A hidden harvest

A hidden harvest

Could edible insects play an important role in tackling a growing global humanitarian problem? One of our researchers is determined to find out.

Meet the woman who wants people to eat locusts and grasshoppers to help solve the world’s food crisis.

For Liliane Binego wild edible insects have been part of her diet since childhood. While she’s always found them delicious, she knows not everyone shares her view. But the facts are they provide an excellent source of protein and are already a delicacy in some tropical countries, where they are often also a lucrative source of income.

Liliane, a researcher with the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience who specialises in disaster management and sustainable livelihoods, is determined to explore their potential further. She is investigating all aspects of the edible insect supply chain – including wild harvesting, rearing, processing, distribution and waste management – aiming to help in the fight against the growing global humanitarian food crisis.

Her work was prompted by the realisation that people around the world who had been forced to flee their homes, particularly those now living in refugee camps in tropical countries, were not getting nutritionally balanced diets. This was even though there was a ready source of protein within their environment – the edible insects.

“I feel I have a responsibility to share this hidden harvest and its potential,” said Liliane. “Knowing that this could really make a difference in our battle for the development of resilient and sustainable food systems has really stimulated my curiosity. It’s made me want to plough deeper into this subject so I can find out how we can harness this vital wild resource.”

There are around 1,900 documented species of edible insects – including beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers and locusts - with most found in tropical countries.

To investigate how wild-harvested edible insects could provide an alternative source of food and income generation across the world, Liliane moved beyond their availability in refugee settings. She looked at how wild locusts or hoppers were harvested, produced and distributed in two countries - Niger and Uganda.

There are two key problems of using insects as a direct and indirect food source for human consumption. They are seasonal – with bands of them only appearing, on average, twice a year in some locations – and the harvesting of them results in high energy costs, because so many lights are needed to attract them to one particular place for collection. This means that in the long term an efficient and cost-effective way of wild harvesting and rearing the creatures has to be developed.

Liliane interviewed more than 200 people in Niger and Uganda who currently make their livelihoods from edible locusts in order to understand more about their potential. She looked at all parts of the supply chain, starting with joining locust harvesters as they rigged up their huge lights and equipment at night to catch the creatures who are weakened during the nocturnal hours.

She saw how farmers are adapting their methods to fill the gap between seasonal swarms, and how the insects can be cooked, preserved and stored for up to a year after being harvested.

During the busy lunchtimes rush in Kampala, she joined a woman who made a living from going around the city’s offices selling roasted locusts to hungry workers. And at the Niamey City Market in Niger, she met traders of wild edible desert locusts who shared the benefit and challenges of the locust business.

Liliane hopes her research assessing these existing harvesting, processing and distribution methods will help lead to a great understanding of the potential of edible insects to meet the challenges faced in communities where people don’t have access to either enough food or a nutritionally balanced diet.

But there’s another important barrier also needs to be fully explored – what people think of using insects as food, known as entomophagy.

“We have to look at people’s attitudes and prejudices towards entomophagy as well. Behaviour change is key.

“When people look at insects they are often scared or disgusted,” she said. “People in Western society jump to conclusions about them, it’s not something they want to think about eating. But in countries tropical climates they are thought of as a delicacy. There has to be a way they can be made more attractive.”

Liliane’s work has given her a unique insight into the world of edible insects and their potential in the future. Hopefully her work will pave the way for more people to enjoy roasted grasshoppers with onion or garlic for a snack.

And most importantly, it might help people who are struggling to survive because they don’t have access to a sufficiently nutritionally balanced diet.

For more information on Coventry University’s research, visit www.coventry.ac.uk/research.