Red Palm Weevil: Pest or Protein?

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SANTA MONICA, California — To solve world hunger, we may have to enlist the help of an unlikely hero: the red palm weevil, an insect common in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Until recently, the weevil was seen only as a pest. It has been reported to attack 19 palm species and is difficult to exterminate. But the critter has shown significant potential to alleviate world hunger and poverty as well as reduce global carbon dioxide levels.

Mohammed Ashour, along with four fellow MBA students from McGill University, founded the organization Aspire to tap into Ghanian edible insect markets. Ghana remains mired in widespread food insecurity, and 75 percent of children and two-thirds of pregnant women suffer from anemia. But its affinity for insect consumption makes it a promising candidate for insect farming.

“In the rural community, the food is mainly made up of carbohydrates … What they eat is lacking in nutrition,” said Dr. Clement Akotsen-Mensah, an entomologist and research fellow at the Forest and Horticultural Crops Research Center at the University of Ghana. “The palm weevil can be a good supplement.”

Citing general mistrust of the Ghanian authorities, Ashour noted, “We’re introducing iron and protein in a way that is much more culturally acceptable.” He noted that even when Ghana’s government provides iron pills and vitamins, women are often too wary to take them.

A boon to the prospect of red palm weevil farming in Ghana is that locals already include insects in their diet. Palm weevils and their larvae are especially popular in the north and east, where they are eaten grilled, dried, fried and more, but the supply lags below what it could easily potential be. Currently, the bugs are hand-harvested from felled palm trees after the trees have been tapped for their palm wine. But with the farming projects and capacities introduced by Aspire, a lot more palm weevils can be raised and harvested for cheaper.

This will increase availability and accessibility throughout Ghana, and hopefully spread to other countries. Because the farming process is simple, it can help sustain poor Ghanians and raise them out of a cycle of poverty.

Eating insects also has a strong capacity to help the environment. While producing one pound of beef requires roughly 2900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and 1345 square feet of land, producing the same quantity of cricket protein calls for only one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and 134 square feet of land. Also, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that given constant weight, palm weevils and many other insects have comparable levels of protein to beef, but surpass beef in levels of iron, potassium, zinc, phosphorous and several amino acids.

Nearly six months ago, Aspire began providing Ghanians with starter kits and training to help them establish red palm weevil farms. Now, the organization has begun a cycle of buying back the weevils in order to more efficiently distribute them to poverty-stricken areas throughout the country. Aspire has also begun delving into the possibilities of other palm weevil food products, such as protein-rich flour that can be added to any meal.

“I really see us having great impact,” said Ashour. “By next year’s end, it would be possible to reach anywhere from 500,000 to one million people.” To many, the concept of eating insects still seems unsanitary, unhealthy or outright disgusting. But if misconceptions about eating insects can be dispelled, we will have a greater chance of providing food to needy people around the world.

Mari LeGagnoux

Sources: CNN, Seattle Times, Aspire
Photo: Flickr

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