I wrote an article for BBC World, a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, you can read it here.
I wrote an article for BBC World, a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, you can read it here.
For everyone who's been excited about edible insects this year - and that seems to be a lot of people - here are a few insect-related monthly highlights of 2017.
The year got off to a flying (/hopping/buzzing) start when edible insects were declared to be one of the key food trends forecasted for 2017, and just to drive the point home...
...Angelina Jolie did her bit for edible insect endorsement with these words of wisdom “The first thing I ate was crickets with beer and that’s when you can try tarantulas…They actually have a very good flavour” (But which, Angelina? Let's assume all three - crickets, tarantulas and beer alike.)
BUGS the film was released for public consumption..It’s now available online for download or streaming, and is a visual and intellectual feast, with a good dose of humour thrown in. Get it here.
Also in March
This is the opposite of a highlight, and is instead a tribute to and acknowledgment of one of the wisest contributors to the edible insects movement: Alan Yen passed away. His commitment to environmental concerns, his attention to the socio-cultural significance of insects, and his thoughtful, inquiring and gentle nature, will be sorely missed. His obituary was published in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed.
Fried grasshoppers (chapulines, Oaxaca-style, to the insect connoisseur) were a sell out snack at the Seattle Mariners’ new Safeco stadium.
The beautiful “On Eating Insects” was published by Phaidon - an exquisite travel journal and intricate recipe book from the Nordic Food Lab.
Protix - which breeds insects for use in animal feed - secured €45m worth of funding to expand operations, while in Shanghai a man ate over a kg of edible insects in under 5 minutes, winning a 24k gold bar for his efforts.
A new EU regulation permitting the use of insects in aquaculture feed came into effect.
Bug Grub Couple was first aired on BBC1: The inspirational Sarah Beynon (scientist) and Andy Holcroft (chef) unite their passions for insects and food with a scientific/culinary enterprise in Wales. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s up on iPlayer for a few more days.
Also in August
The Swiss Coop launched its range of insect-based food, made by Essento.
Meanwhile in Western Australia a cricket farm - which feeds its crickets on “recycled food waste, fruit and vegetable scraps” - was given the go-ahead to start selling its insects as food.
Finland, Europe’s greatest consumer of coffee (coincidence? they do say coffee boosts brain function), became the fifth European country to allow the sale of edible insects in stores, leading to a flurry of Finnish insect products hitting the shelves, including
- Cricket bread by Fazer
- ‘Patties, sausages and pasta’ by Mattila
- Drone larvae by beekeepers
All of which no doubt inspired the founding of Europe’s largest insect rearing plant in Finland, which will begin production in spring 2018.
Also in September
The 2-day INSECTA conference was held in Berlin
The 3-day Brooklyn Bugs meeting was held in New York
Cricket Man launched Ento Nation, an ento-taining podcast that features interviews with different representatives of the insect-eating world, and always includes a recipe.
This isn't a highlight, but is very important for anyone concerned with insects - a study based on long-term data at protected sites in Germany showed that flying insect populations have dropped by 75% during the course of the past 27 yrs, for no apparent reason. Something about the modern world is doing more damage to the ecosystems around us than we had previously realised...
..but let's end this on a very positive note - after presenting at the Global Food Security conference in South Africa, the Global Orphan Foundation got a great deal of well-deserved coverage for its work, in partnership with Farms for Orphans, training Congolese orphanages in insect-rearing so that they have access to a reliable source of protein.
With our collective optimism firmly established (I hope) here are a few things to look forward to in 2018…
The second Insects to Feed the World conference will be held in Wuhan, China, in May
Ento Nation promise a magazine to accompany their excellent podcast
Julie Lesnik's book on the role of edible insects in human evolution will be available to buy from July 22nd - pre-order is available here
"Edible insects: the value chain", a 2-day symposium, will be held in Ede to celebrate 10yrs of insect research in the Netherlands
With thanks to:
This fortnight is the Cambridge Festival of Ideas - a series of events celebrating the arts, humanities and sciences.
One of these events was a panel discussion around the question "What's stopping your diet being more sustainable?", and I was one of the four panelists.
It's a challenging question. And my instinctive & defensive "Well, I do really like seafood.." wasn't going to do the trick. The 'you' in question isn't just me, it's (presumably) consumers in the global North. So I decided to approach it through the lens of edible insects: If we all 'know' insects area more sustainable protein source, what's stopping us from embracing them and eating less meat as a result?
I'll summarize my talk at the end of this post, but firstly, here are the messages from my fellow panelists, each of whom approached it from their area of expertise..
