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Mutton chop? Try a worm instead

- Scientists back insects as eco-friendly protein source
A pie made with the larvae of mealworm beetles, being promoted by Dutch researchers. (Getty Images)

New Delhi, Jan. 7: Dutch entomologist Dennis Oonincx would be happy if the world, in the new year, seeks to encourage the mass consumption of the subjects of his research.

In cultures across the world — from Arunachal Pradesh to South Africa to the Amazon rain forests — people have long eaten myriad species of insects. And a fusion of ideas from modern cooking and traditional insect-eating communities has given rise to myriad recipes with insect tags: termites-and-rice soup, baked green beans with cheese and grasshopper, mealworm French fries, among them.

But six-legged ingredients are yet to slip into mainstream cuisine.

However, research is bolstering the arguments for the use of insects as sources of protein, an alternative to livestock or poultry.

“We need to find the right insects to feed the world,” said Oonincx, an entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who has generated powerful quantitative data to suggest that people could both eat well and protect the planet by consuming the larvae of mealworm beetles.

Scientists estimate that about 1,600 species of insects — from beetles and termites to grasshoppers and wasps — are eaten for food across Asia, Africa, and South America, and insect-laced recipes, they say, may be simple or sophisticated.

In South Africa, mopane caterpillars are cooked in a broth of onions and tomatoes. The Chinese who are credited to have discovered sericulture many centuries ago, continue to relish the gastronomical appeal of silkworms. In Thailand, bamboo worms are deep fried, and, entomologists say dozens of insects may be baked, roasted, or smoked by traditional communities in the Amazon forests.

Zoologist Jharna Chakraborti at the Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal Pradesh has documented the insect-eating traditions among the Galo and Nyishi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.

Grasshoppers, for instance, are fried in oil, after their wings have been clipped off, and eaten crisp with sprinkled salt. Crickets are smoked dry in bamboo pipes, then crushed, mixed with salt, pepper, bamboo shoots, for a chutney that is eaten with rice.

Entomologists have observed termites being fried and eaten in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and fried and mixed with rice in Odisha. In Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya, the cinnamon bug is deep-fried. Insects make an attractive source of not just nutrition but also rural livelihoods, said Ruparao Gahukar, a retired entomologist in Nagpur who was a technical adviser to the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Africa.

A report on entomophagy — the practice of eating insects — released by the FAO two years ago said that gram for gram, insects often contain more protein and minerals than other sources of meat.

Oonincx and his colleagues have now shown that the production of one kilogram of equivalent edible protein from milk, chicken, pork, or beef results in higher emissions of greenhouse gases and requires more land than from a species of mealworm.

In a paper published in December in the journal PLoS One, the researchers report that mealworms require only 43 per cent of the amount of land used for the production of one kilogram of edible protein as milk, and only 10 per cent of the land used for beef production.

“With land availability being the most stringent limitation in sustainably feeding the world’s population, this study clearly shows that mealworms should be considered as a more sustainable alternative to milk, chicken, pork and beef,” they wrote in their paper.

“The choice of insects on the table will have to depend on such considerations and, of course, on taste,” Oonincx told The Telegraph over the phone from Indonesia, where he is hoping to munch on termites. There is need for caution, though, said Hans Schabel, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin in the US, who draws parallels between mushrooms and insects.

“Like certain mushrooms, some insects are delicious, safe and easy to identify,” Schabel said in a paper presented at a conference on entomophagy in Thailand. “At the other end of the spectrum are those that may cause serious harm, even death.”

Scientists have documented several cases of fatal or near-fatal outcomes as well as toxic reactions after the consumption of insects. But as one scientist put it: “We need to focus on insects already being widely consumed.”