On the occasion of Earth Day, we invite you to rediscover ancestral practices: entomology and insect breeding. These are processes that can adapt to modern challenges and above all that can help us save our planet and its natural equilibrium.
By Lisa Legrand and Andrea Amoroso
The Earth, our home, has always been called the Green Planet or Mother Earth. Full of natural paradises, forests, oceans and mountains with glaciers that stand out in the clouds. But recently we realized that this generous spectacle that has always seemed obvious to us is not taken for granted. The ice melts, the oceans are emptied of life, the forests burn and very few earthly paradises remain unaffected.
We live on a planet that is less and less green and maternal. We must act and we must do it now.
Fortunately, some reversal processes have already been undertaken. The population is becoming aware, new eco-sustainable technologies are facing a new future and more and more interest is dedicated to protecting the environment and the climate.
Among these strategies we find the enhancement of an ancient practice, which adapted to modern days, is able to solve many challenges of the present: entomophagy and insect breeding.
The practice of eating insects is identified as entomophagy, from the Greek terms ἔντομος [éntomos], «insect», and φᾰγεῖν [făguein], «to eat».
Although rare in Western modern societies, entomophagy is an ancestral practice that has had a significant influence on human diets throughout history. Indeed, insects were part of the diet of hunter-gatherers (Hernández-Pacheco, 1921).
Here is a non-exhaustive list of insect use through the ages:
Bees have been known since the Tertiary Era. The cave paintings of the Araña Caves in Valencia, dating of 7,000 BC depict the collection of wild bee nests. It is the oldest representation of human-bee relationships. All the peoples of Antiquity knew honey, appreciated it and used it. In Egypt, for example, bees were exploited as early as 2,400 BC. The importance of honey in food and therapeutic use is amply emphasized in many Greek classical works such as The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the Banquet of the Sophists of Athenaeus, the philosophical writings of Aristotle, of Democritus, as well as in the Bible, the Koran… and also in the Treaties of Hippocrates… (Viel et al., 2003)
According to Chinese archives, silk was discovered in China around 4,000 years ago (in 2,700 BC) by Empress Si-Ling-Chi. The enthusiasm generated by this new material considered as luxurious was enormous and led to the domestication and breeding of silkworms: the sericulture. Chinese silk remained a well-kept secret for nearly three millennia. China began trading silk with the rest of the world from the 2nd century BC under the Han Dysnatia (206 BC–220 AD). This led to the creation of the «silk road» that linked Asia to Europe. This road was used by caravans carrying various goods, the main and most popular of which was silk. Silk is still very popular nowadays.
In Shanxi Province, China, wild silkworm cocoons dating from 2,500 to 2,000 BC have been found. These had wide holes, which suggests the pupae (stage of development of the insect between the larve and the adult) was eaten (Lilholt, 2015).
The mealybug (Coccoidea) is an insect native to Mexico that lives on the cactus «nopal», its culture is very old. The female transforms, by chemical reaction, the juice of the cactus from which she feeds into a carmine red acid. Dried and powdered, the mealybug was once much sought after as a natural dye by pre-Columbian peoples.Carmine red is also known as the colorant E 120.The Mayans had domesticated it and made an important trade out of it. The Mixtecs from 1200 also elevated it.
In Europe, the first references about entomophagy come from Ancient Greece, in Historia Animalium (384-322 b.C.), Aristotle refer to this practice by stating that female cicadas taste better when they are loaded with eggs. The Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily in Historical Library, named one of the semi-wild tribes of Aethiopia bordering the Red Sea the «Acridophagi» because of their diet of grasshoppers and locusts (Acrididade family).
At the time of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder in Historia Naturalis refers to an extremely popular dish among the Romans: «cossus», which was prepared with larvae of beetles of the species Cerambyx cerdo (Bodenheimer, 1951).
