I had the great privilege of attending the second Insects to Feed the World conference held this time in Wuhan, China. The first one was four years ago in the Netherlands, spearheaded by Arnold van Huis and the University of Wageningen. I did not attend in 2014 so this was my first opportunity to meet Arnold van Huis, which was a bit of a starstruck moment for me. He was first author on the 2013 UN FAO statement that I think of as a rocket booster for my career. It was an amazing feeling that in his opening keynote address he mentioned my research on an ancient termite mound at Olduvai Gorge, so it was a bit easier to introduce myself to him after that. It gave me a talking point to tell him that that paper won't be out for some time still and that the news picked up my talk from the Paleoanthropology Society meetings although the articles never credited it as such.
The conference was an amazing experience and I want to share some of my takeaways:
So many black soldier flies!
Ultimately I think the momentum the feed crowd has is good for all. The technology that they are developing with their better-funded research is transferable in many ways to food insects. So once of the food side of things catches up in normalization, there is a lot of groundwork that has already been laid. The problem with this on the conference programming side is that all the industry players from both sides - farmers, companies, and agriculture researchers - were tied up in these talks and the parallel programming that was specifically focused on the social aspects of insects as food were not as well attended.
Research and development of Ophiocordyceps sinensis
R. Han and L. Cao
Ophiocordyceps sinensis is a fungus that grows on caterpillars on the Tibetan plateau and is used in traditional Chinese medicine for a wide range of aliments (News to me! So cool!). Han's talk emphasized the importance of this resource for local people and presented his research on large-scale cultivation of host insects (Thitarodes armoricanus and T. jianchuanensis). They have had success rearing these long-lived species, infecting the adults with the fungus, and harvesting the resulting blooms.
Domestication of African gourmet caterpillars
To start, I loved Ambühl's decision to use the word "gourmet" to reflect that these caterpillars are not just edible, they are greatly enjoyed as food. He presented the work he has been doing with Congolese biologist Augustin Konda to domesticate saturniid caterpillars and rear them as agricultural livestock in a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo where they are no longer found. This project works closely with local people and the children are especially excited to be involved. You can follow their progress on their youtube channel. Definitely go check it out!
Review of past and current status of insects for food and feed in Kenya: reintroducing entomophagy
I was lucky to be in two sessions with Dr. Monica Ayieko. She is brilliant and well-spoken and everyone should be in the room any time she is presenting. Her talk reviewed the historic use of insects as food in Kenya, current scientific work being done on the topic, and the future prospects of edible insects in human and animal nutrition in Kenya. The main point of her talk was a call for collaboration. There is much that needs to be done in order to rear insects on a scale that can be useful for alleviating the challenges of food security. The many different edible species require a specific understanding of their life cycles, etc., and she wants anyone who is interested to come and help them figure these things out in Kenya!
Women and edible insects: a deep, deep history
I presented next and can I say that I am most proud that I was able to keep my own talk within the allotted time? It's a weird piece of pride I have to not go over time, even when I don't have someone holding up signs. Anyway, I digress. I used the 15 minutes to present the overarching theme of my upcoming book (I will present on the Olduvai termite mound at the upcoming Eating Insects Athens (Georgia) conference August 13-15.. Register here!). Women in foraging societies consume insects more than men and this pattern is not restricted to humans, it is also well represented in the great apes, especially chimpanzees, and can be found across the Primate order. Therefore I think it is safe to say that our ancient ancestors were likely displaying a similar pattern. The fact that females rely on them so heavily is a testament to their utility and we should celebrate edible insects as such.
Settlement behaviour of new queens of the weaver ant Oecophylla smaragdina
T. Phusakhon and D. Wiwatwitaya
Phusakhon presented her research on the ecology of weaver ant queens establishing new colonies. This species is a prominent and important economic edible insect of Thailand and if they are ever going to be cultivated then it is important to understand how new colonies are established in the wild. It is important to remember that social insects like ants, bees, and termites are architects of their homes and that temperature regulation is a major factor to consider. Her work was fascinating showing how the queens are highly selective in choosing their settlement sites with the majority of queens being found on the west sides of trees and on leaves that are superimposed, not curled. If cultivation is to be successful, it is important to consider such factors in creating habitats for captive colonies.
I was very proud of this session and I believe that familiarizing ourselves with the different ways people consume insects is an important step to helping people see them as actual food, not just something "others" eat. To that point, I am grateful that there was a special side session dedicated to understanding how our colonial histories affect edible insects research and industry.
The Importance of Decolonizing Edible Insects
The panelists were:
Dr. Komi Fiaboe. Senior Scientist, Leader of the Insect for Food and Feed Program, ICIPE
Dr. Afton Halloran. Consultant - Sustainable Food Systems, Former GREEiNSECT PhD Fellow
Dr. Monica Ayieko. Consumer Scientist, Jooust- Kenyan University
Dr. Amy Franklin, DVM. Farms for Orphans
Dr. Julie Lesnik. Department of Anthropology, Wayne State University
Each of the participants spoke for 5-10 minutes on their personal experiences with overcoming the bias against insects as food that comes from our colonial history. I then wrapped up the presentation part of the session with a very short anthropology-professor lecture about the topic (26:45-32:55) before we opened the discussion to everyone in the room.
A few key takeaway points:
- How we talk about insects as food matters because we are currently limited by a vernacular that portrays them as an "uncivilized" food choice.
- Funding opportunities for edible insects research is greater in "Western" countries, but we should not be leading the conversation. We need to collaborate with and give credit to researchers in the countries where we conduct our research.
- As industry grows we need to be mindful of how it impacts the small-scale farmers that have been making this their livelihood for generations.
Please check out the video of the panel. I also highly recommend you watch my lecture on Why Don't We Eat Insects in Western Culture if you are new to this concept and want to better understand the impact of our colonial history on edible insects today. I also have another blog post that discusses the topic that you might find useful.
Associating with Associations!
The Asian Food and Feed Insect Association- AFFIA
Insect Protein Association of Australia - IPAA
International Platform for Insects as Feed and Food - IPIFF (Europe based)
North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture - NACIA