Emma Garnett spoke about meat consumption and how we live in a world where we expect, and can afford to, eat meat on a daily basis. The livestock industry continues to contribute to growing environmental degradation and carbon emissions at an alarming rate, but the all-pervasive meat industry makes it easy to ignore these facts. She concluded that to eat a more sustainable diet, we should eat more plant-based food.
Chris Kaplonski spoke about sustainable wine and how some of the most 'sustainable' wines - in the sense that they do not use pesticides, have low energy consumption, and the growers consider their farming practices to be as 'natural' as possible - are very unconventional in taste. Many such wines 'do not taste like wine' as we know it. So, we need to be prepared to adjust our palates and our expectations in order to have a more sustainable diet.
Jean Adams spoke from a health perspective. Healthy diets tend to be more sustainable, but the environment in which we live and shop for food makes it very difficult for most people to achieve such diets. The biggest barriers are: Affordability, accessibility and advertising. Often, the most affordable and easy-to-access foods are not the most sustainable - yet they do (as the photo above shows) get a lot of advertising space. And no matter how we might like to think we're immune to advertising, we're not - and importantly, neither are our children, who are exposed to approximately 23 adverts for unhealthy food items per day.
I was introduced as 'the person who's going to persuade us all to eat insects' - so I hope my choice of slide (above) made it clear that's not my agenda at all!
I spoke about how sustainability is co-opted by a lot of advertising despite no one being entirely sure what it really means. Sustainable for how long? Somewhere between tomorrow and the end of the world, presumably, but where that line is drawn is a matter of debate, or more commonly, convenience.
The above quote from Ben Reade is great because it highlights this as well as the now-ubiquitous claim that insects are 'more sustainable' than their animal-protein counterparts. There really isn't enough evidence to suggest this. And as the pictures above show - on the left, locally sourced bee larvae ceviche in homemade vinegarette, on the right, a muffin made with farmed mealworm flour - not all insect foods are alike in terms of their energy use and carbon footprint.
And surely a key part of sustainability is socio-economic sustainability for the producers of food?
This is a tricky one and can't be put into numbers as easily as greenhouse gas emissions, but I don't think that makes it any less important. Truly sustainable foods should also support fair livelihoods, social mobility and (I'm probably going too communist for some here, but I'm ok with that actually, especially after spending 12 months in West Africa) redistribution of wealth.
I also spoke about how cultural inertia and the constraints of a fairly restrictive buying environment make it hard for even the most motivated people to make dietary changes. When doing so, we may be further misled by the information available to us, since a food described by marketing campaigns as 'sustainable' may have any number of hidden unsustainable consequences.
We were lucky to have a brilliant audience with lots of great questions and thoughts for discussion, and we all agreed that next time we'd like a bit longer to discuss the issues being raised. What can we do as individuals to make our diets more sustainable? Eat more plants, be open to new tastes and textures in our food and drink, and think carefully about the implications of how we're spending our money. What can policy-makers do? Create a buying environment in which sustainable foods are more accessible and more affordable, whilst giving less (or no) advertising space to unhealthy, unsustainable options.
This post comes courtesy of my third field assistant, Charlotte Milbank, a Cambridge Geography student who is doing her dissertation project on wild plant use in Soumosso, the site where I work in southwestern Burkina Faso.
The post is subtitled: AKA an emotional rant about the importance of education!
I am conducting research on wild food consumption and strategies in Burkina Faso. These are foods that are neither cultivated nor bought, but caught or collected by households. Charlotte’s shea caterpillars fall under this heading. I am interested in how the knowledge of these wild foods might influence consumption, and how this may differ between households of varying levels of food insecurity. Whilst this blog post precludes any data analysis, the insights and experiences my research here has granted me so far have agitated my interest in public health and given me food for thought...
It is becoming increasingly apparent through my interviews and discussions groups with the villagers here that nutritional ‘knowledge’, at least in a medicalised (and Western) sense of the word, is desperately lacking. Little is known about the components of a healthy diet. I have not heard any mention of ‘protein’, and when I have asked about the constituents of a healthy diet, I have been informed that the common diet consisting chiefly of toh (pronounced as rhymes with ‘slow’ - a staple made of maize flour and water) and (haricot) leaves is quite adequate. Dietary diversity in Burkina Faso has been estimated as the second lowest worldwide, based on a count of seven food groups - given the general consensus I have found through just brief interactions, this figure seems hardly surprising.
