A new generation of locusts will be hatched in just a few weeks, which will mature into ravenous teenagers possibly sweeping across East, Central and West Africa as well as turning eastward toward Pakistan.
Their parents have accosted northern Kenya and the Horn of Africa already, devouring hundreds of thousands of acres of crops including corn, sorghum, millet and peas and destroyed grasslands upon which animals are dependent.
Sarah Ku, a doctoral student at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business, has had an interest in insects since her childhood and currently considers them as a source of nutrition for a world that is scheduled to have 9 billion people to feed.
She is following the crisis and told Global Atlanta that in the past the spread of local swarms were geographically limited. “However, due to changes in climate, their boundaries are becoming less defined,” she added.
“The current devastation is exacerbated by the global pandemic. Millions of people in these regions already experience severe food insecurity and will suffer the greatest during this turbulent time.”
While locust swarms have not landed on U.S. soil, the arrival of aggressive hornets from Japan have been reported on the West Coast, recalling the invasion of “killer bees” from Mexico in the 1970s. Ms. Ku calls the “murder hornets” aesthetically intimidating, but not commonly aggressive toward humans.
The “murder hornets” are thought to have come to the U.S. via cargo vessels from Asia. The locust swarms result from periods of intense rainfall traced to Saudi Arabia that have resulted in the current crisis.
Unlike the “murder hornets” the locust swarms in numbers surpassing billions are an enormous threat to food security, which have set off alarms at several international agencies including the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, prompting hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to combat them.
The knee jerk response to containing the locust plague is to spray pesticides, but the insects’ constant movement in great clouds from place to place makes pesticide use fairly ineffective, according to Ms. Ku.
“The assumption that insecticides and pesticides are the optional solutions for these swarms is false,” she said. “We have developed such a negative association with insects that we quickly and inappropriately overlook their importance and utility. The swarms are so massive and fast-moving that spraying is an ineffective and dangerous strategy, as this generates lasting toxic consequences in soil and water.”
Her solution is for them to be captured and turned into “mini livestock” for consumption by both humans and animals, a case that she has made before to Global Atlanta.
Since there are so many, they can easily be trapped on the ground, she said, adding that in areas where they are a common reoccurrence such as Israel and Yemen, they are captured and cooked to replace food supplies that are being destroyed.
“Insects, or mini-livestock, offer sustainable protein production through significantly reduced environmental inputs of land and water requirements as well as reduced hazardous output of greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste.” Another advantage is that they mostly can be eaten whole as opposed to animals with bones and organs, which, she said, are better served to insects.
She suggests that “for savory preparation,” the insects be fried, smoked, pickled or dried.
A transcript of Ms. Ku’s interview follows:
Global Atlanta: You have been tracking insect populations for years. There are swarms of locusts in East Africa and aggressive hornets from Asia on the West Coast of the U.S. What’s going on?
Ms. Ku: Heavy rainfalls produce ideal breeding conditions for locusts. Combined with rising temperatures from climate change, these environmental conditions allow some animal populations to thrive while simultaneously threatening the existence of others. In terms of the hornets, the popular theory is that they came over via cargo shipping containers for trade.
Global Atlanta: How devastating are these swarms for the future of locations such as the Horn of Africa where they have been descending in such alarming numbers?
Ms. Ku: These communities have experienced locust swarms in the past. Previously, the spread of these swarms has been geographically limited. However, due to changes in climate, their boundaries are becoming less defined. The current devastation is exacerbated by the global pandemic. Millions of people in these regions already experience severe food insecurity and will suffer the greatest during this turbulent time.
Global Atlanta: We remember the ‘killer bees” invading the U.S. from Mexico — they made for great newspaper headlines. Are today’s swarms and infestations different from those of the 1970s?
Ms. Ku: Locusts are not directly dangerous to humans in the sense that they do not bite or sting. However, they are clearly indirectly damaging given their decimation of crops.
