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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Predators and the prey: Will our relationship with insects change?

We may need to overturn normalised spectres that govern our relationship with insects. With global population headed towards nine billion, humans will perforce seek out other sources of food. Food habits aren’t constant over time.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: March 12, 2020 10:58:23 am

larva fat, insect butter, insect food, cattle rearring, cattle farming, india dairy sector, Edible insects, beef cattle, livestock census, indian express
Last month, there was a news report about scientists in a Belgian university experimenting with larva fat in waffles, cakes and cookies. Their idea is to replace butter. Insects are more sustainable than cattle. They use less water and less land.

The idea of entomophagy (eating insects), however is hardly new — though larva fat isn’t entomophagy, at least directly. For instance, there was the 2013 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) 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’s only about edible forest insects.

Since the second is a diverse collection of papers, let me quote from the first paper in the volume — it’s 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 chicken 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 nine billion, humans will perforce seek out other sources of food. Food habits aren’t constant over time. Before the advent of agriculture — even monoculture, 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. Most of us would know about Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri. At one point, in the 1940s, he lived in Delhi. His wife Amiya Chaudhuri (born Amiya Dhar) was an author in her own right and published two installments of her autobiography in the early 1990s (she died without completing the third). I don’t know whether these have been translated into English (from Bengali). In the second of the two 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 East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act, 1949 applied to Delhi. 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 the statute books, though there have been suggestions for repeal. It features in the list of Delhi laws the Centre for Civil Society has 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 two billion people. More than 1,900 species have reportedly been used as food… Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera, 31 per cent), caterpillars (Lepidoptera, 18 per cent) and bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera, 14 per cent). Following these are grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera, 13 per cent), cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera, 10 per cent), termites (Isoptera, 3 per cent), dragonflies (Odonata, 3 per cent), flies (Diptera, 2 per cent) and other orders (5 per cent).” 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, the FAO’s agenda on entomophagy covers mass-production technology, food and feed safety legislation (codes, regulation, standards) and consumer education. Even though two billion people eat insects today, for many, insects are not part of the 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.

This article first appeared in the March 12 print edition under the title ‘Predators and the prey’. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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