Insects: The solution to food crisis

Published on 03/12/2008

By Harold Ayodo

Can’t meet your nutritional needs due to soaring food prices? Do not fret. A cheap solution is at hand — insects.

Edible insects? You may feel that these two words do not belong but scientists say most insects are edible and a few are especially nutritious.

At least 1,400 species of insects are edible, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) scientists say.

Icipe Governing Council chairman of programme committee, Arnold van Huis says studies show the insects are rich in nutrients. “Research shows that the over 1,400 species of edible insects in Africa are rich in proteins and other macro and micronutrients,” he says.

Other studies show that at least 50 per cent of insects from the Lake Victoria Basin alone are edible.

Prof Huis, an entomology professor in Wageningen, Netherlands, says Africans have a history of entomophagy — eating insects: “Eating insects is part of African culture.”

He says people in tropical countries eat caterpillars, beetle larvae, grasshoppers and termites because they taste good and are nutritious.


Animals are richer sources of protein than vegetables but supply of livestock meat does not satisfy growing demand and they are costly. This makes insects a cheap alternative, Huis said during a presentation, Global Trends and Strategic Directions of Capacity Strengthening and What that Suggests for African Regional Postgraduate Programme in Insect Science, at Icipe silver jubilee celebrations last week.

The theme of the three-day conference that attracted scientists and scholars from 35 African countries was Nurturing African Talent for Leadership in Insect Science.

The scientists said insects contain more protein, fat, and carbohydrates than equal amounts of beef or fish and more energy than soybeans, maize, beef and fish.


A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation 2004 report said caterpillars are rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and B-vitamins.

“Children, nursing mothers and anaemic people in Third World countries fought malnutrition by eating flour made out of dried caterpillars,” Huis says.

He says African Governments and universities have a challenge to respond to the global food crisis. “Universities must learn to influence change in a complex environment … Institutions of higher learning must seek alternatives to contain looming hunger,” he says.

Kenyatta University Council chairman, Onesmo ole-MoiYoi, and Uganda’s Gulu University Vice Chancellor, Pen-Mogi Nyeko, concurs.


“African Regional Postgraduate Programme in Insect Science (ARPPIS) relevance is to foster food security, good health in humans and animals, and sustainable development,” Prof ole-MoiYoi says.

The experts say Mayflies (ephimeroptea) and termites (isoptera) are delicacies in Sub- Saharan Africa including Kenya. “Nutritive insects could eradicate rampant malnutrition in the Sub-Saharan Africa and save lives of millions of children,” Prof Nyeko says.

Termites are believed to be a boost milk production for lactating mothers and encourage growth of mushrooms.

The termites – known as ngwen in Luo and tsisua in Luhya, are also eaten by the Kalenjin, Kisii and Suba.

Nyeko says termites are rich in vitamins, which treat headaches and raw oil from the queen termite is used to treat ear ailments. “The insects could be an alternative to food shortages and cure diseases but governments should only endorse them after thorough research,” he says.

The scientists say traditional medicine men made concoctions out of specific indigenous insects to treat diseases.


Huis says globally, meat consumption has risen dramatically arguing that demand outstrips supply. “About 70 per cent of farmland is used for meat production and it is unsustainable,” he said.

He says livestock is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide, which are hazardous to the environment.

“Insects are environmentally friendly and nutritious as much as chicken or beef,” he says. The researchers were unanimous that edible insects could be part of the food security strategy.

The Chinese, Japanese and Thai have a variety of insect dishes and cuisines.

The Japanese have refined the art of cooking insects using soy sauce.

The late scholar, Prof Thomas Risley Odhiambo, founded Icipe to nurture young African scientists to take local and international leadership in insect science.

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