To combat hunger, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) encouraged the world population to consume insects, and its report - titled ‘Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security’ - cited India as a potential market.
The United Nations agency predicted that by 2050, the steadily-growing population would increase the demand for food, projecting the potential of insects as a food commodity.
It highlighted the economic benefits of eating insects, either as a whole or in the granular or paste form or in the form of insect protein extracts. While most edible insect species are harvested in the wild, a few have been domesticated owing to their commercial value.
Eating insects has nutritional and environmental benefits as well. They supply proteins, vitamins and minerals. For instance, dung beetle provides more iron than steak, and four crickets contain as much calcium as a glass of milk.
“There is a wealth of traditional and cultural knowledge on the uses of edible insects as food in tropical countries, yet production is largely concentrated in household and mall-scale operations,” FAO’s report said.
“However, in temperate countries, processing technology is virtually non-existent, because edible insects are not recognised food and feed sources,” it added.
Several species of insects are native to India, which has a vast food market and a large population - factors the report took into consideration while highlighting their potential as ingredients in the food sector.
“If insects are so become a useful and profitable raw material in the food and feed industries, large quantities of quality insects would need to be produced on a continuous basis. This requires the automation of both farming and processing methods, which remains a challenge for the development of the sector,” the report added.
Collecting and farming insects could provide a diversified employment strategy and multiple income-earning chances in developing countries. The products and by-products of insects could be used feed humans, livestock and animals.
FAO’s report suggested that insect farming be undertaken at both the household level and the industrial level.
Patrick B Durst, the Bangkok-based senior officer at FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, said, “Insect farming need not necessarily be an expensive affair.”
“They may either be collected from wild sources or farmed. Insect rearing does not require a large plot of land, vis-a-vis other systems of food production, and can be undertaken on a smaller scale and do not require a great deal of investment,” he added.
“In fact, Thailand’s experience indicates that small-scale insect farming yields positive financial returns. The country has over 20,000 household-level insect farmers. This scale could be relevant in rural India as well,” Durst stated.
Insects are consumed in a few cultures, but several countries - particularly the developed countries - are averse to it. Parts of India, such as the north-eastern states and the tribal belt, have a culture of eating giant water bugs, grasshoppers, giant caterpillars and termites.
“I doubt edible insects would become a part of the food culture and industry in India - at least in the mainstream - because of people’s revulsion. However, many studies have proved that insects are a very good source of proteins and other nutrients and can be cultured,” Poorani Janakiraman, principal scientist, insect systematics, National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Insects (NBAII), said.
“If the insects are cultured and harvested in a natural setting under controlled conditions, the environment would not be adversely affected,” she added.