Insects, the Food of the Future?

June 10, 2015


Selling grasshoppers in the market in Oaxaca, Mexico. 

Isabelle Schaefer/World Bank

Ants, grasshoppers or beetles have been present on the Latin American dinner table since ancestral times, because of tradition, taste, or their high nutritional content.

This last characteristic, in particular, explains why these tiny inhabitants of the animal kingdom are being considered by experts as a nutritional alternative to guarantee the feeding of the world.

In fact, raising insects for food may become a necessity considering world population growth. “With a billion people suffering from chronic hunger, and with a global population that will reach an estimated nine billion by 2050, it is estimated that food production will have to double,” says Andrea Spray, a nutrition specialist at the World Bank.

And this production has to come from somewhere. “Now that soil is scarce, the oceans suffer from overfishing and climate change puts additional stress on the global food system, raising insects for human or animal consumption is a potential alternative for satisfying a global demand that is virtually unexplored,” Spray says.

A delicacy in Mexico

When she has guests over to her house in Mexico City, Diana Jimenez prepares botanitas (small starters) for sharing. But between the peanuts and the potato chips, she puts out a little plate of fried chapulines, a type of cricket or grasshopper which is very popular in Mexico and some Central American countries.

 “I eat chapulines like popcorn,” says Jimenez, smiling. She began to eat insects when she met her husband, whose family is from Oaxaca state in southern Mexico, where eating chapulines is a tradition.

She eats them au natural, or in quesadillas (corn tortillas filled with melted cheese). “When the cheese is melting, you add five or six chapulines,” she explains. You can also buy them fried in garlic or piquín pepper. She purchases them from a street stand near her house.

But chapulines are not the only insects we eat in Latin America.  Escamoles, the eggs of a type of ant, are considered a delicacy in Mexico. The Maku Indians of Brazil collect insects during the rainy season, when hunting and fishing becomes more difficult. In Quito, Ecuador, you can also find beetles in the market from October to November.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that insects form part of the traditional diet of some two billion people around the world.

The international organization reports that consuming insects offers several advantages: There are some 1,900 known edible species, they contain protein and “good” fat, raising them emits fewer greenhouse gases than livestock breeding and they can be a source of income for the world’s poorest populations.

Spray emphasizes that research on insect consumption is just beginning, and that evidence proving their importance for food, nutritional and environmental security is lacking.

Nevertheless, considering the trends – population growth and the demand for protein, – “it is not unrealistic to imagine a wider acceptance of alternative food sources, or at least efforts to increase production and consumption of insects in cultures that are open to this type of food.”

Changing the diet is not easy because it involves a change in individual behavior, she says. And there is still much to be done to collect evidence on the value of insects as a food source.

“Simply documenting how insects are raised, how they are processed and eaten in different cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean, and evaluating their impact on nutritional and food security would be a major contribution,” says Spray.

She adds that after this, the next step will be to identify opportunities to develop and promote the value chain in which insects are as widely available as other types of food.

At any rate, it is not hard to imagine a not-so-distant future, where, in the dark movie theater premiering the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the loud crunch of popcorn will be replaced by the delicate popping of chapulines.

Would you be willing to include insects in your daily diet?