It's all about diversity

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On December 4th, the UK’s first public Insects for Food and Feed Workshop was hosted at the Oxford Martin School. Rebecca Roberts gives us the 'state of the union' in insects as food and feed, and concludes that diversity was the key take-home message.

Diversity is very important when we talk about edible insects as a healthy and sustainable food choice. 

Diversity of ‘edible insects’ as part of ecosystems and diets

With over 2000 species of edible insect, there is no ‘globally edible’ insect, nor is entomophagy a homogenous culinary, nutritive and sustainable practice. Epidemiologist Peter Scarborough (University of Oxford), spoke of a recent systematic review which found that the nutritional profiles of edible insects are highly varied, with no insect being significantly ‘healthier’ than meat products.

Edible insects are also a vital part of a diverse and sustainable system, especially at the local level. Richard Quilliam’s (University of Stirling) engaging presentation on food security and small-scale farmers in rural Africa showed how breeding black soldier flies could be used to enhance incomes and crop yields through biofertiliser, made through the flies’ digestion of food waste from local markets. A sustainable system is created, feeding back between nature and culture.

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Presentation by Darja Doberman 

Another presentation was from Darja Doberman (University of Nottingham and Rothamsted Research), who showed how traditional and innovative approaches to edible insects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, combining the two is incredibly powerful. She spoke of the biofortification of traditional foods such as millet porridge, using modern scientific techniques to enhance nutrition through the addition of cricket flour. The crickets can be fed on the bio-waste from millet husks (usually left after brewing millet beer), again giving a fantastic example of how a virtuous system can be created.

Diversity of voices and distribution of benefits

Diversity is also important when it comes to who is included in knowledge and research on edible insects as food and feed. The conference hosted everything from psychologists to insect farmers, anthropologists to chefs, and entomologists to graphic designers. Everyone had a platform to speak from and be listened to, show their posters and research, and communally enjoy homemade grasshopper and silk worm sushi.

We need to diversify but also re-politicise!

What was particularly encouraging was that the ‘missing voices’ were also respected at the workshop. While a group of approximately 60 people with similar cultural or economic backgrounds is enough to encourage a meaningful debate, wider progress in the edible insects’ movement is not effective nor equitable unless it includes people who are currently excluded from research or international conferences.

entomophagy_and_power.jpgIn other words, we need to diversify but also re-politicise knowledge and progress on edible insects. A talk by Charlotte Payne (University of Cambridge), Andrew Müller (Humboldt University, pictured right), Joshua Evans and Rebecca Roberts (Nordic Food Lab) advocated a move away from the universal claim of ‘edible insects as the future of food’. Intended universal solutions to global health and environmental challenges often play out differently, with winners and losers.  This inequality relates to the structural underpinnings of our global food and feed systems, and is not new.

This is really important, especially as edible insects are scaled up into global, industrialised food and feed systems, as more actors and more voices will be involved than ever before. Perhaps, creative and accessible ways of communicating about edible insects as food and feed are needed, with a final panel discussion at the conference offering the benefits of scientific comic strips and social networks to include all voices.

Diversity of tastes and what we deem ‘edible’

Taste is very important when it comes to the entomophagy movement, where there is a three-millennia-long history of insect eating alongside a recent surge of (relatively) modern gastronomic experimentation, such as Anty Gin and grasshopper tacos. It is also important when considering insects as a novel protein source in Western food cultures: they are not a ‘meat alternative’, but a diversified and delicious food source in their own right.

Jonas House (University of Sheffield) found that, once we go beyond the psychology of disgust surrounding entomophagy, people are more interested in using edible insects as an ingredient in cooking rather than eating them ‘hidden’ in convenience snacks and pre-prepared foods. He concludes that sugar-coating (both literally and proverbially) insects actually hinders our gastronomic appreciation of insects.

The future of edible insects as food and feed is unpredictable, uncertain and diverse, but this is what makes it so exciting. 

After an enticing photo display of Japanese insect delicacies by Nonaka (Rikkyo University, Japan), attendees at the symposium were invited to make their own sushi at lunch, filling seaweed rolls with sticky rice, silk worm pupae, grasshoppers, wasp larvae and scarab beetles. Lunch time succeeded in combining the intellectual debates with gastronomic exploration and excitement; a marriage anyone new to entomophagy should wholeheartedly embrace.

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DIY insect 'sushi'. Photo: Rebecca Roberts

Overall, the future of edible insects as food and feed is unpredictable, uncertain and diverse, but this is what makes it so exciting. Here is to further detailed research, debate and conferences like the Insects for Food and Feed Workshop to continue delving into the diversity, voices and values surrounding edible insects as food and feed.

Full programme, audio files and slides from all presentations can be found here.

The Insects for Food and Feed Workshop was hosted by the British Heart Foundation Centre on Population Approaches for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention (BHFCPNP) at the Oxford Martin School, thanks to the generous support of the Great British Sasakawa Foundation and BioBridge Ltd.

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