Researching Insects for Malnutrition: Where Will Entomophagy Have the Biggest Impact?

I love when someone rocks my world with a new point of view, it’s a good day. A great day. Darja Dobermann provided that when she suggested we might be focusing our marketing efforts of entomophagy in the wrong areas. Well, not the wrong areas… but not the most effective ones. We already have countries that culturally accept eating insects (that also have climates to support their sustainable breeding). So why are we trying to force insects on other markets before optimizing those?

Darja is doing incredible work examining the potential for entomophagy in undernutrition, specifically anemia and uses in aquaculture in Africa. In our interview we dig a little deeper into work that will change the world.

Darja Dobermann
Darja Dobermann

 Aly: So the research you are doing is incredible – can you tell me how you got started?

Darja: I only became interested in entomophagy in the last year. I had always been interested in international development because I grew up in the Philippines. My father worked at a rice research institute there, so I was always, as a young child, interacting with researchers working at the forefront of development and sustainable farming… farming in a way that helps farmers. Drought resistant rice was one of the first things that I encountered when I was younger that they created there. Things like that really got me interested in international development in the first place, particularly on the malnutrition side of things. I had done some previous work in developmental psychology, so I’ve focused on kids, international development, malnutrition, and the vicious cycle that starts with children in the womb. If you don’t have a good start to life, you can be hindered in developing later on!

Then I started a PhD in international food security. Within that PhD, one of the projects that was being done was focused on edible insects. That’s really how I got into the edible insects world…almost by accident, to be honest! But as soon as I got started, I was thinking, “Wow! This is a really incredible food source that thousands of people eat already. And it’s a pretty good food source.” This spurred me to ponder how it could be utilized better, especially given all the pros from a sustainability aspect… and even nutritional and cultural perspectives!

Aly: Just to clarify, is most of your work focused on entomophagy as it applies to developing nations and emerging markets? Or is it focused more on Western civilizations?

Darja: My work is definitely focused in developing nations where insects are already a part of the culture.

Aly: And now it’s about how to optimize entomophagy in those regions. Have you heard of a group called MIGHTi? They had some interesting thoughts about the sparse nature of research available on optimizing the nutrition of insects grown in regions like Africa. What are your thoughts on that?

Darja: I actually read about them on your blog! Well, because I live in the UK, I’ve seen a ton of ento startups emerge in the last year that have been trying to market to Western consumers. It’s something I am not against, but something I have felt is not the most sensible approach. They focus on growing and selling insects here. Of course the weather here [the UK] is not optimal for growing insects so they spend a lot of money on heating, which kind of counters the sustainability argument. Especially when you have countries like Thailand that are on the road to optimizing cricket breeding with their massive cricket farms. If you have countries that are already miles ahead, that don’t need artificial heat, and that don’t have cultural barriers to overcome… why are we fighting it?

Why aren’t we letting them take the lead on this production and giving them the support they need to open a market on insects to a wider audience? Asia has become great at this – Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos have a growing economy between them selling insects. I could see something similar emerging in Africa. I focus my work there. This could increase the local incomes, stabilize food supply in communities, and potentially turn into an export item.

I spoke to a researcher in South Africa who is absolutely desperate for someone to figure out how to optimize the captive breeding of the mopane worm. These are harvested for food to the point of near endangerment in South Africa… people love eating them but no one has dedicated the time to optimize them in a domestic breeding setting.

Aly: Why do you think we haven’t seen that yet? Most of these developing markets have relatively advanced farms & domestic breeding set up for chickens, cows… but it seems that insect rearing is STILL underdeveloped.

Darja: I think it has to do with the fact that not as much is understood about the breeding of insects. With some insects like crickets, it’s fairly easy to breed them. But with others like mopane worms, they tend to be a bit more picky about how they breed and what they feed on, some are even specialized to only one type of plant. There are logistical hurdles like this that make the equation more complicated.

