By Charlie Tebbutt
Originally posted by the author on the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management Blog at the University of Oxford (19 November, 2018)
Imagine biting into a scoop of honeycomb ice cream.
The smooth, buttery texture contrasts deliciously with that occasional, powdery crunch that makes the flavour unique.
Now try to isolate that crunch. Imagine, instead, that it’s got the smoky scent of a barbeque, the saltiness of nachos, and maybe a little sprinkling of paprika.
That’s how grasshoppers, or chapulines, taste in Mexico (where they know how to make anything taste good).
You can also try them in Indonesia, New Zealand and the twinkling cafés of Paris. In fact, if you haven’t eaten insects yet, then you’re lagging behind the 2 billion people worldwide who already indulge in this tasty treat.
Think invertebrates are icky? If you’ve ever tucked into a slice of red velvet cake (let’s be honest, who hasn’t?) or a chunk of delicious cheddar, then you’ve likely chowed on the cochineal and the cheese mite – and enjoyed it too!
Eating insects, or entomophagy (dontcha know?) is far from a novelty snack here at Jangano Village, where it forms part of a practical solution to poverty, food insecurity and environmental degradation in the swampy wetlands of southwestern Uganda.
40km south of the equator, the community here has been disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis, prompting them to form Bakasimbi, a group of 30 men and women pioneering alternative livelihoods and farming techniques.
Christopher Wana, a spokesperson for the group, can reel off an impressive menu that includes rhinoceros beetles, black soldier flies, black (civilian?) flies, crickets and grasshoppers.
“The grasshoppers have been a challenge”, he relates, “as we wanted to create a fully sustainable population”.
Unable to collect the first eggs directly, he and Bakasimbi harvested adults from local forests, grasslands and farms to place them in four cages (each about the size of a tall human). According to Christopher, the green female grasshoppers are ten times more elusive than the males, and take 77 days after hatching to lay their own eggs.
Like fairies of yore, the grasshoppers live off the dews that drape the landscape every morning – OK, the villagers sometimes help out with a spray gun, alongside the occasional cassava or kafumbe leaf, but the image is still a pretty one.
Even more beautiful is the simplicity of the food chain here at Jangano, where villagers, visitors and invertebrates are all treated to mouth-watering locally-grown melons and pineapples, as misunderstood pests become honoured dinner guests. Best not to tell them what else is on the menu…
This is where Bakisimbi get really multi-talented. Not only do these protein pioneers raise all sorts of appetising arthropods, but they also cultivate duck-weed, drought resistant crops (such as millet and sorghum), and their own medicinal garden.
Insects may cram up to 80% of their weight in protein, but Bakasimbi prefer duckweed to the popular Nileside favourite mukene (silver fish) as a secondary source for this essential nutrient.
As Dutch scientists have recently acknowledged, this plague of European ponds packs an environmentally-friendly protein punch, either when fed directly to livestock or when ground into flour for humans. Bakasimbi representative Deo put it very succinctly: “the wet stuff can be fed to the animals, and the dry to the humans”!
Clearly duckweed is a dream come true, but its introduction at Jangano didn’t go swimmingly. After transferring seeds from Israel into a custom-made pond, one community member thought it would be a good idea to add fish into the mix. The fish clearly agreed, and ate the entire crop within two days.
Fortunately, it took less than three weeks for the duck weed to recover in the (now fishless) pond, so humans and livestock can snack away. Ever-prudent, the community had a backup supply of earthworms, who keep the goat pastures fertile and provide a tasty morsel for the pigs.
Insects aren’t only seen as food here in Jangano; they act as artisans and farmers within the community too! A sophisticated bee-keeping scheme provides Bakasimbi with honey (which they eat with aloe vera from the medicinal garden), beeswax and propolis, much of which they sell to fund their charitable initiatives. Thanks to the bees, they are able to train more local farmers, as well as running counselling, guidance and advocacy services for community members living with HIV/AIDS.
Pleased with the success of the past, Bakasimbi are already buzzing about the future! Using the profits from their local produce, they plan to expand their operations to include fish and poultry, as well as mushroom cultivation, as they blaze an innovative path towards sustainable development and food security.
Amid a rural landscape threatened by environmental degradation, climate change and significant financial strain, Bakasimbi offer a low-impact, subsistence-based solution to the world protein crisis. Before you go back to that honeycomb crunch, think about the changes you can make (and the plunges you can take) to join the sustainability revolution.
All photos / illustrations created by author.