Beastly bugs or edible delicacies
Workshop considers contribution of forest insects to the human diet
19 February 2008, Chiang Mai, Thailand - With over 1 400 insect species eaten by humans worldwide, the insect world offers promising possibilities both commercially and nutritionally, FAO said today. A workshop organized by FAO this week will discuss the potential for developing insects in the Asia and Pacific region.
While the idea of eating insects may seem unusual or even unappetizing to some, human consumption of insects is actually very common in most parts of the world. At least 527 different insects are eaten across 36 countries in Africa, while insects are also eaten in 29 countries in Asia and 23 in the Americas.
Source of protein, vitamins and minerals
Of the hundreds of insect species reportedly eaten as human food, the most common come from four main insect groups: beetles; ants, bees and wasps; grasshoppers and crickets; and moths and butterflies. As a food source, insects are highly nutritious. Some insects have as much protein as meat and fish. In dried form, insects have often twice the protein of fresh raw meat and fish, but usually not more than dried or grilled meat and fish. Some insects, especially in the larval stage, are also rich in fat and contain important vitamins and minerals.
Most edible insects are harvested from natural forests. But, while insects account for the greatest amount of biodiversity in forests, they are the least studied of all fauna. “Surprisingly little is known about the life cycles, population dynamics, commercial and management potential of most edible forest insects,” said Patrick Durst, senior FAO forestry officer.
“Among forest managers, there is very little knowledge or appreciation of the potential for managing and harvesting insects sustainably,” noted Durst. “On the other hand, traditional forest dwellers and forest-dependent people often possess remarkable knowledge of the insects and their management.”
In some areas, insects are only occasionally eaten as “emergency food” to stave off starvation. But in most regions where insects are consumed for food, they are a regular part of the diet and are often considered delicacies. In Thailand, site of this week’s consultation, nearly 200 different insect species are eaten, many of which are highly sought-after as snacks and treats. Vendors selling insects are a common sight throughout the country, and in the capital, Bangkok.
Traditionally, humans have benefited from insects largely for the production of honey, wax and silk, as a source of dye, and in some cultures as foods and medicines.
Wherever forest insects have been part of the human diet, the insects are usually collected from the wild, with most collectors focusing on larvae and pupae – the insect forms most commonly eaten. Simple processing and cooking are the norm and only minimal forest management is needed to exploit the resource.
A few insects such as silkworms and bees were domesticated centuries ago, but it is only recently that interest has grown for rearing other insect species for food. It is now common to find farmers in northern Thailand, for example, raising bamboo worms or crickets for sale to local buyers.
Aside from their nutritional value, many experts see considerable potential for edible insects to provide income and jobs for rural people who capture, rear, process, transport and market the insects. These prospects can be enhanced through promotion and adoption of modern food technology standards for food insects that are sold live, dried, smoked, roasted or in some other form. Care must however be taken to ensure that the insects are hygienically safe for human consumption and do not contain excessive amounts of chemical residues such as insecticides.
“Opportunities also exist for improved packaging and marketing to make edible insects more enticing to traditional buyers and to expand the market to new consumers, especially in urban areas,” according to Durst.
Organized by FAO and Chiang Mai University in Thailand, specialists attending the three-day workshop will focus on edible forest insects and their management, collection, harvest, processing, marketing, and consumption.
The gathering hopes to raise awareness of the potential of edible forest insects as a food source, document the contribution of edible insects to rural livelihoods and assess linkages to sustainable forest management and conservation.
Media Relations, FAO
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