Whilst the villagers we encounter daily do not appear to be ‘chronically hungry’ (lacking in food quantity, defined by energy intake), it is highly probable that ‘hidden’ hunger (lacking in food quality) is profound here. According to the UN (2014), 2billion people globally suffer from hidden hunger, a deficiency in vitamins and nutrients, and subsequent malnourishment. Micronutrient deficiencies are hugely prevalent across West Africa. In Burkina, rates of anaemia are reported to be as high as 88%, and child stunting 35%. Almost all of the children we see around Soumosso have contracted, bloated stomachs, a common symptom of Kwashiorkor, the protein deficiency disease.
I was further appalled to discover that it is widely believed that the nutritional demands of everyone within the household are the same: everyone – men and children, teenagers and breastfeeding women - should eat the same things, as well as the same sized portions. This resonates with the findings of other West African nutritional studies, e.g. Huybregts et al. (2009) who reported that the additional nutritional burden of pregnancy is not accounted for in Burkinabe dietary practices, with no differences in food intake, food choice and nutritional intake between pregnant and non-pregnant women.
Women are a group of integral importance. As in many cultures around the world, they are the prime decision makers regarding household food consumption, and are involved in both food collection and preparation. In my own research, I am discovering the crucial role of women in wild food consumption. They are the key bearers of knowledge on a plethora of wild foods – they know which wild leaves are edible, which medicinal plants can be used to treat malaria, the seasonality of specific fruits, the list goes on… Meanwhile, they are also, especially at reproductive age, highly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies such as anaemia. This, I believe, grants the horrific lack of nutritional understanding here all the more urgency.
Whilst I feel obliged by academia to stay focused on my own research, I cannot help but become exasperated by this sheer absence of medical knowledge. Worldwide, there are success stories of health interventions structured around the provision of health education. The SELEVER intervention, a women’s poultry program to improve income and nutrition funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one such Burkina-based example, although its impacts remain to be seen. In its drive to achieve the 2025 Global Nutrition Targets, the UN stresses the importance of integrating the education sector into development policies and programmes, as well as others beyond merely the health sector.
But such examples of policies and programmes are too few and far between. We need more and we need them to reach those who most need it. Women, as the predominant food providers, are key. Education provision need not be expensive, and the information needed is not complicated. But without it, my fear is that the villagers we have come to know and grow fond of these last few weeks will continue to suffer the same nutritional ailments as their previous generations.
But there is another side to the coin. As I finish my research here, I am able to reflect on the insights I now have into ‘indigenous’ knowledge around food consumption. What is intriguing is that as well as alarming divides between these local knowledge systems and medical knowledge, there are overlaps - and even things we in Western society might be able to learn from…
I have been astounded by the medicinal knowledge that some villagers hold in using plants to treat common maladies, such as malaria, colds and morning sickness. Faced with the rising threat of antibiotic resistance and superbugs in the UK and worldwide, the ability to turn to such knowledge is surely something we must aspire towards. Not rushing to the GP (or heaven forbid A&E, but don't even get me started on this topic!) for drugs at the first symptoms of a common cold, but utilising other (natural) remedial sources.
Seasonality is another issue that as a country with the ability to import gross quantities of fruit and vegetables, we are growing ignorant of. Whilst in both societies, there is awareness of their vitamin-related benefits, our knowledge and consumption of seasonal, locally-available produce is comparatively poor. We Brits consume kiwis, bananas, mangoes year-round in a bid to reach our precious ‘five-a-day’. Here, people of all ages collect and consume the wild fruit of the season, safe in the knowledge that when it runs out, another tree will come to bear fruit. Seasonality is a pertinent (indeed life-threatening) nutritional issue here in Burkina. Whilst overlaps between our knowledge systems do exist, there is much that we in the UK should relearn.
Our ignorance of certain nutrition and health knowledge in the West has grown, and we must be sure that others do not suffer the same fate. Some villagers have raised with me their acute awareness – and their concern – that local knowledge is being lost. Overreliance on manufactured pharmaceuticals and settlement growth, amongst other forms of modernisation, threaten their everyday practices of food consumption.
To return then to my original argument: adequate nutritional and health education is of the utmost importance to the improvement and maintenance of community wellbeing. But the solution is not as simple as just imposing Western nutritional norms and knowledge onto remote communities. Indeed, there are many horror stories of where ignorant attempts to do so have done severe damage. By engaging with and trying to understand communities such as that of Soumosso, I sincerely hope that as researchers, we can bridge the (unhealthy) divides between indigenous and Western medical knowledge, whilst being sensitive to and addressing local contexts and needs, to ensure the conservation of valuable indigenous knowledge. In doing so, nutritional and health concepts that may currently seem alien can be made a normality and reality, and conditions of malnourishment ameliorated.
 Rather confusingly also called Charlotte, we are affectionately known by the villagers as ‘grande’ and ‘petite’ Charlotte.
