Can edible insects contribute to food and nutrition security?

Ugali a local dish in many parts of East Africa served with senene and vegetables for a balanced diet. Photo credit:@FAO/Luis Tato.

By Stella Kimambo

Many people are afraid of insects and would not be able to survive in an insect-infested environment. Termites surround the lights on our home verandas in Tanzania during the rainy season, particularly in the evenings, as insecticides are sprayed in the air to kill them.

To ensure that no insects are present, home environments are fumigated. Yes, some insects, such as mosquitoes, are dangerous, but not all insects should be avoided. Some insects are useful for biological control of dangerous ones, while others are used as decorations and many are eaten.

The consumption of insects by humans is known as entomophagy.

Entomophagy, has only recently caught the interest of the media, research institutions, chefs and other food industry members, legislators, and food and feed agencies. Nonetheless, edible insects are popular and valuable among a number of ethnic groups worldwide. Over 200 different types of insects are consumed by some countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, and America. The most common types of insects consumed are field crickets, locusts, grasshoppers, caterpillars, bees, ants, wasps, beetles, termites, and mealworms.

Edible insects in Tanzania

The East African longhorn grasshoppers, winged termites, and Miombo tree caterpillars/larvae are among the edible insects found in Tanzania. Longhorn grass hopers are now consumed by many tribes across the country and are also sold in supermarkets nationwide.

Longhorn grasshoppers are a valuable traditional food in Kagera region, and are sometimes given as a traditional wedding gift or served as a main course with cooked banana or ugali (stiff porridge), while winged termites (kumbikumbi) are fried and eaten as snacks in some parts of Dodoma region and Vitemnvu in Kigoma region. Furthermore, some insects known as mbwambo are popular in Ruvuma region.

Although edible insects are underutilized in many Tanzanian households, they are extremely nutritious; for example, mealworms have protein, vitamin, and mineral content comparable to fish and meat. Mealworms are also high in fats, fibre, and micronutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, manganese, phosphorus, and selenium. The insects can be ground into a powder or processed into a paste, increasing the nutritional value of complementary foods for children under the age of five.

With an increase in demand for food, particularly animal protein source, having access to edible insects will provide an effective solution to meeting the nutritional needs of a growing population in Tanzania and the rest of the world.

Supporting insect value chains

Aside from their nutritional value, edible insects are profitable and easy to obtain, and can be an important source of income. Insects can be easily collected from nature or farmed with little capital investment and minimal technical knowledge. They are environmentally friendly, provide a good source of income and employment for family members, and can help secure food for the family.

When it comes to farming, edible insects require less land and water compared to other farming systems.  In general, edible insects are accessible to many low-income families in terms of consumption, harvesting, and farming. As a result, sellers incur minimal farming costs and can sell their products at lower prices than with fish and meat, which benefits consumers.

After mentioning all of the benefits of edible insects previously, we are advising that people value edible insects in the same way they value fish and other meat, because both types of food have similar nutritional value and are less expensive and delicious, not to mention profitable.

We would like to encourage researchers to conduct studies on edible insects and their nutritional value, with a focus on preparation, packaging, and promotion. We also want to encourage nutritionists and food system stakeholders to take an active role in promoting edible insect in food production and consumption.

Given the internal and external pressures on food systems transformation, supporting insect food value chains can help some societies address food and nutrition insecurity.

*The author is the Food Security and Nutrition Specialist at FAO Tanzania