Aly: I would have never even thought of that! Wow. Ok, so can you take me through the specifics of the work you are doing in particular?

Darja: I work with crickets right now. The African Field Cricket… also called the black cricket. It’s a species that not a lot of people work with but it’s the most common in Africa and in a lot of Asian breeding farms as well. It is more hardy and grows bigger, which is why we work with it. We’re working with them in two contexts. The first is working on biowaste feeds. We’ve been working with a local breeder who breeds crickets and locusts for animal feed. He raises them on chicken feed and kale… which is a pretty high quality diet for insects. We want to know: how low quality of a diet can you give crickets and have them still be growing properly with a strong nutrition profile. We are looking at potential food sources like millet beer brewing waste from Africa, we work with vegetable scraps, and we work with cow manure. We want to make sure your average farmer can work with these materials.

From here, we are given two options. First, we can use that food source to grow these insects which can in turn be used as a supplement in porridges for children. A staple out here for children is a maize porridge. It’s bland, and the nutrition is not that great. It scores decently on the calorie front, but poorly when it comes to micronutrients – particularly things like iron. Insects are quite high in iron, and if you assess the bioavailability of these in crickets, they can act as a fortification in the maize flour used in making this porridge.

The other pathway we are investigating in crickets relates to aquaculture. Aquaculture has grown significantly in Africa, especially over the last few years. Many small farms are adding ponds to their farming systems. If you have a farm system with crops and cattle, and then you take the waste,feed it to the crickets, and then the crickets get feed to the fish… you have a nice tight sustainable chain. The fish become a high nutrient source for people to eat themselves or to sell to boost income. We’ve been working in Egypt and Zambia on this.

When you are feeding fish, you need to look in particular at the fat profile of what you are feeding them. Fish cannot produce Omega 3s & 6s(mainly EPA and DHA) themselves, and must get it from their feed. Omnivorous fish like tilapia (common in Africa and Asia) do not have as acute of a need as carnivorous fish like salmon do, but the fat will still boost their growth and make them more nutritious. Which is one of the main issues with the commercial aquaculture industry, in order to get the correct fats for captive fish most farmers will feed fish meal(ground fish and offal) to the fish, which is not sustainable. So we are working on manipulating the fat profiles of crickets with feed, by testing feeds naturally high in Omega 3s & 6s such as flaxseed and seaweed, and processing. Different drying temperatures, for example, affect fat content.

So those are the two major projects we are working on at the moment. We will also begin working with the mopane worms in finding a domestic diet for them.

Aly: You’re really digging into the nitty-gritty about what we don’t know about raising these insects in their natural environments.

Darja: Yes! In our lab we always think: ok, could a small farmer replicate this? We shy away from using any fancy equipment. People have asked, “Why don’t you just freeze the insects to kill them?” But in Africa, small farmers might not have access to a freezer or a fridge. They might need to be killed by boiling them. We add context to our research.

Aly: Now, how are you intending to spread the results of your research and to educate the farmers you are working so hard to help?

Darja: That’s a good question! Even though eating insects is a comfortable thing in the areas we are working in, we would still be introducing a new behavior, which takes time. We intend to go through our contacts and set up trials to prove our concepts. We hope their success would encourage others to adopt this behavior. We’ll rely on our local contacts a lot for their expertise.

Aly: That’s the best way to go about it!  So what has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your research?

Darja: Money! (She laughs) Which is probably the single biggest challenge that any researcher has. Finding money to do research is always difficult. We can test as many concepts as we want, but until we have someone to help us bring this to farmers, we’ll never know for sure of our research’s impact.

Aly: Have you ever considered a Kickstarter campaign?

Darja: It gets thrown around occasionally, though researchers have hesitated, I think, because it is not familiar.

Aly: So beyond your local contacts, I see you have made a lot of effort to get involved in the larger ento community, like Woven. What role does this involvement play in your work?

