Prepare to be inspired! I’m over the moon about the recent chat I had with one of the wonder-women who founded MIGHTi – a collaborative research project designed to address the multifaceted and systematic factors that contribute to food insecurity in Southern Africa while simultaneously joining a global effort to re-envision food systems in a changing climate.
Needless to say, Rachel is making an impact in food sustainability and had some great stories to share about it!
Aly: So let’s start off the with magical tale of how MIGHTi got started!
Rachel: For sure – we got started when there was a national competition calling for innovative, big impact ideas to address food insecurity either in the US or globally. They were looking for novel ideas. My background is in public health and environmental epidemiology. I wanted to pursue a PHD to better understand food insecurity and its impact on health.
Valerie is the other half of this equation. She also has a PHD and has done a lot of agricultural development work and, again, is interested in the environment and food insecurity.
We teamed up and were brainstorming ideas. I came across the FAO report in the spring of 2013 that spoke to the potential of insects as a means to address food insecurity. I thought that was crazy and kinda cool at the same time – overall I was very intrigued because I had never heard of anything like that at the time and thought it would be a good fit for this competition.
We looked into what the FAO was saying further and found there were a ton of benefits to eating insects from both a nutrition and sustainability perspective. Some of the gaps that we found that needed to be addressed in order for it to be a solution to food insecurity were that while insets are consumed by 80% of the world’s population, there is a huge barrier in certain cultures (like Western diets) where insects are not incorporated at all. Even in countries that DO eat insects, insects are only consumed as a snack, they are only eaten seasonanlly, and harvesting insects from the wild can lead to severe ecological damage.
This is where we were drawn to the idea of micro-livestock farming as being a timely and well suited way to address these issues.
Aly: That’s amazing. You said that there is a lot of ecological damage done in the current harvesting of insects. That’s one bit I haven’t often come across in my research. Could you explain a little more about how people are incorrectly harvesting insects?
Rachel: Totally. In Zambia, which is the country we are working most closely with right now, the most commonly consumed insects are mopane worms, which are kind of like a caterpillar. They grow in trees, so people will end up deforesting large areas in order to collect these insects. There is a huge local market for them – I think locally it is a multi-million dollar industry (buying and selling insects). When we were there we were talking to faculty at the University of Zambia and they were saying that politicians in the north were trying to find a way to get people to stop cutting down trees. If we could find a way to sustainably address these issues, it would have a positive impact on the environment and these people’s livelihoods.
In the area we were visiting, we saw less harvesting of mopane worms; termites were much more common. In these agricultural communities, farmers allow termite mounds to remain in the crop fields until the rainy season. This is when they are harvested. However, due to their temporary availability, and the fact that socially they are viewed as a snack, this limits their ability to be a consistent source of protein and nutrition for a population.
I was just speaking to my partner the other day about how she was in a community that was sticking fat or honey at the end of a stick to catch these insects one at a time. This is much different from the commercial cricket farming we see emerging here in the United States.
Aly: You said this is a million dollar industry in Zimbabwe. I imagine that insects are a bit more affordable in those areas? I mean, out here, cricket flour still falls on the more expensive side.
Rachel: Yeah. I think insects are more affordable over there. Imagine if you had an apple tree or a berry bush in your backyard. You would go and harvest them occasionally and add them to your diet rather than it being a regular purchase and a regular part of your diet. While insects are being traded in cities, insects are much more common in rural areas where the societies are more agriculturally based. Catching insects is seen more like a treat in these societies rather than a meal.
Aly: Right. So you mentioned another issue is that we need to see more industrialization and perhaps the emergence of microfarms. On your site I see that you suggest insect rearing as part of a women’s cooperatives.
Rachel: In particular, we are targeting women’s cooperatives for a couple of reasons. Within vulnerable communities of sub-Saharan Africa, women face additional inequality. With regard to agriculture, women are estimated to produce up to 80% of the food in Africa. Yet, when it comes to agricultural inputs and services, the share going to women is meagre: they receive less than 10% of the credit offered to small scale farmers, only 7% of farmer educational services, and own only 1% of the land. Due to social norms in African communities, women and girls tend to have unequal power in social relationships, economic decision-making, and access to health information and services, all of which greatly influence their vulnerability to diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Gender inequality translates to significant health disparities. Business cooperatives are a way to promote gender empowerment. Studies have shown that empowering women with added sources of income compared to men is more effective at improving household food insecurity. Additionally, the cooperative structure allows women to share knowledge and pool resources.
While MIGHTi started out as a business idea for a competition, Valerie and I have transitioned to a research organization. This fits well with our role and perspectives as PhD students. There are also huge gaps that remain in understanding how entomophagy and microlivestock farming impact food insecure communities and the environment, and the potential of insects to be a sustainable source of food and feed worldwide.
Currently, we are conducting laboratory experiments investigating whether raising insects on food sources available in rural African communities have comparable nutritional profiles to insects raised on other feed sources. Much of the available nutrition information regarding insects is based on laboratory experiments using things like whole grains. However, this type of feed will likely be unavailable or too expensive within a rural context.
Additionally, Valerie is in Zambia right now studying the social aspect of insect consumption there by talking to people about why types of insects are consumed, how they harvest and cook them, etc. We are also developing a prototype for farming insects in rural communities – it’s something we have done with TinyFarms. Our focus is to design something that is easy to build, easy to maintain, and affordable using resources and materials that are readily available to low-income farmers.
Aly: Incredible. I also have a background in public health and worked on a project for about a year that focused on a mental health hospital in Ghana. It was upsetting to learn that at one point the hospital had actually let patients go because it did not have enough food. Do you see this being an additional source of hospital food? Maybe even beyond Africa as well… because our hospital food in the states is not known for being excellent.
