More and more people want meat on their plates. This is unsustainable in the long run. A disproportionate size of farming land is currently being used for meat production, which is also partly responsible for the greenhouse effect. Arnold van Huis is investigating an alternative that is an appreciated food item in Africa, has many environmental benefits and that is filled with nutrients: insects.
Van Huis wants to work in Africa to develop simple cultivation methods and to set-up small scale insect farms for human consumption. “Everywhere across the world, with the exception of Europe and the U.S.A., insects are part of the daily diet. They are collected in nature and are partly traded. For instance, in southern Africa the Mopane worm has a trading value of $85 million. Using small scale cultivation methods, we can provide families and villages with a source of cheap and sustainable food, and extra income.”
“It speaks for itself that this will add value to food security worldwide,” he explains. “The meat problem is acute. We consume 280 million tons of meat worldwide and that number will have doubled by 2050. Meat will become more expensive and will form a threat to the environment. Please regard us here, at Wageningen, as the instigators of recent global attention for the consumption of edible insects.
In May 2013 we published a book with the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) entitled “Edible insects: prospects of insects for food and feed security”. It has been downloaded 6 million times already, showing the enormous interest all over the world. I am now a permanent advisor to FAO in Rome. With partners in Africa, we are in the starting blocks.”
'Today, mankind consumes 280 million tonnes of meat worldwide. Demand is expected to double by 2050. Meat production already takes up a disproportionate share of agricultural land, and is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In the long term, this is untenable, and we need alternatives.
Insects use much less water and food per kilogramme of meat, and generate much less greenhouse gases than ordinary livestock. The potential environmental benefits are huge. At least 1,500 types of insects are edible. They contain 30 to 70% protein (with many essential amino acids) and the 'good' fatty acids. And they are rich in vitamins and minerals. Of these, their iron content is particularly important, when you consider that 40% of children aged 0-5 in Africa suffer from anaemia. An additional factor is that it takes much less nutrients and water to convert insects into meat.
At present, insects are harvested primarily from the wild; the question is whether this practice can go on indefinitely in the face of rising demand. My personal opinion is that a number of simple farming methods could be envisioned. A simple caterpillar farm just outside a village would be one example. Consider silk farming; it might be something very similar. However, this has never been tried.'
Simple farming methods
Arnold van Huis wants to develop simple farming methods and small-scale projects in Africa for farming insects for human consumption. 'Everywhere in the world, with the exceptions of Europe and the United States, insects are a component of the human diet. They are collected in the wild, and some are sold. Take the example of the trade in the Mopane worm in southern Africa; this trade represents a commercial value of 85 million dollars. With small-scale farming methods, we can provide families and villages with a source of cheap and sustainable nutrition while offering them extra income.'
'Is clear that this will contribute to world food security,' he argues. 'The meat problem is becoming urgent. Today, mankind consumes 280 million tonnes of meat worldwide, and demand is expected to double by 2050. Meat will become much more expensive, and pose a threat to the environment. You can see us, here in Wageningen, as the instigators of recent worldwide attention to edible insects. We are the only group in Europe working on this, and worldwide there are just a handful of partners. Recently, I was appointed permanent advisor to the FAO in Rome. We're already in the starting blocks.'
What is the set-up of the study?
'For us, the social embedding is an extremely important part of designing a new cultivation method,' explains Van Huis. 'We have to keep a view to the economic and social conditions, because they determine the success. Diseases can arise in the process of farming and we need to deal with this without using antibiotics. The lessons we have learned from livestock farming have taught us that we have to proceed carefully. There are many types of edible insects that could be farmed, and the study has to help us determine which are the best candidates.
The study focuses on three elements:
- Ethnic ecology. What do the people do now? Who collects what, where, how much and when? What are the species we should be focusing on from a nutritional and economic perspective? On what types of trees and shrubs are these insects found, and can we plant those around the villages?
- Sustainable harvesting. Can we harvest from the wild with no limit, or can we create the conditions with which we can boost insect populations? For silk production, special branch cages have been developed to protect the silkworms from other insects. This is one potential method of increasing production dramatically. In many cases, the short harvest season is a problem. Can we influence the populations in such a way as to harvest them longer? Can we harvest a portion of the pupae and raise a subsequent generation from them? Will we disrupt the balance if we over-harvest from the forests? How can we harvest for optimum yield year to year?
- Farming. Can we come up with simple farming methods to make production not seasonal. One possibility is ongoing cultivation (as is done with the silkworm on the mulberry tree). This means that there must be a way to control the entire cycle (moth-egg-caterpillar-pupa). This can be done in a number of ways, at various levels of sophistication:
- Planting trees/shrubs around the village and using netting.
- Raising the insects in a hut (insectarium) and feeding them leaves. In this situation, the worms are raised and the eggs are laid in simple cages. But how do you ensure optimum production?
- Raising the insects on an artificial diet. Many such diets are available commercially. Research should be used to determine whether this is economically feasible.
Another important question is whether the insects can be preserved. In a great many cases, they are dried. Finding methods of preserving them in parts of Africa where the humidity is very high is often a challenge.
In what countries is the project being carried out?