In terms of the frenzy of “murder hornet” media, these kill an average of 30-50 people each year in Japan. To put this range in perspective, bees, wasps, and hornets kill an average of 62 people per year in the US. While aesthetically intimidating, Asian giant hornets are not commonly aggressive towards humans.
A few of these Asian giant hornets have been spotted in Washington state, one being a queen, so the concern of these invasive insects is valid. Researchers are setting traps for colonies that may have been hibernating over the winter and may emerge in the summer. Their dangers to other populations, like honeybees, is far more troubling and indirectly threatening to humans than the possibility of being stung by them.
Global Atlanta: What needs to be done to capture the swarms of locusts so they can become another food source for the planet which may have a population as large as 9 billion people in the future?
Ms. Ku: The assumption that insecticides and pesticides are the optimal solution for these swarms is false. We have developed such a negative association with insects that we quickly and inappropriately overlook their importance and utility. The swarms are so massive and fast-moving that spraying is an ineffective and dangerous strategy, as this generates lasting toxic consequences in soil and water.
As can be seen from images and videos, locusts swarm low to the ground and are actually quite easy to capture since they are so rampant. Rudimentary nets can be fashioned from cloth, blankets, sheets, etc. People in some countries that are regularly affected by these swarms, such as Israel and Yemen, are no strangers to eating locusts. They turn their situation into an opportunity by capturing and cooking locusts to replace food supplies that are being destroyed.
In 1997, the international community spent $60 million to spray 4 million hectares in an attempt to eliminate these herds. In 2004, the UN FAO provided $100 million of aid for locust plagues. This year, the World Bank announced they are contributing $500 million towards fighting these swarms. It appears that these funds will be used for non-chemical assistance, but each country may deal with them in different ways.
Global Atlanta: In what ways would insects be superior as a source of protein for human beings than cattle?
Ms. Ku: Insects, or mini-livestock, offer sustainable protein production through significantly reduced environmental inputs of land and water requirements as well as reduced hazardous outputs of greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste. Insects provide superior conversion rates of feed to food than traditional livestock. In order to produce 1kg of mass, insects consume just under 2kg of feed compared to 2.5kg, 5kg, and 10kg consumed by chickens, pigs, and cattle, respectively. Additionally, most insects can be eaten whole whereas bones, which make up substantial mass of traditional livestock, cannot be eaten and organs are sometimes not eaten due to cultural aversions. Insects’ consumption of food waste offer even greater impacts for sustainable food production.
Nutritionally, insects are high sources of protein, fiber, fat, carbohydrates, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals with lower risks of transmitting zoonotic diseases. While western nations are unaccustomed to entomophagy (eating insects), more than 2 billion people already consume over 2,000 species of insects throughout the world.
Global Atlanta: What are the best ways to prepare insects for human consumption?
If sprayed with chemicals, insects are unsafe for human consumption, which further justifies not using spray to deal with locust swarms and other insect populations.
For savory preparation, common cooking techniques involve frying, smoking, pickling, and drying. As shown in the picture below, I have eaten fried locusts myself (in Shanghai, China in 2018) and can attest that they are very tasty. If you fry and salt anything, it’s delicious! They can be mixed in with a stir fry or paired with a cold beer as a crunchy bar snack. Insects should not be viewed as food only for developing or low-income populations. As stated by the BBC: “Locusts are a valuable source of income for women in Niger, who get up early to collect them from the millet fields, and then sell them at the market. They make more money from the locusts on the millet than the millet itself.”
More developed nations have stigmas towards eating insects and we’re missing out on lucrative business opportunities by snubbing this sustainable food source. Insects are in the same phylum (Arthropoda) as shellfish, so it’s hard for me to understand how they are viewed as any different from shrimp, crab, and lobster, which are delectable, high price menu items. Interestingly, and unlike shrimp, locusts are the only kosher insect as reported by the Smithsonian and represent a great source of zinc, iron, and protein. For a sweet approach, covering insects in chocolate is pretty classic.
