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News Story
24 February 2020

Insects can work wonders for our food security and health

Photo: H. K. Tang / Flickr

The decline of pollinators and the effects it has on our food production and biodiversity is all over the news. But did you know that insects can help us fight diseases, improve nutrition and be climate smarter? During her visit to the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Dr. Segenet Kelemu, the Director General at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), presented exciting on-going research in the field of insectology and entomology.

One application of our knowledge about insects can help us reduce the use of pesticides. Researchers call it the “push-pull system”. In this approach, one has to grow plants that attract pests (push) and plants that trap pests (pull) next to an agricultural crop that needs protection.

The recent discovery of symbionts, organisms that cohabit and interact with malaria spreading Anopheles mosquito, can play a major role in reducing the global malaria burden. Using a symbiont as a proxy can make it possible to switch off the ability of the Anopheles mosquitos to transmit the malaria parasite. This discovery can not only help us beat the disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, but also find cures for many dangerous zoonotic diseases, like babesiosis and Lyme disease.

Another interesting finding is about applying odor substances from waterbucks on cattle. These compounds act like a natural repellant, keeping away the tsetse flies that cause sleeping sickness, a deadly disease endemic to 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Following a similar principle, ICIPE researchers are also working on finding alternatives to acaricides, chemicals used to kill ticks and mites. This research is of critical importance because ticks are developing resistance to acaricides, which can cause an increase in tick-borne diseases.

Dr. Segenet Kelemu giving a talk at SLU, January 2020.

Photo: Malin Plantin, SLU

Insects can also be used for food directly and, in fact, two billion people consume insects as part of their traditional diet. It is not yet common knowledge, but insects are rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acid. Currently, the main source for omega-3 is fish, and there is a great need to find alternatives because fish populations are collapsing, while farmed fish comes with a lot of environmental challenges.

Currently, most of these edible insects are harvested in the wild with little control and regulation. As population and food security pressures increase, it is likely that we will have to develop sustainability standards for insect harvesting because of their role in ecosystem function and biodiversity.

Unexpectedly, farming insects has proven challenging. One example is long-horned grasshopper, the most appreciated edible insect by societies around Lake Victoria. But researchers at ICIPE studied the gut content of these insects using DNA fingerprinting and eventually found a feed that matched their dietary requirements, which has led to successful production trials.

Animal feed from farmed insects is a growing market with great potential when it comes to both nutrition, sustainability and economy. First, insects are a more natural food for fish, chicken and cattle. Second, animal feed, like soymeal and cereals, represents 60-70% of the production cost and requires a lot of land, water and fertilizers. Using insect-based feed can cut these costs dramatically because insects are 10 times more effective in producing protein than cattle. They grow fast and need less water and space. And with a 5% higher protein content than soy, farmers will be using less of such feed too.

As our climate is changing, insects offer a novel way to balance the competition between our needs for food, feed and fuel. The research innovation into the medical application of insects is very promising too. Who knows, maybe insects will save the world?

Watch the recording of the event about insect research for food security

Reporting by Maja Malmerg, Researcher at the Department of Biomedical Science and Veterinary Public Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).