By Atula Owade
This month marks the end of the short rain season in Kenya. Recently planted crops have just started producing their first set of leaves. Maize, beans, vegetables, pulses. All manner of leaves are shooting upwards, as they seek the warmth of a yellow sun up in the sky. In the sky, a dark mass forms around the sun, creating a total eclipse.
“A cloud maybe,” says the young boy. After all, that’s expected, “it is the rainy season”, he tells himself. Placing a tiny right hand on his brow, he looks a little closer. It is a strange cloud, as it descends with each passing second. It even produces a buzzing sound, this strange cloud. Finally, he recognizes the cloud for what it really is. Fear flushes in his eyes, he drops the ball on his left hand. He runs while wailing, “Muuum! Daaad! The locusts, they are back! The locusts! They are eating all our crops!”
That is a scene which may be playing out in one or more of six counties across North Eastern Kenya, right now. The country has just started experiencing the second wave of the worst desert locust invasion in more than half a century. Alongside Covid-19 disruptions and flashfloods, the destructive insects were responsible for an 80% dip in supply of grains in Nothern Kenya earlier in the year. With multi-agency, multinational efforts having contained the first wave in August, this second one has just arrived in the middle of the planting season.
Swarms of voracious, yellow-winged desert locusts are currently eating through farm and pasturelands. These locusts are a food security threat, and are not the only insects which hold that dubious title. In 2018, fall army worms destroyed 25% of maize plantations in Kenya, exposing more than 3 million people to hunger along the way. There is also the case of those pesky little aphids which suck the life out of crops. Or the evil weevils, always plotting new ways to consume your entire store of grains.
There are too many of them to mention, these destructive little creatures. You might even have had a nasty experience with them. Lost harvests, dashed dreams. All because of insects, purveyors of food insecurity. But, wait a minute. What if I told you that these very insects may hold one of the keys to food security? Perhaps you have your doubts, which is perfectly understandable. Please, lend me your ears for a moment.
Allow me to play the insect’s advocate.
The Case for Utilization of insects as food and feed
The International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) campus is sandwiched between a growing residential estate on one side and the largest sports stadium in Kenya on the other side. The research station has stood there for half a century now. It serves as a home base for all manner of biological scientists conducting research on insects for human, animal, plant, and environmental health. In the recent past, the scientists have started paying more attention to usage of insects for human food and animal feed.
“These look good”, says the entomologist, as she leans towards a plexiglass cage the size of a small fridge. Her white lab coat sharply contrasts with the greenery inside the cage. Potted plants are set side by side, their leaves providing food for dozens of yellow-winged locusts caged therein. They nibble on leaves, leaving barren branches in their wake. The insects flutter around, when she lightly taps the plexiglass. She smiles, and softly says to herself, “They are ready for harvesting”.
ICIPE is playing a leading role in promotion of insects for food and feed, as are other global bodies. Institutions such as FAO and Wageningen University and Research are also advocating for entomophagy- consumption of insects. Scientists are busy investigating the most suitable ones, with locusts, mealworms, crickets and black soldier fly larvae being among the leading contenders. You, however, may be wondering. Why, of all things, why insects?
To begin with, they are an excellent source of protein due to their high nutritional content. For instance, a recent study focused on 212 edible species pointed out that caterpillars of the order lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) may contain up to 80% crude protein. Similarly, crickets have gained popularity as suitable fortification due to their crude protein levels of up to 65%. In addition to this, insects also contain fats, vitamins, and other essential nutrients. Due to these properties, they act as a source of food for more than 2 billion people across the world.
Consumption of insects has been going on for centuries- especially in Africa and Asia. According to ICIPE, Africa is home to one third of all edible insects, with a majority of them found in the Central and Southern African countries. Besides the aforementioned ones, termites, ants and beetles are also among the prominent members of the 500 insect species consumed across the continent. Such rich biodiversity accompanied with centuries of indigenous knowledge provides a suitable launching pad for promotion of entomophagy for sustainable development.
Insects provide a more sustainable source of protein for food and feed due to their high feed conversion rates, fast reproduction, and low resource demand. For instance, within an acre, it is estimated that one can produce up to 130,000 pounds of black soldier fly larvae while intensively farmed soy beans would only yield 0.475 pounds per year. This make the larvae a suitable replacement for soy bean in animal feeds amidst sharply rising demand for animal products. Likewise, crickets, locusts and meal worms provide more sustainable sources of nutrition in human diets compared to larger animals such as cattle and goats.
However, things are not that simple.
The Challenges at Hand
Firstly, Africa is a continent. It has 54 nations with diverse cultures, including eating habits. In Kenya, for instance, the Luhya people have a long insect-eating history they share with their Ugandan cousins. That is something communities with different culinary cultures may frown upon, and there are several of them. Besides that, some people may be disgusted by the very thought of consuming worms or larvae, however delicious they might be. Additionally, religious beliefs may not only bar consumption of certain insects, but entomophagy as a whole.
For usage of insects as food and feed to really make sense, they need to be mass produced at scale. Currently, most communities which consume insects rely on harvesting from the wild. In the long run and for widescale consumption, this approach cannot work. It is not only unreliable, but also threatens natural ecosystems in the event of overharvesting. Therefore, the only way to overcome these obstacles is by developing technologies for mass rearing of insects within confined environments. Companies such as South Africa’s AgriProtein and Kenya’s Sanergy have already proven that this is possible.
Being an emergent industry, several African countries still lack robust legislative frameworks and policies on largescale usage for insects as food and feed. Such a scenario places aspiring insect farmers in limbo as they may not understand the legality of rearing insects. In Kenya, there are cases whereby black soldier fly larvae farmers have been detained for by authorities due to lack of clarity on the “wildness” or “domesticity” of the insects. Such legal vacuums stifle development of insect production agribusinesses.
Feeding the Future
The African population is projected to double by 2050. The continent’s population is also urbanizing at an equally fast rate. These demographic shifts are accompanied by a growing demand for food and feed than ever before, placing extreme pressure on the natural environment. This calls for adoption of sustainable sources of food for humans as well as livestock. Research shows that insects fit the bill, and if mass produced may present a long-term solution. But, to achieve this, the challenges associated with it must be addressed.
Cultural barriers in each country should be addressesed, whenever possible. Perceptions on entomophagy vary from country to country and even from region to region within one jurisdiction. Generating interest and acceptance of insect consumption is the first step. Beyond advocacy, it may also call for processing insect meals into more acceptable forms. Likewise, the industry needs to be supported with strong legislative frameworks on matters such as insect production, handling, and standardization.
Such legal structures will provide aspiring insect farmers with guidelines when setting up operations. Finally, governments and the private sector need to pump resources into research and development of technologies for mass production of insects for food and feed. Lack of adequate technologies on items such as climate control, breeding systems, and value addition are a major obstacle which must be addressed. If these things are done, insects may very well feed the future.