Leadership in insects for food and feed research

Thought leadership column by Dr Segenet Kelemu, Director General, icipe

A key strategy of icipe is to remain alert to emerging developmental challenges facing Africa, and then identify opportunities to use insect science to respond to such problems. In accordance, the Centre has established itself as a leader in the globally emerging insects for food, feed and other uses research agenda. Because of three interconnected issues, this topic has captured the imagination of the global scientific community, donors, and the general public alike.

First, the growing world population, which is now standing at around 7.4 billion, is projected to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050, pushing the demand for food up by 60%. This population surge, combined with urbanisation, climate change, diminishing land and water resources, over- and undernutrition, and persistent poverty, has created uncertainties and pressures on current food and economic systems.  FAO provisional estimates of undernourishment around the world in 2015   state that one in every nine people on our planet were undernourished in 2014–2016, and that the majority of hungry people (780 million), live in the developing regions (The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015). The impact is especially significant in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where one in every four people (23.2%) of the continent’s population, are hungry (The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014).

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Edible saturniid caterpillar

Insects can provide a solution to the undernourishment in this region, because they reproduce quickly, and are valuable sources of protein, minerals and vitamins that are essential for human development. Recent observations show that edible insects have an outstanding protein quality. Several essential amino acids, especially lysine, threonine, and methionine, which are limited in cereal- and legume-based diets, are also present in adequate quantities in edible insects. Compared to conventional sources, edible insects are rich in zinc. For instance, while 100 g of beef contains only 12.5 mg of zinc; the same amount of palm weevils contains 26.5 mg.

Second, although the poultry, fish and pig industries are the fastest growing agri-businesses in many developing countries, poor availability and high cost of feed protein additives—which include soybeans, fish oil, fishmeal, seed cakes and several other grains—hinder their full potential. Feed costs are estimated to represent 60–70% of the poultry, fish and pig production costs. In addition, it is becoming unsustainable to rely on fishmeal, soybean and cereals as protein sources in feed production, as humans also consume soybeans and cereals. Furthermore, farmland for cultivation is diminishing; and, because of overexploitation, the small pelagic forage fish from which fish meal and fish oil are derived are declining. Thus, insects represent a substitute for livestock feed, due to their protein content and amino acid profiles.

Third, there is a global quest of incorporating ‘greening’ measures into agricultural systems, to mitigate climate change and conserve biodiversity. Compared to other livestock, insects are more efficient in converting organic matter into protein, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, black soldier fly larvae, also used in composting and sanitising household and agricultural wastes, emit only a small amount of carbon dioxide and no other greenhouse gases. Insect farming thus benefits the environment and can mitigate climate change.

Despite these clear reasons, a number of challenges stand in the way of integrating insects as a sustainable component in addressing food, nutritional and feed security, and transitioning towards a ‘greener’ agriculture. Although a range of insect species have traditionally been part of people’s diets in many countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, they have a minimal understanding of the contribution of insects to food and nutritional security. Moreover, edible insects are often harvested in an uncontrolled manner from the wild or through semi-domesticated informal set-ups. Ultimately, this can lead to habitat destruction and even extinction of species. There is also lack of a proper institutional framework to oversee and document edible insects.

Proper research is required to gain solid understanding of appropriate insect species that can be mass-reared, including knowledge on breeding, production management, and ways to pre-empt and control diseases and environmental risks. Moreover, to succeed, mass-rearing of insects must appeal to entrepreneurs and investors across the value chain as an emerging industry. The sector also has to be supported by regulations and policy frameworks encompassing food safety and trade issues at national, regional and international levels. The initiatives should also be inclusive; for instance, by deliberately enabling the participation of women and the youth.

Since identifying insects for food and feed as a strategic research area in 2013, icipe is helping to address these challenges. In 2014, the Centre compiled an inventory titled “African edible insects for food and feed: inventory, diversity, commonalities and contribution to food security,” which was published in the new Journal of Insects as Food and Feed. icipe also established the Insects for Food, Feed and Other Uses (INSEFF) programme, as the platform for consolidating and strengthening its activities. The Centre is implementing four projects: GREEiNSECT (Mass-rearing Insects for Greener Protein Supply); INSFEED (Integrating Insects in Poultry and Fish Feed in Kenya and Uganda); ILIPA (Improving Livelihoods by Increasing Livestock Production in Africa) and EntoNutri (Developing and Implementing Insect-based Products to Enhance Food and Nutritional Security in Sub-Saharan Africa).

Through the GREEiNSECT initiative, which is led by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, icipe is working with a consortium of public and private sector partners from Africa, Asia, Europe, and USA, to investigate ways of mass-rearing insects in small-, medium- and large-scale industries. The aim is to merge traditional and modern scientific knowledge, and provide a platform for international collaboration, bringing together South–South and North–South partnerships.

The INSFEED project, which is jointly supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), aims to take a holistic approach in regard to the use of insects as feed for poultry and fish around three themes: establishing strong scientific bases; testing the technical feasibility and economical profitability, and creating favourable social and political conditions for large-scale application of the technologies.

ILIPA is a collaboration between icipe and Wageningen University, The Netherlands. The initiative aims to use scientific research and a participatory approach involving farmer groups, with particular focus on women and youth, to exploit the commercial potential of insects, mainly the black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens, in the production of affordable, high-quality protein for poultry, pig and fish industries.

The EntoNutri project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Germany, is being implemented by icipe with the Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn and the Food Security Center, University of Hohenheim, both in Germany in partnership with national agricultural research systems partners from Kenya and Uganda. The initiative is focusing on four insects – cricket, grasshopper, Zambezi emperor worm and shea butter caterpillar – selected on the basis of their growing popularity as food in Kenya and Uganda. Special effort is being paid towards supporting participation of women along the value chain, and assessing nutritional attributes based on the unique needs of women, girls, and infants.

In addition to these projects, icipe is also conducting various studies on edible insects. For instance, in a joint paper published in PLoS ONE journal on 13 May 2015, researchers from the Centre, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, and United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS) showed that the desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria, contains a rich composition of compounds known as sterols, which have cholesterol-lowering properties, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease. A second study by icipe, published in PLoS ONE journal on 5 January 2015, confirmed that the edible stink bug, which is known scientifically as Encosternum delegorguei Spinola, and in some parts of southern Africa as thongolifha, contains vital nutritional components. The study also recommended improved care in the harvesting and storage of the edible stink bugs, to safeguard their nutritional value and prevent contamination by harmful compounds.

icipe was also a key partner in organising an international conference on the use of insects as alternative sources of food for human consumption and as feed for livestock, globally, and specifically, in East Africa, held in Kenya in March 2016.

The Centre looks forward to building on its progress so far, by working with existing and potential partners to unlock the immense, yet untapped potential of insects as food, feed, and as part of a greener agriculture.