With nearly 2,000 varieties of edible insects identified, bug consumption holds a bright future in being able to feed a hungry world, Foreign Correspondent Colin Randall reports
When tourists wander around Beijing’s street markets, they often come across stalls selling fried scorpions. In downtown Bangkok, passers-by are offered bamboo worms and crickets.
Whatever the curiosity value, it is fair to assume that only a minority is tempted to take a nibble.
But China and Thailand are two among scores of countries and regions where insects are food.
To a Canadian medicine and business student with Egyptian roots and a childhood spent partly in Saudi Arabia, bugs give hope to millions blighted by poverty and undernourishment.
Mohammed Ashour is co-founder of Aspire, a social enterprise aiming to feed the world with insects as a viable alternative to livestock that requires much less water, land and feed.
He believes there are also countless possibilities, from delicious food complements to self-contained snacks, for appealing to more sophisticated palates.
But fighting malnutrition remains his main motivation.
With four fellow students at McGill University in Montreal, Mr Ashour has turned the idea into an award-winning venture, its mission to “provide economically challenged, malnourished populations with high protein and micronutrient-rich food solutions derived from the supply and development of insects and insect-based products”.
The project’s origin dates from a chance conversation during a friend’s birthday dinner. In a coffee shop afterwards, the friend – a family doctor – told him of a patient with stomach problems.
Describing her diet, the patient mentioned that she had recently consumed insects. “You have your answer. You ate bugs and now you are feeling sick,” the doctor replied.
The woman was startled. As a native of Colombia, she had – like much of the South American country’s population – eaten insects since childhood. They were blameless and her condition was later diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
But Mr Ashour’s imagination was fired. His team then racked its collective brain to come up with an entry for the 2013 edition of the Hult prize. The award of US$1 million (Dh3.67m) in start-up capital is offered by the Hult global business school to students who devise the best scheme to tackle food security, water, energy and education issues in under-developed countries.
Mr Ashour knew most people in the West, even those happy to eat snails or frogs’ legs, would consider the woman’s eating habits disgusting.
“But I could think of nothing else all the way home,” he said. “I realised it was unscientific to dismiss this source of food simply because I was not accustomed to it. I was blown away by the fact that insects could be nutritious.”
In fact, he discovered, two billion people in 162 countries regularly ate insects as a rich source of protein, iron and micronutrients.
The McGill team quickly began work on creating their social enterprise, Aspire, and won the Hult prize against competition from 10,000 teams.
Mr Ashour is its chief executive officer, acclaimed as a visionary by the World Forum for Responsible Economy to which he made a keynote speech at last month’s conference in Lille, France, and business is expanding.
During the 11-month competition process, his team studied food and nutrition security and learnt the best practices in insect rearing in South-East Asia, Africa and South America.
Since winning the award, Aspire has established itself in Mexico, Ghana and the United States.
There are currently only 15 full-time employees but Aspire also has a network of more than 500 small-time entrepreneurs in Ghana farming palm weevils part-time to subsidise their incomes. “We expect our company headcount to double in the next year and our number of farmers to increase four-fold,” said Mr Ashour, now 28 and married with a daughter.
The company has begun earning revenue and has raised further funding as it strives to become the world’s leading operation of its type.
Its competition includes cookbooks of insect recipes to other producers such as Six Foods, whose co-founder Laura D’Asaro hails the high vitamin and mineral value of insects.
“Four crickets have as much calcium as a glass of milk, and more iron per gram than beef,” said Ms D’Asaro, a Seattle native who first ate fried caterpillars and termites in Tanzania.
Aspire’s website echoes the claims of immense benefits when comparing insects with farm animals. Beyond the modest land, feed and water needs, it says, greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower.
Pressed for his own list of tasty, nourishing insect foods, Mr Ashour recommended:
•roasted crickets, a snack with five times greater food conversion efficiency than beef;
• mealworms, lava of the mealworm beetle, reared on oats, grain and wheat bran and eaten baked or fried;
• grasshoppers, an ingredient popular in Mexico where they form the base for various dishes, most notably tortillas;
• locusts, recognised as Halal and eaten fried, smoked or dried
• mopane worms, described as Zimbabwe’s favourite snack.
Mr Ashour views bug consumption as a sideshow to the bigger picture in a world where the population is expected to grow from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, with one billion lacking reliable water supplies and three billion living in slums.
“More than ever, we need a nutritious source of protein that is eco-friendly and resource efficient,” he said.
Among the estimated 1,900 species of edible species of insect, Mr Ashour and his team believed that such a source has now been identified.