 Gelli et al. (2017) ‘Improving diets and nutrition through an integrated poultry value chain and nutrition intervention (SELEVER) in Burkina Faso: study protocol for a randomised trial’. Trials, 18:412 DOI 10.1186/s13063-017-2156-4
 Huybregts et al. (2009) ‘Dietary behaviour, food and nutrient intake of pregnant women in a rural community in Burkina Faso’. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Maternal and Child Nutrition, 5. pp.211-222
 Gelli et al. (2017). As previous.
This post is written by Sioned Cox, a Part II Biological Anthropology student at the University of Cambridge who has been doing a fieldwork project on diets and nutrition here in Soumosso, Burkina Faso, as well as working as my field assistant.
Village life here has the same sense of community I’m used to at home in the South Wales Valleys. People are more important than time and efficiency is achieved from necessity. Its worship becomes evident as a foreign, social construct. There’s bliss in observing and learning about people without understanding a single word being spoken. Gestures, intonations, garments and decorations burst with the ordinarily subconscious symbolism. Behaviour is familiar and as predictable as at home but this commonality is as pervasive as is the exotic.
Rising at 3am to fill a bucket with squirming caterpillars by torchlight is as novel an experience as any. Three hours later, bucket full to the brim with meaty caterpillars, local collector Ajita and I laugh together at my brownish, greenish hand, filthy from defensive caterpillar spit. Ajita’s hand is spotless. It seems there’s a knack to the collection method and Ajita’s experience shows. She brings me water and enacts scooping up the abrasive gravel to show me how to remove the harmless, stubborn stains. We drink tea and enjoy her homemade cakes before the arduous preparation of the caterpillars begins.
The caterpillars have to be washed three times before cooking, with specks of leaf and twigs painstakingly pinched away at each step. We hunch over buckets of black water, surrounded by mounds of caterpillars: my five kilograms, Ajita’s twelve and Charlotte and Momoni’s sixteen. The cleaning process takes a further three hours and the sun is now strong enough to burn my skin. Ajita’s baby, Alimatou, plays happy and curiously with the caterpillars, in between plenty of breaks for breastfeeding.
Later that afternoon, with all thoughts of the caterpillars temporarily wiped from my mind by a welcome rest, I enter the kitchen to the most glorious smell. With dozy excitement I wonder what we are having for lunch today and I’m greeted at the stove by a pan full of well-cooked, seasoned and relished caterpillars. I enjoy them in some bread like a hotdog and relax after a satisfying day.
Caterpillar season has definitely begun here!
The caterpillars are everywhere, as you can see from this photo:
The caterpillars come down the trees and move to neighbouring trees, searching for more shea leaves to eat. As a result, there are very few shea leaves left on the trees.
Some people are worried that many of the caterpillars wont reach maturity, because there arent enough leaves left. So, even though there seem to be caterpillars wherever you look, the harvest might not be as big as people had hoped.
But for now, men, women and children alike are waking at 3am every morning to collect caterpillars by torchlight. And Sioned (my new field assistant) and I are joining them.
People only collect caterpillars here in the early hours of the morning, because this is the time when the final instars descend to pupate in the soil. This means that during the daytime the caterpillars roam free from predators, but by night they're in high demand. I even spotted a snake enjoying the harvest the other day..
Each morning, we've been measuring the hours we spend collecting, the weight of our harvest, and (when technology permits) the distance we walked.
So far, between us (me, Sioned, and our neighbours - N=6), on each morning for the last three days we've collected for an average of 2hrs 25min, walked an average of 4.9km and collected an average of 8kg of caterpillars per morning! Our average departure time is 3.38am and our average return time is 5.49am.
8kg of caterpillars looks something like this (there's about 8kg in each of these buckets):
But how much income can be made from 8kg of freshly collected caterpillars? And how many people does that feed? These are questions I'll be able to answer with confidence by the end of the season. Stay tuned, and meanwhile if you have any other questions about all things edible-caterpillar-related, please post them below or send me an email.
PS. If you'd like to know more about exactly what caterpillar collection involves, here's my post from last year collecting caterpillars here in Burkina Faso. And watch this space for a post from Sioned about her first time!
PPS. I'm trying to take video when I can, because it's so much easier to grasp what this is all like if you see a short video clip. I've been posting these on Twitter, @libertyruth - follow me if you're interested!
This post is written by Sally Pearson, a Part II Geography student at the University of Cambridge who has been working as my field assistant here in Soumosso, Burkina Faso.
