What’s in a name? When it comes to insects and weeds: an awful lot. Insects are ‘pests’ in the home, much like weeds are in the garden. A man of poor physical stature may be described as “weedy”, while a lecherous creep “makes our skin crawl”. These linguistic choices represent the low esteem our society holds for six legged invertebrates and wild plants and flowers. Not every culture is the same. In many communities around the world insects are considered a delicious and healthy food source. It is estimated that around the world, insects play a constituent role in the diets of two billion people: a number that looks set to rise.
Zayaan Khan works with indigenous peoples in South Africa. From them she has learnt how to patiently forage for insects and enjoys cooking them. She warned that in South Africa insects were becoming more difficult to find. “It’s a disconnection between man and environment – it’s important to revive indigenous knowledge,” she said. “Insects are a whole uncharted knowledge system. We can’t live without them.”
The positive news is that among gastronomic circles foraging is becoming increasingly popular. Motivated by economic and environmental pressures, and driven by a desire to resurrect forgotten flavors and promote taste diversity, chefs are starting to turn to insects and weeds. Don’t be shocked, we already consume insects, but we do so unknowingly. Red dyes used in food and lipstick come from insects. Numerous cheeses contain insects, as does bread and tequila. We often consume them inside cherries or nuts but don’t realize – and they have probably found their way into your glass of Beaujolais too.
But don’t worry. Of the 1.5 million known insects, 1,900 are considered edible. These insects fall into various subcategories, like worms, moths and beetles. Insects are high in protein, and rich in mono-saturated fats, micronutrients and vitamins. The exact figures vary from insect to insect according to its state of metamorphosis.
The more you look at it, the less the subject of eating insects and weeds seems like a frivolous curiosity. It is deeply political and has serious repercussions for our food system. Not least when we talk about feeding the estimated 9 billion people that will inhabit planet earth by 2050. Insects could represent an eco-sustainable protein source. Within the current system 10kg of feed produces 1kg of beef, the same 10kg of feed could nourish 9kg of insects.
Insects and weeds could go a long way towards providing food security too. Debjeet Sarangi from the NGO Living Farms has catalogued 600 types of insects, rodents, roots, tubers and other crops that form part of the diet among indigenous communities. These foods are regularly eaten as part of daily life. They are not eaten because people are poor or starving. We consider these foods “poor” and the people who harvest them to be lacking in knowledge. However the knowledge systems are complex. Knowing what, where and when to harvest is remarkable and the ethical issues that surround foraging are complex.
These foods could potentially alleviate the problems faced by the 2 billion people suffering from micronutrient deficiency. Surprisingly, these foods don’t enter into discussions about food security or policy: mainly because they are not governed by markets and cannot be bought or sold. It is therefore imperative that the lands where these foods are found are protected so that people can continue to benefit from their nutrition. “We cannot talk about these foods without confronting the growth ideology we have now,” says Debjit.
At present commercially available edible insects are expensive, as it takes a large amount of energy to harvest a significant quantity. But it’s high time we realized that one man’s meat is another man’s insect and that one man’s weed is another’s salad. Currently 12 species account for 80% of what we eat. Eating a wider variety of foods, protecting the environment in which they grow, and preserving and facilitating systems of traditional knowledge are all challenges we have to meet to ensure we have a food system that is fair and sustainable for all.