Connecting with Nature: Should we eat insects?

By Christopher Neglia

The theme of this year’s World Environment Day is Connecting with Nature. In this context, entomophagy, or the practice of eating insects, is a topic that bears consideration, owing to its prospects for food and nutrition security.

Entomophagy is well documented in history, and at one time it was extremely widespread. The first reference to entomophagy in Europe was in Greece, when eating cicadas was considered a delicacy. Aristotle wrote in his Historia Animalium “The larva of the cicada on attaining full size in the ground becomes a nymph; then it tastes best, before the husk is broken.”

For centuries, people have consumed insects. From beetles, to caterpillars, locusts, grasshoppers, termites and dragonflies. Which raises the question: why is the notion of eating insects so taboo in Westernized societies? People in most Western countries have formed a moral judgement against eating insects, which it can be said is perceived with disgust. But it is important to realise that the origins of disgust are rooted in culture. Culture, under the influence of environment, history, community structure and politico-economic systems, define the rules on what is edible and what is not (Mela, 1999).

A worldwide inventory conducted by Wagenheim University found there are about 1,900 edible insect species, and insects form a large part of everyday diets for more than two billion people around the world. For example, red maguey worms, are a highly nutritious variety of caterpillar considered a delicacy by Mexican farmers. They are generally eaten deep fried or braised, seasoned with spicy sauce and served in a tortilla (Ramos Elorduey et al., 2007). In Cambodia, a species of tarantula, Haplopelma albostriatum, is typically served fried and sold in street stalls (Yen, Hanboonsong and van Huis, 2013). This goes to show that in most countries, insect consumption is a matter of choice, not necessity, and insects are a part of local culture.

From a nutritional perspective, insects represent a huge untapped source of protein, energy rich fat, fiber and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Edible insects are rich sources of iron and their inclusion in daily diets could improve iron status and help prevent anaemia in developing countries. WHO has flagged iron deficiency as the world’s most common and widespread nutritional disorder (Anaemia is a preventable deficiency but contributes to 20 percent of all maternal deaths).

Gathering and harvesting insects can offer unique employment and income-earning opportunities in developing countries, particularly for the rural poor. In many cases, insect cultivation can serve as a livelihood diversification strategy. For example, silkworms and bees can be harvested for food and fiber. In Thailand, middlemen buy insects from farmers to sell as food to wholesale buyers, who then distribute the products to street vendors and retailers.

When you add up all the benefits, it becomes mystifying why insects don’t make up an integral part of our diets. Perhaps it is time to reconsider our culinary customs and try to reconnect with this abundant, yet neglected, food source.

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