From pest to delicacy...

A ‘pestaurant’ in Majuli river island in Assam has taken a stab at showcasing the potential of insects as a culinary delicacy which in turn is an organic way of pest control, writes Sahana Ghosh

Plates of beetle fry served in Majuli, Assam. The insect contains around 77 percent protein and no toxins. Photo provided by AINPSAP.

Beetle fry, anyone? A ‘pest-aurant’ in the remote and rapidly-shrinking Majuli, world’s largest river island in northeast India, has cooked up a unique method to prevent pests from attacking crops in the region — eating them before they devour the crops.

With insect farming creeping into discussions on sustainable food systems across the globe, there is an untapped potential of insect-eating for pest control that is now being explored in this region of Assam. The seemingly innocuous white grub beetle (Lepidiota mansueta) which feasts on potato, colocasia, green gram and a range of crops in Majuli in Assam is up for grabs in fried and roasted forms in outlets of pest-restaurant ‘Pestaurant’ besides other pestilent but protein-rich insects such as field crickets and mole crickets.

A green gram crop damaged by the larva of white grub beetle.
A green gram crop damaged by the larva of white grub beetle.

Food for thought

The origin of the concept eatery lies in research that not only detected, reported and nutritionally-profiled the beetle endemic to Majuli but also mobilised indigenous communities to consider the pest as food. The research and extension activities were carried out as part of the All India Network Project on Soil Arthropods Pests (AINPSAP) funded by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi.

“We are trying to link up tourism to entomophagy and showcase how insect-eating can be sustainable and help deal with pests,” said Badal Bhattacharyya of Assam Agricultural University, who is also the principal investigator of the project.

The multiple award-winning concept was recently honoured with the HK Jain — Central Agricultural University (CAU) Award for Excellence in Agricultural Research for Bhattacharyya. The island, with a population of over 1,60,000, has a crop area spreading across 300 square kilometres. Up to 35 to 40% of this is attacked by this pest. Grubs of L mansueta (locally called ‘hati-puk’) were first recognised in some sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh during 1960 as a root feeder. However, this species did not receive due attention because of its remote incidence and unpredictable occurrence. The light brown beetle is an unusual species of scarab beetles, in the sense that it transforms from an egg to an adult insect via the grub (larva) stage, in two years. This biennial beetle species is the first of its kind reported from northeast India, pointed out Sudhansu Bhagawati, an entomologist with the AINPSAP.

“Local farmers knew about the presence of the beetle but till 2005 they were not ravaging crops in large numbers. We believe that climatic changes such as erratic rainfall and early onset of summer led to a drop in the arrival of their seasonal predators, the Sarus crane. This, in turn, pushed the beetles’ numbers up in the absence of predators,” said Bhagawati.

Other factors that are believed to have contributed to its infestation are the conversion of sandbars (virgin low grasslands) into farm plots by flood and erosion-affected villagers, high organic content of the soil and abundant thatch zones in the endemic pockets on the island.

The ‘grubby’ picture

As scientists kickstarted their work on the beetle under the project, their studies threw up interesting nuggets of information that helped them devise methods to deal with the pest. It is the larval-stage beetles, grubs, buried beneath the earth that mostly spell trouble for farmers. The grubs are resilient: they thrive well in wet soil conditions of the riverine island and can withstand prolonged submergence/flood. “Since it is very difficult to search for them, we thought of scouting for them and trapping them by luring them with solar LED lights and other light traps as part of a large community mobilisation programme. Our research showed us the insects were attracted to lights,” said Snigdha Bhattacharjee, a junior research fellow with the project.

Beetle fry, anyone?

Researchers found the adult beetle had 76.83% protein content, 10.93% carbohydrate content, 5.15% fibre and 4.10% fat and is also completely free of toxins.

“Processing, refinement and value addition to roasted and fried beetles not only became popular among the ethnic tribes but also among the other communities of Majuli. Initially, many local community members were hesitant to consume the beetle but we demonstrated by cooking the beetle with basic ingredients as to how easy it was to whip up a tasty dish,” said Khanin Pathak a junior scientist (biochemistry) associated with the project.

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