Give Edible Insects a Chance as an Alternative High-Quality Protein Source, say Scientists

A variety of insect-based delicacies. It is estimated that 2.5 billion people around the world eat insects as part of their regular diet. Encouraging the eating of insects could have health and climate change benefits. Credit: icipe

A variety of insect-based delicacies. It is estimated that 2.5 billion people around the world eat insects as part of their regular diet. Encouraging the eating of insects could have health and climate change benefits. Credit: icipe

By Joyce Chimbi
Nairobi, May 6 2022 – Growing up in Samoya Village of Bungoma County in the Western part of Kenya, Elvis Wanjala has fond childhood memories of the rainy season, chasing and catching black-bellied winged termites in the rain.

“The termites would also come inside the house, attracted by the light late in the evening. My mother would sun-dry the termites and pan-fry them. We would then eat the crunchy termites with ugali (posho) and a serving of traditional vegetables,” he recounts.

“I grew up believing that everybody ate termites. At 11 years, I visited my uncle in Nairobi and was shocked to find that termites were more of a nuisance than food. One morning after a heavy downpour, I watched in awe as women and girls swept termites from their doorsteps and threw them in the bin.”

Beatrice Karare from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries tells IPS termites, and other insects such as grasshoppers, locusts, black and white ants, and crickets are part of traditional diets in Western Kenya, but not so in other parts of the country.

But with rising inflation, scientists at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) say edible insects are a low-cost alternative to more expensive foods. The Kenyan ‘food basket’ indicates that food inflation rose by 20 percent in January 2022 compared to the same period in 2021.

Pan-dried desert grasshoppers. Credit: icipe

These are pan-dried nsenene. Researchers say edible insects provide low-cost alternative protein. Credit: icipe

Dr Saliou Niassy, a scientist from icipe, tells IPS edible insects contain high-quality protein, vitamins, fibre, calcium, iron, B vitamins, selenium, zinc, and amino acids and are also an excellent source of healthy fats.

Insect oil produced through an icipe research project from two edible insects – the desert locust and the African bush-cricket – was richer in omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, and Vitamin E than the plant oil.

Niassy says as this East African nation grapples with increasing threats to food security such as “climate change, landscape degradation and pest invasion, edible insects are a viable and affordable alternative.” It is projected that Africa’s annual food import bill of  $35 billion could rise to $110 billion by 2025.

A survey conducted by icipe shows there are an estimated 500 species of edible insects in African communities. The Central African region is home to approximately 256 edible insect species. East Africa hosts about 100 species, and about eight species are available in North Africa. An estimated 17 primary species are used for feed and food in Kenya.

“We have had two main challenges as far as increasing consumption of insects is concerned, a lack of legislation around the production, packaging, and marketing of insects for food and strong perceptions that dictate what is culturally acceptable as food. There are also strong beliefs that you must be very poor to eat insects,” Karare explains.

Karare says some of these issues were resolved in December 2020 when Kenya became the first African country to develop national standards regulating the production, handling, and processing of insects for food and feed.

Included in the regulation are stipulations of the necessary minimum infrastructural and environmental requirements necessary for the ideal production of edible insects, including how they are packaged and presented.

Wanjala, now a teacher based in Nairobi, says communities that do not eat insects and children could be slowly introduced to insect products such as biscuits “so that the idea of eating insects can slowly sink in. When it comes to eating whole insects, I find that people are also more likely to try dry-fried, crunchy insects.”

Despite the challenges of creating a viable and attractive market for insects, Karare is convinced that insects can be part of the diet in many homes, drawing parallels with the journey of Kenyans embracing traditional vegetables.

“A few years ago, highly nutritious traditional vegetables were eaten by a few communities. In Central Kenya, for instance, Amaranthus was considered to be food for poor people. Today, Amaranthus is a popular delicacy and part of the menu in five-star hotels. The same with pumpkin leaves,” Karare observes.

“We need to educate the people that edible insects can add nutrients to a plant-based meal. More importantly, insects can even nutritionally replace meat.”

These are pan-dried nsenene. Researchers say edible insects provide low cost alternative protein. Credit: icipe

Pan-dried desert grasshoppers. Credit: icipe

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 2.5 billion people eat insects as part of their regular meals, whole or in processed food products such as snacks and pasta. Karare says the global edible insect market estimated at $112 million in 2019, could reach $1.5 billion by 2026.

There are approximately 1,900 edible species globally, including butterflies, cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, ants, bees, dragonflies, beetles, domestic silk moths, centipedes and locusts.

According to FAO, turning to insects is not only good for the body but highly environment friendly and could contribute to reducing the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. The livestock sector contributes significantly to climate change as total emissions from global livestock represent 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Cattle reared for beef and milk and inedible outputs such as manure and draft power account for 65 percent of the livestock sector’s emissions. Producing insects for food is yet another alternative to reducing the emission of harmful greenhouse gases, the FAO says.

Crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Additionally, insect-based products are found to have a much smaller carbon footprint in comparison to conventional livestock.

