locusts (typically in the evening), it was routine to have a feast of fried locusts.
The 2013 FAO publication said, “It is estimated that insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people. More than 1,900 species have reportedly been used as food…Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera) (31 percent), caterpillars (Lepidoptera) (18 percent) and bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera) (14 percent). Following these are grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) (13 percent), cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) (10 percent), termites (Isoptera) (3 percent), dragonflies (Odonata) (3 percent), flies (Diptera) (2 percent) and other orders (5 percent).” Insects are a good idea as human food and animal feed. The word “insects” is used in a broad sense, to cover arachnids (spiders/scorpion). Technically, arachnids are not insects. However, from the culinary and cuisine point of view, they are no different.
I suspect a major constraint is that we still gather insects (hence, forest insects), not rear them. (Bees for honey are different.) Insects haven’t been domesticated, at least not consciously. No doubt, we will get there eventually, starting with larva. Broadly, FAO’s agenda on entomophagy covers mass-production technology, food and feed safety, legislation (codes, regulation, standards) and consumer education. Even though 2 billion people eat insects today, for many, insects are not part of mainstream diet. Think of the innumerable horror films on insects. We don’t feed on them. They feed on us. They are the predators. We are the prey. However, we have now started to waffle a bit.