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Entomophagy (Eating insects)

Entomophagy is the technical term for eating insects. Humans have harvested the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults of certain insect species from forests or other suitable habitats to eat for thousands of years. This practice is still common in many tropical countries where certain insect species grow to large sizes, and they are abundant and relatively easy to harvest year round. Insects as food are an excellent source of proteins, vitamins, fats, and essential minerals. There is a strong case in favor of mass rearing insects for food as this practice is probably less environmentally damaging than other forms of protein production. For example clearing tropical rain forests and farming cattle for meat is highly damaging. In comparison to cattle, insects are five times more efficient at converting food into edible tissue, and when considering this together with their high reproductive rates and quick developmental times, the food conversion efficiency of insects maybe 20 times that of cattle! 

However, a major shortcoming with the idea of mass producing insect species for food is a fundamental lack of knowledge on how to sustainably farm insects, which species would be best suited for this practice and would be commercially viable because due to pre-existing markets. Despite this, there are some “insect farms” in Thailand where the red palm weevil, Rhynchophorus ferrugineus (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) is farmed and the large grubs (larvae) are sold as food. Watch this very interesting news clip from Thailand (it is in Thai but this does not matter as it is highly visual and very entertaining) to see how these weevils are farmed.

Promoting insects as food and the subsequent development of profitable markets maybe a very good way to enhance the conservation value of natural areas from which insects can either be harvested sustainable or artificially mass reared by manipulating the habitat in a benign manner. However, entomophagy is highly unlikely to become common in developed western cultures, because there has not been a strong cultural or culinary history associated with insect eating (and in many of these countries [e.g., subarctic areas] there may be a lack of large and abundant insects available for regular harvesting and eating hence this habit did not develop).

However, many westerners unwittingly eat insects or insect parts every day without knowing about it!! It has been estimated that the average American eats about two pounds of dead insects and insect parts a year. These bugs are in vegetables, rice, beer, pasta, spinach and broccoli. The US Food and Drug Administration has allowable insect parts per certain food types. For example, beer which is made from hops, can contain up to 2,500 aphids per 10 grams of hops!!! (source “The Week”vol 13 issue 622 [21 June 2013] page 18).

In tropical areas, such as Asia, people harvest insects for food not so much because they are cheap, or it is an environmentally-friendly way of gathering protein, rather insects are consumed because they taste good, either raw (see here for video on eating weevil larvae from sago palm logs), or prepared according to traditional recipes.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has produced two really excellent documents on entomophagy: (1) “Edible Forest Insects: Humans Bite Back!!” and (2) “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security.” So next time you are traveling abroad and you are wandering through markets selling insects for food, go ahead, try them, you may be surprised at how tasty they are!!

Eating Insects in Malaysia

Compilation & Photographs of Malaysia entomophagy by Arthur Y. C. Chung

Before conducting this survey, little did I know of such a variety of insects that are palatable. A number of insects are taken as food since prehistoric time. In Sabah, more than 50 species of edible insects were recorded. Unlike our neighbouring country, Thailand, entomophagy is not a common practice in Malaysia. Many of the rural and elderly local communities in Sabah, however, have experienced eating insects of some form. It is seldom taken now, due to modernization and urbanization. Hence, documentation is important, as such knowledge may slip into oblivion. The local terms used here are mainly in Kadazandusun but may vary in different districts in Sabah. This research project was funded by the Sabah State Government through the Sabah Forestry Department and the Federal Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation through IRPA.

References for Malaysia Entomophagy

  • Chung, A.Y.C. (2010). An overview of edible insects and entomophagy in Borneo. In P.B. Durst, D.V. Johnson, R.N. Leslie & K. Shono (eds.) Forest insects as food: humans bite back. UN-FAO, RAP Publication 2010/02. Pp. 141-150.

  • Chung, A.Y.C., Chey, V.K., S. Unchi & M. Binti. (2002). Edible insects and entomophagy in Sabah, Malaysia. Malayan Nature Journal 56(2): 131-144.

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