With these revelations, Niassy says there is a lot more to learn and benefit from, “we have just scratched the surface in terms of sustainable access to biodiversity for resilience, livelihood, food and nutritional security in Africa.”

IPS UN Bureau Report


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Civil Society Responds — as Health-Care Facilities in Ukraine Come Under Attack

Kateryna Timoshenko, Networks of People Living with HIV, Kirovograd oblast. Credit: 100%LIFE via UNAIDS

By Eamonn Murphy
GENEVA, May 6 2022 – Alongside the devastation caused by bombs and bullets, the war in Ukraine has wrought another danger that can be as deadly as the violence itself: the disruption of access to health services for people who will not survive if cut off from health care.

Health provision has been badly hit, and supply lines crucial for the delivery of medicines severely disrupted. The World Health Organization (WHO) has verified 186 attacks on health-care facilities since the war began.

WHO’s survey showed that of the Ukrainian households in which someone has a chronic health condition, one in three are now unable to get the medicines and care they need.

People living with HIV depend upon daily medication to keep them healthy and alive. More than 40 health-care facilities that provided HIV treatment, prevention and care services before the war have closed or been destroyed.

Many Ukrainians hemmed in by the conflict are unable to make a journey to the health facilities that remain. Approximately 260 000 Ukrainians are living with HIV. UNAIDS is working with partners to ensure the continuity of HIV services. Disruption to treatment services puts their lives on the line and risks a resurgence of the country’s HIV pandemic.

In what is a huge achievement, medicines have successfully been brought into Ukraine, thanks to PEPFAR (the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which has committed US$ 13 million to procure 51 million emergency doses of HIV medicines, enough to keep Ukrainians living with HIV supplied with life-saving treatment for a year.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria also is fast-tracking US$15 million in emergency funds for Ukraine and some nearby countries to enable continued provision of life-saving care.

Delivering medicine and humanitarian aid to those in need. Credit: 100%LIFE via UNAIDS

Now that HIV medicines have reached Ukraine, attention is focused on getting them to everyone who needs them. Before the war, the Ukranian AIDS response had built up an exemplary model of community-led services working in partnership with government. It’s the resilience of that network of community-led services built up over decades that has enabled the AIDS response to continue.

The Public Health Center of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine and civil society organizations such as 100% Life, the country’s biggest network of people living with HIV, are working together to maintain services.

Delivering medicines in this war is a huge logistical and security challenge. Several volunteer drivers working for 100% Life have been killed while trying to deliver desperately needed HIV medicines to front-line areas.

Despite the enormous difficulties involved, grass-roots organizations are a lifeline for many people who move to safer places within or outside the country, providing them with humanitarian aid and HIV medicines—even in areas of intense conflict. Their courageous work is saving lives, but the needs and challenges are huge and growing, and resources are not sufficient.

“The situation for people living with HIV in Ukraine is desperate. We are trying to deliver medicines, food and other emergency assistance to people in need, but the work is dangerous and volunteer drivers are putting their lives at risk. If we don’t get more help, I am not sure how much longer we can continue, especially reaching people in the front-line zones,” Dmytro Sherembey, the Head of the 100% LIFE Coordination Council, has shared.

That is why UNAIDS has issued an urgent call to the international community to upscale support to help these everyday heroes to save lives.

The challenge to reach people in need has been greatly exacerbated by the displacement of people. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are now 7.7 million internally displaced people in Ukraine.

The war has also caused millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries, including Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

It is estimated that up to 30 000 Ukrainian refugees may currently need HIV medicines as the stocks they carry with them become depleted. WHO has helped to broker a deal with the pharmaceutical company ViiV Healthcare to provide donations of HIV medicines to Czechia, Poland and other European Union countries receiving large numbers of Ukrainian refugees.

Ensuring that the medicines get to those who need them requires the involvement of communities of people living with HIV and key population networks in host countries to ensure tailored outreach and trust-building. These community-led organizations require upscaled international support too.

It’s clear from listening to those receiving and providing health services on the ground that what Ukraine most needs is peace. That is why the United Nations Secretary-General has called for a complete cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine.

The damage of this awful war means, however, that even once there is peace, enormous and long-term needs for international assistance will remain. Support will be needed in particular for community-led organizations, whose partnership with the public health system is key to ensuring health for all.

Meanwhile, as the impact of the war worsens, the world must increase support to Ukrainian civil society organizations to maintain health provision. This is vital to preventing a resurgence of Ukraine’s HIV pandemic. And for Ukrainians living with HIV, it is literally a matter of life and death.

Civil society networks, on whose creativity and courage HIV services depend, are managing to get life-saving HIV medicines to people. They do it on a shoestring, powered only by determination and love of humanity.

Many of those involved are themselves people living with HIV—they understand the gravity of what is at stake if they cannot continue their work. The help they provide to save lives risks their own. They do not seek international admiration, but they do need an upscaling of international help. And they need it now.

IPS UN Bureau


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The writer is UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director and is leading UNAIDS’ humanitarian response.