'I want to focus on Central Africa,' explains Van Huis, 'one of the most forested areas on earth, with over 200 million hectares of forest. In these forests, caterpillars are a major food source for local populations. Conservation of the forests and sustainable exploitation of forest products is critical. The FAO has excellent contacts in three countries, and it is with those that we can start right away: the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville and Gambon. The FAO has its headquarters for Central Africa in Gabon. We also have good contacts in the countries united in the COMIFAC.' (» Commission des Forets d'Afrique Centrale).
What effect can this project have on world food production?
'Right now, twenty per cent of all agricultural capacity is dedicated to meat production,' says Van Huis. 'With demand for meat growing and the world population heading towards 9 billion, we are facing a major problem. So we need to be looking for alternatives. Those alternatives can be found in Africa, where people are used to eating insects. We can offer families and villages a cheap and sustainable source of food and extra income. There are even options for combining cultivation of wild silkworms with eating the pupae.'
What can this project mean at the social level?
'If just 1% of animal protein consumed worldwide can be obtained from insects, the environmental gains will be enormous,' says Van Huis. 'Insects are very efficient, and need much less water and food per kilogramme of meat. This has to do with the fact that insects are cold-blooded, and so do not need to maintain a body temperature. The cultivation of insects can also be an important source of income for villages and families, and be part of fighting poverty in rural areas.'
'The idea came about when I was interviewing Africans about eating insects. What struck me then was that they seemed to not to want to talk about it. They are embarrassed, because they think that we in the West consider it primitive. More and more, you see Africans copying the Western lifestyle, and eating insects is incompatible with that. I think that's terrible, we really have to do something about this.
Most insects in the tropics are collected in the wild, and some of them are sold. The market is economically interesting. The commercial value of the trade in the Mopane caterpillar, in southern Africa, for example, is approximately 85 million dollars. Some insects are already being farmed for human consumption, like crickets and silkworms. The pupae of the silkworm are eaten.
With the financial support of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture & Innovation, and in cooperation with the food industry, we launched a study of the farming and processing of insects for consumption in the Western world last year. That study focused on processing insect protein in food products like pizza.
Caterpillars in the Central African Republic
The harvest of caterpillars is done primarily by children in primary and secondary schools during their school holidays (July-August). Boys do the collecting and girls do the selling. The collectors keep 20% of the caterpillars for their own consumption, and the rest are sold to vendors (women) for half the consumer price. The collectors earn approximately €110 per month, and the vendors earn over €300 per month.
Consumers surveyed gave three reasons for eating caterpillars: 'nutritious' (50%), 'tasty' (40%), and 'out of habit' (10%). Thirty per cent of those interviewed ate them once a day, 40% once every two days and 30% occasionally. Caterpillars were fried (60%), cooked in sauce (35%) and served dried with sauce (5%).
From a 2005 article by Mbétid-Bessane, E. Commercialisation des chenilles comestibles en République Centrafricaine. Tropicultura. 23(1) : 3-5.
'I started my career at FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. After that, I worked in development aid.
I began to take an interest in human consumption of insects in 1995. I have interviewed 400 people from 27 African countries on the subject. Africans eat insects because they find them tasty, not simply out of hunger. Everywhere in the world, with the exceptions of Europe and the United States, insects are a component of the human diet. If you have an excellent food source that is much better from an environmental perspective, but you ignore it due to Western prejudices, then something is very, very wrong. If we don't do something, this eating habit is at risk of extinction.'
Why is Wageningen in such a unique position to play an important role in the solution?
'Wageningen is world-renowned for its knowledge of insects,' says Van Huis. Thirty years ago, our researchers were at the foundation of biological pest control in agriculture and horticulture using insects. Then, an innovation that few initially had any confidence in; now, a pillar of the many successes of sustainable cultivation in the Netherlands. It is now time for the next breakthrough in thinking on useful insects, and Wageningen is once again at the forefront of that breakthrough. In Europe, we are the only group working on this, and worldwide there are just a handful of partners.
Who are the partners in this project?
'The FAO in Rome is interested in this area, too, and I have recently been appointed their permanent advisor on edible insects,' says Van Huis. 'The FAO specifically asked us to come up with simple farming methods in the Central African Republic. We are working with a number of different institutions working on edible insects. I'm on the board of one of them, an international institute in Nairobi (Icipe). They are a treasure trove of knowledge on useful insects in forests.'
How can donors help?
'That depends on the donor's goal,' says Van Huis. 'What we need is the brain power for applied research. This project is hopefully the start of a new sector in agriculture, insect farming. A donor can invest in materials, help train people who can take the knowledge home with them and start experimenting on their own... Or a combination of the two.'
What are we offering donors?
‘Every donor can get involved in the project directly,' says Van Huis. 'I like to show off our work in Wageningen and elsewhere. We can visit a testing setup in Wageningen or in Africa. We offer options for receptions and networking with the Executive Board and other donors. I can give lectures or masterclasses on eating insects. If desired, we can publicly acknowledge companies and individuals on the web site or in other publications. Interest in the media is huge. At present I have 170,000 hits on the web, almost all about eating insects.
The Wageningen University Fund (WUF) is an ANBI Foundation. Donations have tax benefits, and the fund is not VAT-subject.
The study has three components. For each, a doctoral student will be assigned and will be supported by an assistant in the field and a supervisor at Wageningen UR.
A detailed budget can be sent upon request.