In Asia, especially in China, insects have been used for 3,000 years in traditional Chinese medicine. «Some examples are adults of dragonﬂies and ﬁsh moths, scarab larva, egg cases of mantis, nymph exuvium of cicadas, shell lac secreted by lac insects, white wax secreted by white wax scales, insect defensive secretions, toxins of bees and wasps, and Chinese caterpillar fungi (dongchongxiacao in Chinese), which is the insect of Hepialus infected by Cordyceps fungus.» (Feng, et al. 2009)
The Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as the Torah and the Koran, bear witness to the human consumption of insects on several occasions (Mignon, 2002).
In Africa, Asia, South America and Australia, entomophagy remain a widespread practice and is part of the traditional food culture. In these parts of the world, nearly 1,000 species of insects are consumed. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that insects supplement the diets of about two billion people worldwide. (van Huis et al., 2013) (Mignon, 2002)
As we have seen previously, entomophagy did exist in Europe. However, this practice has gradually disappeared because of the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle as well as to the benefit of agriculture and livestock breeding mainly for issues of profitability. (Mignon, 2002) Nowadays, this practice is considered in Western society to be primitive and repugnant. Consuming insects cause disgust which results in «neophobia» that is a fear of the unknown and a resistance to accepting new foods (Rozin, 1976). Although the attraction for entomophagy has experienced a resurgence of interest for several years in Europe, this practice is still barely known and little accepted.
After their long journey among ancient peoples and lost times, insects come to our aid even today. In fact, in addition to being the key for the balance of natural ecosystems and providing us with well-known food and non-food products, recent innovative technologies see insects as the protagonists of new applications.
The large-scale breeding of some insect species can provide high availability of animal proteins and other food substances of very high nutritional value and quality. All this is encouraged by the fact that very low quantities of water, space and feed are required for the rearing of the insect (especially when compared to the needs of traditional livestock). Their detritivorous and in some cases saprophagous nature makes their development possible in food or organic waste, making their eco-sustainable value maximum also in relation to the minimum CO2 emissions generated by their growth. This natural “tool” is therefore an efficient circular economy model capable of generating value from waste, reducing pollution and the depletion of natural resources.
The proteins generated by this zootechnical activity can be mainly used in two sectors that are currently evolving: food and feed.
According to the estimates reported by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) on the demographic development of the next decades, it has emerged that by 2050 the world population will touch 10 billion people (9.7 billion). To feed the growing population, food production will have to increase by 70%, putting the food production system under critical pressure (IPIFF, 2019).
Today, the world’s protein needs largely depend on meat and more than 25 billion animals are raised for slaughter each year. To guarantee these numbers, 1.1 billion tons of cereals are used, exploiting 70% of the land used for agriculture. These numbers are alarming, especially in anticipation of the future constant need to increase these sources.
According to the scientific community, FAO and EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), insects and their macronutrients (proteins and fats) can be used both as protein feed for livestock and directly as components for human nutrition.
Replacing soy, canola and other high protein crops with insect proteins would save the exploitation of millions of hectares of agricultural land now available for human production and reduce deforestation to increase arable land.
The introduction of insects into the human diet would guarantee enough protein to sustainably manage overpopulation by supplying high quality food.
The nutritional profile of insects reveals that the amino acid, lipid, vitamin and mineral content is in most cases better and more complete than the traditional feed used in animal husbandry and the protein sources most commonly consumed in culinary culture.
Finally, insects can be used in various other sectors outside of food, but always with an environmental protection perspective. For example, an increase in interest is aimed at the development of bio-diesel starting from the lipid fraction extracted from the insect and at the production of bio-plastics from the protein and keratinous fraction. But other various sectors such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and water purification are also of interest to this new opportunity.
Without a doubt, entomology promises an interesting future on several fronts. Some regulations still need to be perfected in order to ensure optimal development of the sector and to guarantee consumer safety. Furthermore, we must work to reduce the neophobia linked to this ancient and at the same time innovative food which is not yet accepted by all.
Once the first barriers, characteristic of the nascent sector, have been overcome, insects can be used to their maximum potential and guarantee a future where every human being can enjoy the resources and beauty of our planet.
For further information: See the report of the FAO, http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf
By Lisa Legrand and Andrea Amoroso
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Kairos Europe, its partners or their employees.
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