More funding can deepen research on insects, food security

African scholars want more funding to intensify research and broaden existing knowledge on insects as a food source, and as one way of increasing the food and nutritional security of the continent’s people.

They acknowledge that there are a lot of knowledge gaps in the study of insects as a food source for humans and feed for livestock that need to be filled.

This is made even more urgent by a growing population on the continent, who will add more pressure on available sources of food and nutrition, they noted.

“Malnutrition is high in many parts of Africa and is likely to get worse as the effects of climate change exert more pressure on our agriculture. Insects are, therefore, an important source of food and feed for livestock,” noted Dr Dorothy Nakimbugwe, an associate professor in the department of food technology and nutrition at Makerere University, Uganda.

With the escalating demand for food, it was urgent to explore alternative and sustainable food and feed sources for direct consumption by people and for animals that provide food to humans, she added.

It was, therefore, important for the research community in Africa to increase available knowledge on the subject and share it with the people, she told a virtual discussion on Insects for Food and Feed in Africa as part of a 2021 Public Dialogue Series hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) and Makerere.

The AAP was co-created by Michigan State University (MSU) and African thought leaders in 2016. It is a consortium of Michigan State University and 10 leading African universities.

Sustainable Development Goals

The dialogue, Nakimbugwe noted, was in line with promoting attainment of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, on ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture as well as SDG 12, on ensuring sustainable production and consumption patterns.

It was also in line with the African Union Agenda 2063 that envisioned a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, she said.

While Africa was home to an estimated 1.3 billion people, it also hosted about half of the poor people globally, about 30% of the stunted children in the world, making for a strong case for diversification of her sources of protein for her populace, noted Dr Deborah Amulen of the department of livestock industrial resources at Makerere University.

Different cultures, she said, recognised some insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, worms and crickets as food and widely used it, especially during food crises, but it was important to deploy science and advance available knowledge, all the same.

While there existed a growing body of knowledge on the creatures right from capture to rearing, scientific literature on breeding was available. However, there were major limitations, since most of the information available was based on studies in laboratories, she said.

“Few studies exist on areas like post-harvest technologies for handling insects, the same as those on food products from the creatures.

“Similarly, there is little published data on some of the nutritional properties of edible insects, as well as the cost benefits of rearing them by farmers,” she added.

In addition, the lecturer observed that extension services and information sharing by universities and other organisations was low, resulting in farmers dropping from the trade, despite its possible benefits in the form of the income it could earn them.

One way of remedying the situation is through mainstreaming the study of insects in the curriculum at graduate level in universities, thus allowing more research. Discussions on doing this were taking place at Makerere, for example, she noted.

“A lot of knowledge on entomology (the general study of insects) already exists, but we need to conduct a lot of research on productive insects owing to their importance as food and a key ingredient in formulation of livestock feeds,” she observed.

Funding opportunities

With funding being available, many opportunities for research regarding the use of the creatures as food existed, including in areas such as hygiene, safety and consumer awareness and acceptance, noted Jennifer Pechal, an assistant professor in the department of entomology at the MSU.

While funding sources are not always plentiful, scholars needed to extend their search for financial support beyond universities, and extend it to the private sector and the government, she said.

The United States International Development Agency and the US Department for Agriculture, for example, currently had an active call for funding for information on insect production, from around the world, and African academics could take advantage of it, she disclosed.

To increase information available to the public on the subject, Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe, with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, had produced a book on the value of addition of insects, Robert Musundire, an associate professor of entomology in the department of crop science and post-harvest technology at Chinhoyi University, told the delegates.

While consumption of insects was common in Zimbabwe, most harvesting was done in the wild, with little farming taking place. This could be blamed on farmers having limited information on rearing techniques.

“Increased knowledge on insects also has the potential to lead to more profitable livestock keeping since about 70% of the cost of keeping the animals goes to the cost of feeds. With research on rearing and on the best ways of formulating feeds using insects, we could see the cost of animal protein coming down,” he said.

The Rockefeller Foundation appreciated the need to work with universities and research organisations on its insect for food programme, said Betty Kibaara, director of the Africa regional office of the food initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation, based in Nairobi.

The American foundation was supporting the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology, known as ICIPE, based in Nairobi, for research on productive insects for food and pet feeds. Other researchers were also welcome to form partnerships with the foundation, she said.