Rachel: My short answer is YES. My longer answer is that both in Western cultures where you see an over consumption of fatty proteins versus a lot of healthy foods, an input of insects could fill a lot of those protein needs. Also, take agricultural inputs like feeding supplies. In aqua-culture one of the most expensive components is purchasing fish feed to keep those systems going. If those farmers could also be rearing insects on the side we could make those farms run cheaper and more efficiently. Aqua-culture is becoming more popular in Africa… farming tilapia is common in certain areas. There is also an interest in the potential of insects to be a main protein source in ready-to-use therapeutic food, also known as RUTFs.
Plumpynut, a popular RUTF brand, is made from nuts and whey as a high caloric protein source for use in times of famine or conflict to treat children suffering from acute malnutrition. Ingredients for these products are known to be often produced in Western countries. I think it would be really cool if microlivestock farming could facilitate African communities producing a local source of sustainable protein.
Aly: Absolutely. And in your research, what areas have you come across that still have large gaps of knowledge? What would be the bigger risk factors that you are trying to learn more about? For example, you mentioned your studies to identify whether the cricket feed available in Africa can yield nutritious crickets…what other questions are you seeking to address?
Rachel: That’s one of the greatest questions. I know that if people are allergic to shellfish they have a higher chance of also being allergic to insects… so that’s something to keep in mind moving forward (instead of just saying EVERYONE should eat insects). Some people have reported some symptoms relating to asthma if they have been rearing insects for a long period of time without adequate airflow or ventilation. I would like to learn more about that occupational health hazard – that goes along with any type of industry. I will say that a benefit of farming insects versus another type of livestock is that they are taxonomically more different to humans compared to something like chickens or pigs – so it’s believed that there is LESS of a risk of viruses or illnesses crossing over to humans; further research is likely needed.
In the US we are starting to raise insects on an industrial scale, but we don’t know if this can be done in Africa at the rural level. There, insect farming will likely have to be done on a smaller scale, that’s another benefit of taking advantage of the cooperative structure, so that responsibilities can be shared across a number of people to increase productivity. I’m curious if rearing insects at the rural level could provide enough nutrition to significantly improve overall health, or could be done at a large enough scale to provide an added income stream. There are so many questions to be answered!
Aly: Right – and I know another issue even within the US is the changing regulatory landscape. Farmers out here do not really know how the FDA plans to regulate insects. Currently they are accepted as food… but do they need GRAS certification? Are there similar barriers in Africa or is the regulatory scene more relaxed?
Rachel: They don’t have an infrastructure to develop the same kind of food regulations that we see here in the U.S. with the FDA. More of the restrictions we have come across in Zambia have pertained to importing certain types of insects or produce…that sort of thing.
Aly: So where do you see yourself in 1 year? In 5 years? What would make your life easier?
Rachel: So we’ve been good about getting funding from several competitions and prizes. We’re PhD students – right now there is not a leader in the field of cricket research. Things are moving a lot more slowly than we predicted, and a lot of the learning we are doing in this field is through trial and error. We are forging the path right now for ento-research. Over the next few years, we will be really trying to craft our research over the nutritional aspects of entomophagy, the social acceptability, and differences in insect nutrition based on feed type.
Aly: So after graduation do you intend to work on this full time or to pursue other interests as well?
Rachel: Speaking of career paths, I’m very interested in remaining in the academic field as a researcher and as a professor. My passion is in food insecurity, so it is hard to predict exactly where that will take me, but I can’t imagine this not being a part of my future research. It’s hard to predict where things will go, but based on the reception we have received and the need for this kind of research, I’m very optimistic for the future.
Aly: Same here. From your research, what’s your opinion on the difference between: (1) those in the ento-field who are trying to take a “protein bar approach” and say crickets won’t be accepted by the general public in their raw form so we need to grind them up and present them in a non-fear-factory way; and (2) those who say that’s great, but I also think the community needs to get used to eating this new food resource in its raw form.
Rachel: That’s a great question. Food is just a very personal and important piece in every person’s life. We have so many cultural ties to our food and there are so many food movements, especially recently, that bring food issues into the limelight. In my opinion, grinding up insects into a flour may make it easier for some people to get over any cultural stigmas or barriers they may have to consuming insects in their raw form. People are very familiar with protein powder. It could be easier to market crickets as a more healthy protein powder. But in the end, the first step is really just building awareness. Eventually, I think it’s possible that people will be more open to eating insects in a less processed form.
One thing I am very excited about is the growing culinary interest around crickets. These chefs will be leading the way in creating insect recipes that are more palatable for the Western diet. Featuring insects on more menus will be huge.
Aly: I’m curious – have you eaten insects often? What was the first bug you’ve eaten?
Rachel: I think I’ve only eaten mealworms because that was the focus of our project. I’m actually a vegetarian, erring on the side of vegan at times. Going into the project was a sort of personal challenge for me. It’s hard to argue with a food source that is so easy on the environment.
The first way I did it was putting mealworms into smoothies – to make it more approachable. Recently I progressed to stir-fry. It’s been a learning process for me. I don’t think I have the greatest culinary skills, but I’m getting there!
Aly: That’s so cool! I know the vegan/vegetarian debate rages on about whether or not insects should be consumed… so it’s great that you’ve taken on this as a personal challenge.
Rachel: Yeah! I know of a lot of vegans who are very open to eating insects as a food source because of their smaller footprint on the environment. It just depends on each individual’s perceptions, stigmas, and priorities when it comes to food.
That concludes our time with Rachel for today, but check back soon for updates on her research! Make sure to check out MIGHTi.co for more information.