A three-day journey involving a night bus, two planes, a tuk-tuk, a motorbike, a bicycle and my rucksack that ended up in Paris as opposed to Ouagadougou brought me to the small village of Soumousso in southern Burkina Faso. As we eventually arrived at the final destination, it was clear that we were literally in the middle of nowhere- Soumousso is barely even visible on google maps- and I felt a very long way away from home.
Other than the obvious differences to the Yorkshire Dales such as the mud huts, lack of electricity and the constant beating down of the sun, the many parallels that I noticed that could be drawn from home made settling into the ways of life in Soumousso seem natural.
The daily activities of community and gossip, rampant livestock stampeding throughout the village and even congregating in the local “pub” seems to sum up rural village life all over the planet.
The traditional nuclear family is challenged by the home set-ups of households in Soumousso. Polygamy is a common occurrence where the men have multiple wives and many subsequent children. These remarkable families live under the same roof quite amicably and function as a unit. There was no escape for me, and I was bombarded with marriage proposals with persuading offers in the form of goat-themed gifts. I decided to settle on becoming the second wife of local farm worker, Poda, whose first wife is due to give birth to their second child any day now. We have been experiencing marital bliss, with Poda keeping me well supplied with eggs and taking me for night-time rides on the back of his motorbike. I regret that I will be leaving a broken home on my return to Yorkshire.
The most outstanding difference to the UK is the ability of multiple ethnic groups of Burkinabes to cohabit without difficulty. Different tribes, with different languages - indeed there are 74 individual languages spoken across the country- of Muslim, Christian and traditional religions rub shoulders faultlessly within Soumousso. The conflict that has arisen in equivalent situations in the West appears to have been remedied in Soumousso by, in all honesty, pure banter with its subsequent laughter and hilarity. Illustrating this, in my first week I witnessed what was primarily shocking jokes made to a visiting man of a different village based on how his tribe had once been enslaved by people from Soumousso. However the result was everyone falling about laughing. I quickly learnt to take nothing anyone said seriously, and the merriment generated from each and every conversation has profuse and vital lessons for the West within the current precarious atmosphere.
Finally, as a tip for any future visitors of Burkina Faso, customs allows you to bring a kilo of dried caterpillars into the UK and they make for very unique gifts...
Back in April/May, I panicked: My friends in Burkina Faso told me that the rains had begun many weeks in advance. I had to leave the UK early - and, I had to find a field assistant who could help me out in June!
After frantically contacting everyone I could think of, I sat back and sighed, the impossibility of this year's data collection looming in my mind.
And that's when I heard from Sally, a second year Geography student at Cambridge, thanks to her Director of Studies, David Rose.
This is Sally:
See? She loves trees, which is always a good sign. She's also a fantastic fieldworker - adaptable, hardworking, good company - and in the past couple of weeks she's been invaluable - collecting data on the newly emerging caterpillars while i have been out doing bird surveys.
You'll hear further details from her soon - he's promised to write a post for me (she says it'll be titled something like 'Burkina Faso: Impressions of a Yorkshire lass'), so watch this space. But for now, here's a few photos of Sally at work. She's leaving on Sunday and she'll be much missed!
Last night was really quite surreal. More than once, the proverb 'be careful what you wish for' came to mind.
I arrived in the village yesterday evening, and was immediately confronted with the tasks of collecting water, reconnecting my solar panel, repairing damage done to gas pipes that had been chewed through by a mouse, and mitigating emerging political situations within the village. Thanks to the help of my neighbours, I wasn't alone in any of this, but by 9.30pm I was exhausted and ready to lay out my mat to sleep.
However, the world had other ideas.
A large moth with a frantic wingbeat careered by drunkenly, drawn to my reading light, and i glanced down at it. I sat up, put down my book, and switched to autopilot. This was a Cirina butyrospermi moth!
My first reaction was to get my makeshift 'killing jar' (a sealable plastic bag with a wad of acetone-soaked tissue), because we need to collect a few samples for DNA barcoding and identification. However, I quickly corrected myself - some of these moths might not yet have mated, so there's a chance I can collect eggs, let them live out their lifespan, and take them as specimens afterwards.
I got a cage from my bag and began to collect moths to put inside. At first, I used a net. But before long I was grasping them with my hands.
By midnight, I had filled five cages with moths! I decided to stop. I tried to make sure that each cage contained males and females, and between 5-10 individuals. I also put some shea branches in with them, though I'm not sure this is necessary.
However, my nighttime encounters with moths didn't end there. The cages contained female moths, all of which release strong pheromones to attract males. Before long, the space around me was teeming with eager male moths, crashing into every solid object they encountered and beating their wings like metronomes on acid. I wasn't sure what to do, except to sit and watch and wonder.
It's good to be back