May 14, 2015

Edible Insects as an Integrated Component of Sustainable Food Systems

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

At the Global Food Security Symposium 2015, The Chicago Council hosted this year’s Next Generation Delegation, comprised of 18 outstanding students from universities across the US and around the world studying agriculture, food, health, and related disciplines. Beginning this week, the Global Food for Thought blog will feature the delegates’ insights and expertise in a weekly Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series.

By Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT and Social Science and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellow at the University of Copenhagen and 2015 Next Generation Delegate

Forgotten. Neglected. Undervalued. Underutilized. Orphaned. Indigenous. All of these terms have been used to symbolize agricultural and dietary inadequacy, yet the heterogeneous plant and animal species which often fall into these unfortunate categories play important roles in strengthening food and nutrition security. Take for example the more than 2,000 insect species which are regularly described using one or more of these categories.

At The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium 2015, addressing nutritional challenges through the consumption of insects was mentioned a total of three times. Upon its mention, however, there was a brief moment of collective laughter. How can we envision an open-minded approach to leveraging agriculture and food to improve global nutrition if we, as scientists, development practitioners, members of the private sector, and decision-makers, cannot take seriously the rich biodiversity of this sub-category of undervalued foods?

While edible insects have misleadingly been touted as a silver bullet solution to sustainable provision of animal-source foods, they do present a wealth of opportunities for improving nutritional status. However, macro- and micronutrients are not the only reasons why the international food security community has become increasingly interested in insects as a component of integrated food systems. Many rural and indigenous people, often those living in the global South, have close relationships with a wide variety of edible insect species for economic, as well as medicinal, ecological, agronomical, and cultural purposes.

With this in mind, our research group, GREEiNSECT, takes a multi-disciplinary approach to analyzing the economic, nutritional, environmental, social, and cultural viability of edible insects. Within this project, my doctoral research addresses this multi-dimensionality by analyzing the nexus between the socio-economic, nutritional, and environmental impacts that insect farming ̶ in particular two cricket species ̶ has on rural communities in Thailand and Kenya.

In northeastern Thailand, frequency of weekly consumption of crickets is low amongst cricket farming families when compared to other staple foods. However, I have observed that cricket farming contributes substantially to the livelihood diversification of rural farmers in this region. Over 20,000 farmers have benefitted both socially and economically from this homegrown Thai innovation.

In western Kenya, the consumption of wild cricket species has often associated with disadvantaged portions of the society, declining slowly with gradual dietary shifts. While small pelagic fish called omena (Rastrineobola argentea), are one of the most common animal-source foods, crickets can still be promoted as a supplementary food as it has been in the past, or lightly processed into a nutritious and delicious snack. Efforts at both research and entrepreneurial levels are already making this a reality.

Insects can then serve as a means of demonstrating that we must be wary of one-sided solutions. While some cricket species have been favored because of their potential to be farmed en-masse, there is a myriad of other culturally appropriate insects which can also contribute to improving nutritional status worldwide, as well as improving rural livelihoods. Thus, there is still a great deal of fundamental knowledge that needs to be generated in order to develop sustainable, multifaceted solutions which take into account both ecological and human health.

As we have already seen in many regions of the world, there is a fine balance between overharvesting and maintaining ecological balances; production for rural communities and exporting to urban and rural markets; small-scale technologies and commercialization; species diversification and specialization.

With this in mind, valorization of neglected or underutilized plant and animal species has often come in the form of treating it as a delicacy or as a part of new trend. However, there are some potential risks involved in exclusivity or avant-garde approaches. Ascertaining edible insects as an accessible food to the populations that we are intending to serve should be paramount. However, encouraging the wild harvesting, semi-cultivation, or farming for both domestic and international markets can operate in a parallel manner when done in a culturally sensitive manner. In this way, insects can both directly and indirectly contribute to improving nutritional status of rural communities.

The edible insect research community is miniscule compared to research into other food sources. Nonetheless, we are a highly interdisciplinary and collaborative group. How often do we see nutritionists working together with entomologists, food and environmental scientists, as well as economists? Perhaps we can learn from this model in order to improve our approaches to improving nutrition vis-à-vis food systems.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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