I will never forget arriving home after a two-week family camping trip, to find that our wonderful cook Solly – who grew up with my Dad in the Limpopo Provence – had made us macaroni and grasshoppers! Mum and I are squeamish with out-of-the-ordinary food, but my Dad and siblings were enthused by the novelty, generously declaring the deliciousness of Solly’s dish!
Humans have eaten insects for thousands of years, but in modern industrialised Western countries, this is no longer the norm. Because it isn’t part of the culture I grew up in, the idea of eating grasshoppers, termites or beetles is not appealing to me. Yet nutritionally, edible insects are high in protein and compare well to beef, fish and poultry. Contrary to common belief, most people don’t eat insects primarily because they are poor and can’t afford to buy other food, but because they find them tasty, and because it is something that has been done by their parents and grandparents. During the recent Biodiversity SA conference, scientist Bronwyn Egan presented her thesis – an investigation into the cultural and economic importance of edible insects. I found it fascinating. She chose Blouberg, in the Limpopo Provence (close to where Solly grew up) as the site of her study.
Bronwyn explained that with growing concern over the global food security crisis, investigating edible insects as an alternative food source is very important. In January 2012, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stressed the importance of this kind of research, yet little has been carried out in South Africa, where there’s a rich heritage of insect eating (especially in Northern areas by the BaSotho and San people). “Research into the species of edible insects utilised in South Africa and the attitudes and perceptions of the insect harvesters will provide policy makers, government organisations and NGO’s with the knowledge to implement the FAO’s call to investigate edible insects as a means of enhancing food security.” she said.
For her thesis, Bronwyn put together in-depth questionnaires and interviews, held group discussions in nine different villages and recruited Blouberg community members (mainly subsistence farmers and livestock owners, who collect wild food and medicine from the surrounding vegetation) to help her collect and study insect specimens. Bronwyn identified 29 species of edible insects from the area. Here are some more of her findings…
In Southern Africa, the best-known commercially available insect is the mopane worm ( labeled 5), which is the larva of an Emperor moth. During the summer, when the caterpillars feed on mopane tree leaves, locals love to eat, preserve and sell the worms.One of the things that Solly most looks forward to about going home to the Limpopo Provence is eating mopane worms.
Unfortunately, the number of insects available in Blouberg seems to be declining. Thus Morongwa (72 yrs) one of the community members that Bronwyn spoke to said, “Nowadays there is no rain, so many children will not eat insects because they don’t know some of the edible insects”.
The decline of this traditional knowledge is worrying and sad. The region has, for a long time, retained it’s strong traditional roots, due partly to marginalization of the area as a homeland during apartheid, which created a tight-knit community. Many of the people that Bronwyn spoke to said that young people think eating insects is ‘old fashioned’ and only for poor people who can’t afford modern Western food. Solly’s comment on this was, ‘yes, that’s true, but my kids still love them.’
I hope that Bronwyn’s study (which is a lot more detailed than I could write in just one blog post!) will be put to good use in the decision making process of future campaigns about the benefits of edible insects. Perhaps If I was born eating them I would feel more comfortable with it, but it’s still something I struggle with. Bronwyn says that, “developed and developing countries should meet to discuss and re-evaluate the resource of edible insects in the developing world and to evaluate technologies to develop insects as a more acceptable food source in western countries.”
“In light of recent interest in the effect of climate change on agriculture and in the search of alternate land use practices that are sustainable in the face of prolonged drought and elevated temperatures, it’s really important to document ways in which natural resources have been used in the past and how these techniques can be modified for future use. In addition, rural communities give valuable insight into the customs of past generations that, if not documented, are bound to be lost as younger generations move away from traditional ways of life.”
Do any of you eat insects? I would be interested to find out…