Global Atlanta: You have said that there are three ways that insects can help humans in the future: 1) as a source of food for humans, 2) as a source of food for animals, and 3) for waste management. Has there been any progress in these areas?
Ms. Ku: Yes, lots! Just here in the US in the last few years, I’ve seen cricket protein bars in New York airports and honey mustard crickets in a grocery store in Washington, DC. Many companies create products from cricket powder but more obscure products, like ice cream from insect milk, are popping up as well. The FDA allows for a certain amount of insects to pass through quality control for many food products, which may gross some people out. Yet insects are natural and edible, whereas other permissible contaminants, such as cigarette butts, are not, and should be much more disturbing. The FDA permits insects to be sold as food for human consumption but is considered exotic food rather than conventional food. Currently, “there is no specific FDA regulation that either prohibits or condones the use of insects in food.” Outside the U.S., many populations benefit greatly from eating insects but without the recognition of insects as a viable food source, regulations are slow to manifest.
In the animal feed sector, insects are frequently met with tricky regulatory challenges. For example, some insects can be used as feed for poultry, swine, and fish but not for other animals. Insects offer natural and nutritious feed for a variety of animals, including pets. While approved for pet food in Europe, US regulations currently restrict the use of insects in pet food. Some firms can get around these restrictions by selling insects for general use without advertising them as animal feed.
In terms of waste management, Rochester Institute of Technology and Louisiana State University are using black soldier fly larvae to process their campus food waste. Black soldier fly larvae often show up in compost systems and vermicomposting bins as they are native to North America and voracious consumers of food waste.
Outside of these industries, cockroaches help save lives as medicine and even for disaster relief solutions. Forensic teams, museums, and taxidermists employ dermestid beetles for their ability to quickly clean carcasses, even extremely delicate ones. Their plethora of functions and capabilities allow insects to provide economically- and environmentally-friendly solutions, despite their social stigmas. A combination of marketing and public policy can help shift negative perceptions of insects through education and awareness on the benefits of biomimicry.
Global Atlanta: How threatened are bees generally in the U.S.?
Ms. Ku: Honeybees get a lot of press, but only 7 out of over 20,000 species of bees make honey, representing .035%. Other pollinators, like butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, flies, and other types of bees are also at risk but tend to get overlooked. Bumblebees are phenomenal pollinators due to their large and fuzzy anatomies but have been experiencing severe drops in populations. Some species are even locally extinct and endangered. Honeybees were previously threatened by colony collapse disorder about a decade ago, but pesticides and habitat destruction also contribute substantially to their demise. And, of course, the imminent threat to all populations is climate change.
Animals and plants have varying levels of heat tolerance, and with temperatures rising throughout the planet, some populations are unable to survive in these warmer conditions. In fact, Japanese honeybees actually kill Asian giant hornets by surrounding them and rapidly vibrating to raise their collective temperature and essentially cook their enemy; the honeybees are able to withstand slightly higher temperatures than the hornets. However, since Asian giant hornets are not native to North American, honeybees in the US have not learned this defense mechanism. Invasions of foreign species and rapidly rising global temperatures are high barriers for some species to adapt quickly enough to survive.
Global Atlanta: Do you know of any organized groups that are addressing these issues from a public policy perspective?
Ms. Ku: The North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture and the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed are organizations that work with both private and public institutions to promote insects for human food, animal feed, waste management, and other industries.
Global Atlanta: Do you have any recommendations for how humans should relate with insects today and in the future?
Ms. Ku: Bugs are so wonderful and useful! They are not creatures to be feared or revolted. While these perceptions may be hard to overcome as adults, educating children is a great way to begin to shift these mindsets. Kids love bugs and mostly become skeptical towards them through the influence of adults. In teaching kids to appreciate and respect insects they can also help teach us that they are far more helpful than harmful. Implementing gardening and composting into schools, programs, and communities can help promote positive applications of insects.