Afton Halloran wasn’t looking for love when she searched out one of the world’s weirdest foods, a sheep cheese imbued with fly larvae. It was 2013, and Halloran was working as a consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, co‑writing a major publication on the contribution of insects to global food security. So when she heard about casu marzu, a traditional delicacy among the locals on the island of Sardinia, she wanted to try it.
“It’s a normal type of cheese, but in households they leave it out and allow a special fly called the cheese fly to lay its eggs in it,” she explains. “It’s a snobby fly that only eats fine cheese. The larvae develop and they digest the cheese. The fats in the cheese get slowly broken down and the fermentation creates a completely different flavour.” Because of the obvious food safety issues, the cheese is not commercially available. She contacted a well‑known chef on the island, Roberto Flore, for help.
They met, and he took her to a farmer who gave her some cheese. It had a pungent, barnyard smell, and the texture was creamy and smooth with tangy and spicy notes. The bold aftertaste of the cheese lingered for a long time. But that wasn’t the most powerful impression of the day. She and Flore connected immediately. She was impressed by his knowledge of local and regional food systems and his pride for all things Sardinian. Halloran, originally from Ladysmith, could see similarities between the island cultures of their homes.
Flore was representing Sardinia in a national culinary competition on Italian television, so they saw each other often when he travelled to Rome. Halloran was planning a move back to Copenhagen, where she had done her master’s degree in urban agriculture, and it turned out that Flore had been thinking about the same thing. He wanted to work at the Nordic Food Lab, a not‑for‑profit institution devoted to exploring new flavours from Nordic food sources including insects. The lab was co‑founded by Rene Redzepi, head chef at Noma, which has been named the best restaurant in the world four times by the influential Restaurant magazine.
So they moved to Copenhagen. Flore got a job at the lab, and was promoted to head chef. “It was completely coincidental and serendipitous,” she says, about her cheesy love story. “But it makes sense too.”
“People are realizing that there are over 1,900 different species of insects that can be used just like any other ingredient.”
Halloran’s interest in eating insects began in 2007. She was wandering through a market in Kampala, Uganda, when a vendor offered her some deep‑fried crickets. She was a fourth‑year UBC student in the Global Resource Systems Program, and she was game for a new experience. The crunchy little bugs caused her to think. “This is a food source that exists all over the world, and yet we in the West haven’t really taken it up,” she says. “It’s us that are the strange ones.”
Since then, she has travelled to many places and studied how local cultures produce and consume insects. In Copenhagen, she helped to form a research consortium of public and private institutions called GREEINSECT, which received a grant of $1.2M Euros (about $1.7M Canadian) from the Danish International Development Agency to investigate how insects can be used as a supplementary source of protein by means of mass production in small to large‑scale industries in Kenya. Halloran is currently working on her PhD in collaboration with this group. Her project looks at the nutritional, socio‑economic and environmental impacts of mass rearing insects in Kenya. Other researchers, from Kenya and around the world, are looking at various other angles, such as the economics, the legislation, the food policy, and the insect pathology.
As she flies back and forth between Kenya and Copenhagen, she sees two ends of the spectrum of entomophagy: the development of an industry to revalidate traditional food and address food security; and the use of insects as an innovative ingredient in fine dining. The Nordic Food Lab has developed such delicacies as a garam (think soy sauce) made from fermented grasshoppers, and Flore recently created a toasted bee larvae soup, which Halloran says tastes like honey and grass. At Noma recently, she tasted a beef tartare sprinkled with a type of local ant that produces a formic acid as a defense mechanism. She describes the effect as “little bombs of lemon” dropping on your tongue.
“In many cultures that have insect consumption as part of their food culture, insects are generally considered a delicacy and can often cost more than other animal meats. So on one hand there’s a high value being placed on this food source. However, the problem in the West is that insects are still seen as a novelty product or something used as a gimmick. But I think that is changing. People are realizing that there are over 1,900 different species of insects that can be used just like any other ingredient.”
- Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold‑blooded. Feed‑to‑meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used, but nonetheless insects are extremely efficient. On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
- The production of greenhouse gases by most insects is likely to be lower than that of conventional livestock. For example, pigs produce 10‑100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight than mealworms.
- Insects can feed on bio‑waste, such as food and human waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform this into high‑quality protein that can be used for animal feed.
- Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought‑resistant than cattle.
- Insect farming is less land‑dependent than conventional livestock farming.
The nutritional content of insects depends on their stage of life (metamorphic stage), habitat and diet. However, it is widely accepted that:
- Insects provide high‑quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids (comparable with fish). They are also rich in fibre and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
- Insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) such as like H1N1 (bird flu) and BSE (mad cow disease).
Livelihood and Social Benefits
- Insect gathering and rearing can offer important livelihood diversification strategies. Insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild. Minimal technical or capital expenditure is required for basic harvesting and rearing equipment.
- Insects can be gathered in the wild, cultivated, processed and sold by the poorest members of society, such as women and landless people in urban and rural areas. These activities can directly improve diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street food.
- Insect harvesting and farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed, transitional and developing economies.
- Insects can be processed for food and feed relatively easily. Some species can be consumed whole. Insects can also be processed into pastes or ground into meal, and their proteins can be extracted.
(Source: information guide based on the FAO’s Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security.)