Eating bugs

The deplorable specter of hunger amidst plenty continues to stalk Israel and the world

A woman prepares to eat a water bug at a bar in downtown Tokyo (photo credit: TORU HANAI / REUTERS)
A woman prepares to eat a water bug at a bar in downtown Tokyo
(photo credit: TORU HANAI / REUTERS)
IN ISRAEL, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports that two of every five children go to bed hungry. And according to the National Insurance Institute, even though 80% of single mothers work, fully one of every four such mothers and their children live in poverty. In Jerusalem, for instance, more than half of all children live below the poverty line.
Globally, since 2000, the proportion of destitute people in the world fell by half, according to the US Agency for International Development. Overall the world does produce enough food to feed everyone. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global daily per capi ta food availability rose from 2220 calories in the early 1960s to close to 3,000 calories today. As a result, the percentage of chronically undernourished people in poor countries fell from one person in three in the mid 1970s to just 1 in 7 three decades later.
Yet the specter of hunger still haunts the world. There are some 800 million hungry malnourished persons, mainly in poor countries. There are severe famines in such troubled countries as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. In the 2011 famine in Somalia, 260,000 people died of hunger, half of them children. Widespread civil conflicts have created food crises in fully 48 countries today.
The United Nations projects world population will rise to 10 billion by 2050. How will the world feed all those hungry mouths? In Israel, the proportion of land under cultivation is falling, only 1% of the work force is employed in agriculture, and the food production index has risen by only 12% since the year 2000. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Kahlon tries to keep his promise to reduce the cost of living by fostering cheap food imports, pulling the rug from under Israeli farmers.
The problem of hunger is not just a shortage of total calories but rather, expensive scarce protein. Empty calories from sugar and carbohydrates are of little value and lead to obesity and disease.
In four decades, world meat consumption has grown by 50%. But eating meat is extremely wasteful, as it takes 7 to 10 calories of animal feed to make a calorie of meat. Even for chicken, it takes more than two pounds of chicken feed to produce a pound of chicken. A sustainable protein source is indeed a core problem.
Clearly, to defeat hunger, we need creative out-of-the-box thinking.
So − why not eat high-protein bugs? This insane idea is gaining momentum, in Israel and abroad. If we can suspend the initial “yuck” reaction, the case for bugs is persuasive.
Let’s run the numbers. There are a million times more individual insects on the planet than humans. Bugs are plentiful and nutritious. Take grasshoppers, for instance.
According to Dror Tamir, co-founder of Hargol, an Israeli start-up that exports grasshopper-based food products, grasshoppers surpass beef in nutrition, efficiency and sustainability. Grasshoppers contain more protein (72 percent protein content) than beef, have all the key amino acids and do not contain saturated fat or cholesterol, antibiotics or hormones. They have Omega 3, iron, zinc, folic acid, B12, and Chitin, which slows our metabolism and may assist in losing weight.
I spoke with Dr. Gilead Fortuna, senior research fellow and head of the Center for Industrial Excellence at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and former senior vice president of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Together with Idan Liebes and Shiri Freund Koren, he prepared a report on “Insects in the Service of Mankind” and recommend ed to establish in Afula an entrepreneurship and industrial center to integrate scientific and business knowledge in various insect applications. According to these experts, the market for edible insects may reach between 0.5-1.5 billion dollars within five to eight years.
The Jerusalem Report: In your study, you note a key difficulty: “The food sector in Israel is expected to be commercially limited due to the kosher limitations of most types of food made from insects.” Is there some way to circumvent this? For instance: when insects are ground into ‘flour,’ the end result is very far from the original raw material. Are there any rabbis willing and able to provide a revolutionary ‘ psak din ’ on this? We know that “הברא” (locust) is explicitly defined as ‘kosher’ in the Bible – but we are not sure what the Bible means exactly, because there are many many species of locust.
Fortuna: “It appears that the likelihood of a rabbinic decision [making insects kosher] will not be easy, nor in the near future. The use of insects as food is important and will definitely grow, but it seems it will take much more time for a breakthrough owing to regulators. But regarding pollination, waste treatment and animal feed, these ar eas are much closer to commercialization. However, use of insects for human food will of course grow. It is also very important to develop industrial processes for insect growth, to enable commercialization in the next stages.”