Darja: You run into an issue in established fields where people stay in their interest groups and are very isolated. But because the enthusiasm for entomophagy as a research field is so new, we have researchers pouring in from all different backgrounds. By virtue of that, we have such an interdisciplinary community. This is key to move any project fully forward. I need to talk to nutritionists, ecologists, entomologists, chemical analysts… all of these different people that have different pieces of this huge puzzle. I believe it’s similar across fields. That’s what Woven is really trying to foster – a sharing, collaborative environment where research is shared and not shrouded in secrecy until it is published. It’s amazing this is happening. It’s unusual.

In addition, business is just as enthusiastic right now about entomophagy and is taking an interest in the research going on. One of the biggest issues in the pharma industry is that the big companies are not talking as much to the researchers. I believe we have more open, enthusiastic communication and methodology sharing in the field of entomophagy. I think the fact that things like Twitter exist during the evolution of this industry also encourages this sharing.

Aly: Spot on. What you’re saying motivates me to think that the ento field can catch up to the much more established livestock fields in no time! It’s not a race, but the cricket farms do need to reach a economics of scale in production.

Darja: And we continue to grow leaps and bounds!

Aly: Yeah! So another question for you: I’ve heard that an unfortunate trend is occurring that is related to westernization. Developing economies that look up to Western civilizations see hamburgers and other fatty foods all over media, while at the same time they are exposed to our culture of fear and disgust for insects. The result is that we see a cultural degradation occurring where societies that would typically eat insects are drifting away from this cultural practice and foregoing traditional foods for fatty Western meals. Have you seen this at all in your research?

Darja: Not personally. The insect field I’m involved in is so new that we lack research to support this, but we can see similar effects to what you are describing occurring in related fields. It’s happening with malnutrition. You have something called the double burden. This refers to countries that are generally chronically malnourished, but malnourished in both directions. So you have people who are malnourished by being undernourished (the classic wasting and stunting) and then those that are malnourished by being over-nourished but with what we call “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiencies. The same country will have people suffering from being too skinny and too obese. And everyone is malnourished. A major cause is the introduction of processed foods and movements away from traditional diets.

So yes, to answer your question, it has happened. We have seen a reduction in the number of people eating insects and it does appear to be due at least in part to a Western influence. They ask “Why should I be eating insects if Europe doesn’t think its good enough for them?” This is a big part of why we are looking at the aquaculture bit as well. Fish will continue to be considered a higher quality protein, so if people want to move away from eating insects, feeding those insects to fish is the next best thing.

Thankfully, this is not a problem on a massive scale yet. I mean, look at the African communities eating the mopane worm almost to endangerment!

Aly: True that! So given all of your work with insects, have you started eating any?

Darja: Yeah I’ve never had an issue with insects. I’ve eaten a lot in Thailand… that’s where I tend to eat insects – in the countries they are natively eaten. I have had cricket flour cookies from a chef here – they were good. I’ve also recently gotten to try some bought at a grocery store in Japan… we made insect sushi that was delicious. I don’t tend to buy my insects in Europe so much, because they are expensive here and I don’t think the way they are produced here is as sustainable.

Aly: Well, I always like to wrap up by asking a final “magic wand” question. If you had a magic wand and could change anything about how the ento industry is progressing… what would that be?

Darja: The fact that in Europe there is a lot of red tape that prevents insects from being utilised in a sustainable way. Europe has this rule that you are not allowed to feed animals to other animals. It was an intelligent law for containing the mad cow scare, but now it prevents farmers from doing things like feeding insects to chicken… when insects are a natural part of a chicken’s diet and any free-range chicken peeking around in the grass is already eating them. If we changed those laws we could move farming here to a much more sustainable level.

Aly: Well I am mind-blown by the work you are doing… and thank you for just expanding my own views on sustainability. I had not deeply considered that we might not be focusing our efforts on the most effective areas when it comes to building the ento-community. I see your point about working with communities that are already eating insects, where we don’t need to battle uphill with ingrained cultural notions, to make production more efficient and to boost their local economies.

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