UK urges hunger-stricken African nations to farm insects | Insects

UK aid spending is encouraging hunger-stricken Africans to eat insects, with projects aiming to develop the practice in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe.

Edible insects have long been touted as a resource-efficient source of protein, requiring less land and water than conventional livestock. However, taste and cultural resistance have proved to be stumbling blocks in extending the practice in many parts of the world.

In a move to realise the substantial on-paper benefits of insect-eating, a £50,000 UK aid project in the DRC is putting African caterpillars, migratory locusts and black soldier flies on the menu.

Workers gather mopane caterpillars, preparing them for sale in Kopa, Zambia.
Workers gather mopane caterpillars, preparing them for sale in Kopa, Zambia. Photograph: Sue Cunningham /Alamy

The initiative is being spearheaded in the North and South Kivu provinces of the DRC, where cattle farming is one of the few ways to make a living for rural inhabitants. But as the population in these regions grows, space for animal husbandry is dwindling and beef farming is putting a strain on water supplies.

Twenty-three species of insect are already consumed in the South Kivu region, although the Congolese do not usually farm them, instead opportunistically gathering them depending on the season. Edible insects commonly eaten in the region include the African palm weevil, the litter beetle, termites and crickets.

The project is listed on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s development tracker website as seeking “to promote the production of insects for human food and for use in the manufacture of animal feeds”. The initiative is said to run from March to December 2022 with funds provided by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod), a charity in England and Wales. Cafod did not respond to a Guardian inquiry about how it intended to use the money. [However, after publication Cafod said it was “completely wrong to claim the programme is encouraging people to eat insects” and that this was a local project to grow insects to feed fish, ensuring they would be more protein-rich when consumed.]

A street vendor sells mopane worms.
A street vendor sells mopane worms. Photograph: poco_bw/Alamy

Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, another development project is under way to use mopane worms in porridge served in schools. The slimy green caterpillars, which turn into emperor moths, are already commonly picked for consumption from vegetation during the rainy seasons in rural parts of Zimbabwe.

With £300,000 from the aid budget, officials are planning to feed poor children aged seven to 11 in the southern town of Gwanda and in the capital, Harare, a bug-laced gruel, which, they say, has the benefits of being rich in crucial vitamins and minerals, including phosphorus, potassium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, sodium, vitamins B1 and B2, and niacin.

The project’s lead, Dr Alberto Fiore, a professor of food chemistry and technology at Abertay University in Dundee, said Zimbabweans rely heavily on maize, which is low in protein, essential minerals, amino acids and fatty acids.

A mopane worm vendor places the worms on a metal sheet before leaving them to dry at his homestead in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
A mopane worm vendor places the worms on a metal sheet before leaving them to dry at his homestead in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Photograph: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty

Fiore said he and his team concocted a formula that combines locally farmed mopane worms with cereals and fruits that do not need to be imported – a significant benefit as the war in Ukraine and the strong US dollar make foreign-grown foods increasingly inaccessible.

Although unwilling to disclose his recipe before the publication of the study’s data, Fiore did say his insect-based porridge contained grains including sorghum and millets. He said he was sure the dish was palatable, with his research team having conducted consumer taste tests in Scotland, a country long associated with porridge.

Whipping up the bug-based meal is only the first stage of the project. A randomised control trial will be conducted to see if children who eat the breakfast perform better at school, and if their weight becomes healthier.

Dr Sarah Beynon, the founder of the Bug Farm in Pembrokeshire and an academic entomologist, said aid projects promoting edible insects were “a sure way to save lives and improve nutrition of the poorest people on planet Earth”.

A man cooks mopane worms using firewood at his homestead in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
A man cooks mopane worms using firewood at his homestead in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Photograph: Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty

She said: “We are also actively encouraging people in the developed world to include insects in their diets.

“With a population that has an appetite set to far exceed the planetary limits, and with current agriculture decimating biodiversity and changing the climate, we have no option but to change how we produce and consume food … and our views on the topic too.”

Both aid projects were funded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), an arms-length body of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

A UKRI spokesperson said: “We support specific research projects with funding, but we anticipate that the learnings and knowledge gleaned will benefit citizens around the world irrespective of their economic status. The protein and environmental benefits of consuming insects have been widely reported globally.”

This article was amended on 2 September 2022. After publication, Cafod contacted the Guardian to say the Congolese project was to farm insects to feed fish, not directly as food for humans. The article was updated to reflect the charity’s statement and to include details of the original project description on the FCDO website, which was posted in July 2022. Cafod declined to explain the discrepancy between the descriptions of the project. The headline was also revised.

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