From shrub to tub: can palm-dwelling weevils help tackle hunger?

If you type ‘palm weevil’ into Google you’ll get screeds of pesticide offers, alarmist articles about the ‘infestation’ of southern Europe and warnings of the total destruction of palm trees, from Florida to Italy to the French Riviera. Israel last year airlifted 42 billion worms to combat the spread of this insect.

Such last-resort measures come after decades of chemical warfare waged on these little beetles by these countries, to little or no avail. Perhaps some of the media clamour and hand-wringing around the weevil’s spread is linked to the fact that the various mediterranean paradises affected are frequented by the very wealthy, but of course, that’s idle speculation.

Elsewhere, these fat, burrowing grubs are seen very differently.

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Photos: Aspire FG

The weevil goes 'industrial'

The hype around edible insects in recent years has led to some high-profile awards and projects, not least the $1m Hult Prize in 2013 which went to a team of student researchers. Their proposal hinged on the increasingly popular idea that entomophagy could be the solution to global hunger and malnutrition.

Two of the researchers had traveled to Thailand, drawn by the burgeoning industry in palm weevil production there. This beetle larvae is found in various forms across the world, and is highly nutritious. They noted that it’s also popular as a food source in parts of Africa, but supply is low because it isn’t farmed, only gathered from the palm in the traditional manner.

Deep-fried weevil larvae could easily be passed off as calamari

The research team documented the red palm weevil production in southern Thailand, finding that the insect was grown in plastic containers using shredded palm material, or inside dead palm trunks. Costs were very low, profits high, and environmental impact minimal.

Of course the researchers ate the insects too. Deep-fried weevil larvae turned out to be their favourite; they describe it as “excellent”, adding that “without the head capsule the consumer would be unaware that the morsel was an insect larva and the dish could be easily passed off as calamari or some type of seafood.”

IMG_2557.jpgFood Revolution?

The main thrust of the research was that such easy and cheap production of so nutritious a protein source made palm weevil a serious contender when considering solutions to hunger globally. Later the same students set up ‘Aspire’, which now works in Ghana to make palm weevil larvae available cheaply to all. The iron content makes it particularly attractive for areas of West Africa where anaemia is a widespread problem.

Aspire’s idea is that the industry, once it takes off, will become self-sustaining. Currently operations in Ghana are limited to 50,000 weevils, occupying buckets in a warehouse in Fumasa, and the director of the project Jacob Anakware has plans for producing canned larvae. The project was recently featured by Chris Matthews in The Guardian, as part of its ‘12 days of Innovation’ series.

IMG_2303.jpgMuch the same has been said by the UN’s food agency in its landmark report ‘Edible Insects’. The report specifically mentions weevil larvae as a nutritious food source that has long been eaten in many cultures.

The shape of things to come

Though insects have of course been consumed for many centuries, we’re still in the early days of entomophagy in terms of mass production and big business. But things change very quickly when profit margins are found. In the past – and today – the introduction of new production methods, replacing traditional ones, had unintended consequences. For instance, a UN agency report on edible insects notes that grasshoppers in Mali were rendered inedible for local children due to “Western advisors” advocating pesticide use in order to “bring economic stability to the area” through cash crops. Protein and iron levels among the children fell dangerously low.

Aspire's promotional presentation for its Hult Prize anniversary

Aspire, however, says its operations in West Africa are empowering rather than imposing. Its experts work with the University of Ghana and local people; Canadian government funding has enabled a training and loan equipment scheme for local farmers to take up rearing the bugs in tubs. There is, in fact, an urgency to this in some areas because pesticide use has hampered natural larvae numbers.

If more people eat insects, it may lead to an unsustainable spike in foraging" – Robert Nathan Allen

BUGSfeed spoke to Robert Nathan Allen, until recently Aspire’s director of communications and also the founder of Little Herds, an educational charity which promotes edible insects in the United States. He said it isn’t enough to just tell people to eat more insects – what if that only leads to an unsustainable spike in foraging?

“Palm weevils are very expensive in Ghana,” Allen said. “Aspire's projects – in Mexico, in Ghana – are pertinent because we’re looking at how to grow this food year-round, and grow it safely. Make it affordable. Domestication means that species like this, or like zazamushi [aquatic insects eaten in Japan] don’t become over-harvested, so biodiversity loss is mitigated.”

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Photos: Aspire FG

In Ghana the project employs around 12 farmers and supports 500 through the training scheme. As in Mexico, where Aspire is experimenting with breeding chapulines (grasshoppers), the focus is on disseminating knowledge and equipment that lets small-scale DIY insect production flourish. Hopefully, this will change the insects in both societies from expensive delicacy to abundant protein source.

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