Game for a cricket? Experts want Indians to expand palate

As favourable research coincides with rising food security challenges, new narratives are challenging extant taboos against consumption of edible insects in India
Last Updated : 29 August 2022, 09:36 IST

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Consumption of edible insects has remained a contentious idea in India that is largely unadventurous when it comes to its food habits.

Regulatory strictures — insects are not considered traded commodities — and a sense of disgust and neophobia around entomophagy (eating insects) have together limited the scope of insects as a food choice in the country.

But as favourable research coincides with rising food security challenges, new narratives are challenging the taboos to pitch them as viable future food

The National Bureau of Agricultural Insect Resources (NBAIR), Bengaluru, has been documenting insects used as food in the country’s Northeast.

Scientists at the bureau, affiliated to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), are researching technological possibilities in developing food products from edible insects, noted for their protein and vitamin content.

“We are working on breeding mealworms and superworms (larvae of darkling beetle species) and crickets. The idea is to develop mass-production technologies to use them in food products in the future,” Dr Amala Udayakumar, Senior Scientist (Entomology), ICAR–NBAIR, told DH.

The exercise in the Northeast involved documenting species known as eri silkworm and muga silkworm pupae and winged forms of termites.

It is estimated that there are 2,141 species of edible insects in the world. With the global population predicted to increase to 9 billion by 2050, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has identified insects as a potential source for conventional production of protein.

In India, entomophagy has remained largely limited to ethnic communities in the Northeast.

‘Viable alternative’

Priyadarsanan Dharma Rajan, Senior Fellow at the Bengaluru-based Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), said an estimated two billion people consume insects across the world, adding that around 1,500 indigenous communities consume nearly 2,000 species of edible insects.

“When demand for proteins surges, we’ll need to go beyond livestock farming which is not carbon-friendly and involves extensive greenhouse gas emissions. This is where insect farming could make an impact,” he said.

ATREE’s field research in the Northeast identified around 300 species of edible insects. Hornets, paper wasps, ants, long-horn beetles, aquatic beetles, stink bugs, giant water bugs and silkworms have been popular food in the Northeast. Species of edible wasps are part of the region’s gourmet food platters.

Priyadarsanan said weaver ants and termites are consumed in varied forms in parts of Karnataka’s Malnad region as well as in Tamil Nadu.

“The way forward for entomophagy will be in processed food products made from insects, in ready-to-eat formulations including energy powders, protein bars and chocolates,” Dr Amala said.

Priyadarsanan said there is a need to identify edible insects as a food resource for the future to ensure sustainable practices. “The current practice involves collection from the wild and domestication at homes. The recent increase in demand could lead to extensive harvesting; that cannot be sustainable, which is why insect farming is important,” he said.

Published 28 August 2022, 19:27 IST

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