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Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2015-10-28

Insect can be the buzzword


The Northeast has a huge potential for insect farming, a trend growing globally to replace the traditional source of animal protein

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

It is a Sunday evening. Two of Amulya Hazarikia’s old friends visit him after a long gap. Hazarika is obviously happy at the surprise visit and wants to offer them something good to eat.

He goes to the kitchen to ask his wife Minati what she can give them to eat. Something different?

Minati points at the ant box kept in a corner, saying, “I am going to serve them ant egg omelettes. They will have a new food experience.”

Hazarika smiles, is happy at the prospect of offering his friends something new. Something special!

Well, this may be an imaginary situation but it can very well be a reality too, if one gets into edible insect farming. In fact, in the present-day context of modern farming for alternative protein sources, insect farming is an option many are increasingly looking at worldwide.

The growing global interest in insect farming is not without reason. It I based on a need that will be felt in some year to come. It is predicted that the pressure on the existing agro-ecosystem will increase manifold due to the increase of population across the world. By 2050, it will be even more critical as the need will go beyond the planet’s capacity to grow food. If the process and practices of agricultural production and increase of human population go in the same pace, it will lead to shortage of agricultural land, water, forest and fishery and pose a challenge to food and nutritional security for the growing human population.

In this context, different initiatives are being taken up worldwide for sustainable agricultural systems. One of the important areas evolving in a modern way is harnessing alternative sources of animal protein through a smart farming system.

When it comes to counting ecological foot print, the concept of conventional animal farming to produce animal protein falters, say in terms of its pressure on land resources, energy efficiency, waste management, requirement of space, Against such odds, insect farming is emerging as the most ecologically smart system of farming, as per an FAO report of 2013. The forward to the report titled “Edible Insects -- Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security” (FAO forestry paper-171) ay -- “It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production. To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated. Inefficiencies need to be rectified and food waste to be reduced. We need to find new ways of growing food.”

The report also mentioned that there is wrong public perception about insects as only pests. However, insects can become food at a low environmental cost, can contribute positively to livelihood and play a fundamental role in nature.

The edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids. It has high food conversion rate, i.e. quantum energy and material converted to food. For example, crickets can produce the same amount of protein as produced by cattle, sheep, pigs and broiler chicken but its feed requirement is six times lesser than cattle, four times lesser than sheep and twice lesser than pigs and chicken. Besides, insects emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock. Therefore, it is an important avenue for a smart farming system.

There are also other uses of insects in human life. Insects deliver a host of ecological services that are fundamental to the survival of the humankind. They play an important role as pollinators in plant reproduction, in improving soil fertility through waste bioconversion, and in natural bio control for harmful pest species. They provide a variety of valuable products to human beings such as honey and silk and medical applications such as the maggot therapy. In addition, insects have assumed their place in human culture as collection items and ornaments and in movies, visual arts and literature.

The practice of human consumption of insects as food is called Entomophagy (from two Greek word –‘?ntomon’ - insect and ‘phagein’- to eat). The eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of certain insects’ species have been taken as food by human beings from the prehistoric period and it will continue to be an item of human nutrition in post-modern period.

It is estimated around two billion people in the world take insects as part of their traditional diet. More than 1900 species have reportedly been used as food. Globally, the most commonly consumed insects are beetles (Coleoptera) – 31 percent, caterpillars (Lepidoptera)- 18 percent, bees, wasps and ants (Hymenoptera)- 14 percent, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets (Orthoptera) – 13 percent, cicadas, leafhoppers, plant hoppers, scale insects and true bugs (Hemiptera) -10 percent, termites (Isoptera) – 3 percent, dragonflies (Odonata)- 3 percent, flies (Diptera) – 2 percent and other orders – 5 percent. But majority of them are mainly collected from normal wild ecosystems. So the decline in the number of insects in a particular ecosystem may exert negative impact, particularly in destabiliing the natural food chain and ecological balances. Therefore, the question of farming through regulated way without disturbing the natural ecosystem is considered an important issue in the last decades. What it required is a systematic approach of farming, which comes from pragmatic research and development work in the field of Entomology, Entomophagy and Insects Farming.

Since 2003, insect farming is being considered an important new scientific endeavour in the world. Under the initiatives of FAO, there are some excremental trials in Central Africa, Thailand and Laos along with different collaborative research, which frame some ground rules for insect farming in different ecological zones of the world. It may provide new potentialities and benefits. Many research findings indicate that insects farming also strengthens insect conservation and exerts positive impact on associated forest ecosystems, like the Mopane worm and the Mopane woodland’s ecological association and benefits as documented in a research work in South Africa (Parry, Wayne: Study: Eating bugs could reduce global warming. Christian Science Monitor, 22 February 2012).

There is ample scope for insects farming in North East India. Already, many insect varieties are part of the traditional food system of the different ethnic groups of the region, along with ethno-medicinal practices based on insects as therapeutic measures. For example, the giant water bug , predacious diving beetle, house cricket, red ant, eri and muga silk worm, termite, locust, water scavenger beetle, etc. are commonly consumed by many ethnic groups of the region, viz. the Nagas, Kukis, Hmars, Adis, Galos, Nyshisss, Apatanis, Tangshas, Bodos, Mishings, Dimasas, Karbi, etc.

Many insect parts and components are also used in rituals and festivals, such as using the red ant’s egg at the time of Bohag Bihu --mainly by different ethnic groups in Upper Assam. It is believed that the red ant egg energies the body. In April, 2015 (at the time of the last Bohag Bihu), red ant egg were reportedly sold in Naharkotia town at the rate of Rs.1800 to 2100 per kg from the last year’s Rs. 800 per kg. According to Mridupaban Phukan, a wildlife enthusiast and wildlife photographer from Naharkotia, the ants were collected by people from different wild habitats and brought to the market for sale for Bihu.

There was a time when the Nyishi and Galo tribes of Arunachal Pradesh consumed 81 types of insects. A study has documented that the termites consumed in Meghalaya contains 82 – 87 percent protein, 1.3 – 2.7 percent carbohydrate and 4.7 to 6.7 percent amino acid along with minerals, which is much more than having vegetarian food, salmon and boiler chickens (Current Science,Vol.103,No1,2012 page-10).

Another study in Karbi Anglong has found that 40 species of insects are consumed by local ethnic groups, out of which 32 species are identified which belong to 23 families, 27 genus and 8 orders. Out of these, 26 species have the potential for better utilisation as food and 6 have medicinal value along with food quality. Over the years, local people have consumed it in different forms, i.e. cooked, roasted, fried, raw or mixed with other ingredients. (The Bioscan, Vol.2, 515-521, 2010). There are some example too of how ethnic groups of North East India have had a food system where insects are also considered food. Moreover, there are other smaller animal sources of protein used by many communities of the North East apart from insects, like pila, crab, etc.

However, nowhere in NE India will you find till date any professional farming experiment conducted on insects or for other small animal. Some of the important issues of research in the area are study on life cycle of different edible insects, the trend of its growth and development in different ecological situation of the region, experimental field research on farming in different agro-climatic situation and development of guidelines on practices, safety measures, quality control, etc. for farming.

There is the scope for value addition from insect products too. For instance, ant egg oil, edible protein powder from dry insects, insect papad, insect powdered biscuit, etc.

It is high time the research organisations and institutes in the region carry out such research to tap the potential of insect farming in the region. It will lay out n vital avenue for smart farming system in the region, strengthen the area by employment generation, safeguard the indigenous food system, and provide food and nutritional security. It must be considered a major component in the agenda of Organic North East of the present Central Government.

(Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM.)




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