True, the Bible does state, “you may eat the locust (arbeh), the sal’am, the hargol, and the hagav.” And the Talmud (Hullin) says “any kind of grasshopper that has four walking legs, four wings, two jumping legs and whose wings cover the greater part of its body is kosher.” The Midrash even provides a recipe: Pickle them (in brine).
However, the late British Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz said, “None of the four kinds of locust mentioned [in the Bible] is certainly known [today]” and declared them forbidden. That largely remains the halacha (religious law).
However, Yemenite Jews have a long tradition of eating locusts. And in 2013, the BBC reported that chef Moshe Basson, at Jerusalem’s trendy Eucalyptus Restaurant, served locusts by boiling them, rolling them in flour, garlic, coriander and chili and then deep-frying them.
In March 2013, The Times of Israel reported that “southern Israel’s skies were blackened ... by the wings of millions of the locusts, as the largest infestation to hit the country in decades swarmed across the Egyptian border and settled to chow down on the crops of local farmers.” Many believe that the Biblical codicil allowing Jews to eat locusts was simply a merciful recognition of the devastation caused by swarms of locusts, who left nothing to eat but the locusts themselves.
The Report: You studied the possibility of creating a national center for insect research in Afula. What is the current status of the Afula project? Is there a chance that your proposal for a National Center will gain funding?
Fortuna: “Yes! There is an energetic, focused Mayor of Afula, Yitzhak Meron, who is investing effort in moving this project ahead, with the help of some experienced supporters from industry and Academe, and we, too, at the Neaman Institute are helping, mainly through contacts for funds and links with relevant persons.
“With regard to managing the establishment of the Center: Haifa University Prof. Yoram Yerushalmi was chosen to be its head. He is an expert on insects, Technion lecturer on food science and among the founders of Flying Spark, a start-up. He leads the contacts for building programs that combine companies and Academe. I meet with him every two weeks.
“Regarding the budget – there are many interactions with the Ministry of Agricul ture, the Innovation Administration and the Economy Ministry, and last week we benefited from a visit by Aharon Aharon, who heads the Innovation Authority, and his senior administrators, in Afula. We discussed the establishment of a Magnet Center on the subject. [The MAGNET incentive program (Generic Pre-Competitive Technological R&D) focuses on consortiums of industrial companies and research institutions that collaborate to develop innovative technologies in a wide range of areas.] It is possible that with the establishment of the Food Institute in northern Israel, part of its budget will enable it to move forward with the Afula Center.
“Regarding the site – the City of Afula has already established a new office building, with options for laboratories, in central Afula, for advancing start-ups, and part of it has already been dedicated to the insect project; the area available is even larger than is really required at the moment.
“Recently, on March 6, there was an excellent international conference in Afula, on Beneficial Expressions of Insects; the Honorary President was Prof. Dan Shechtman, Nobel Laureate. At the conference, very prominent researchers and industrialists from Germany, Israel, Singapore Holland and Australia participated and supported and approved the establishment of an “Insects in Service of Man” Center in Afula.”
The late revered Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook once said, let the old be renewed, and the new be sanctified. The Hebrew sounds far better: hayashan yitchadesh, hachadesh yitkadesh. Bugs are not only potential food. They are useful for pollination (the world’s bee population is in decline), waste treatment, biological pesticides and even medical materials. And even if you choose not to eat bugs, they are a promising source of animal and fish food.
Several Israeli start-ups are already blazing the trail.
BioBee: Founded 25 years ago by Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, this company focuses on biological pest control (especially, the trouble some Mediterranean fruit fly), pollination using bumblebees, and insects for food and feed. Using black soldier flies, BioBee can turn 100 kg of organic waste into 10 kg of fertilizer and 10 kg of fish food.
Yad Mordecai Pollination Services: The company offers pollination services and produces natural enemies of pests.
Flying Spark
: The company produces protein from the larvae of the Mediterranean fruit fly, rich in protein and amino acids, trailing in quality only egg protein and whey.
Hargol: The company commercializes grasshopper cultivation, which contain 70% protein (compared with 20-25% for fish). Grasshoppers produce 1 kg of edible food for each 1.7-2 kg of feed for the grasshoppers, far superior to the efficiency of beef production.
So, can we rethink our views on those 10 quintillion bugs? Can our rabbis reinterpret the halachic restriction on eating bugs? Can we move from ‘yuck’! to ‘yum’! and offer everyone adequate protein?
Even fast-food giant McDonald’s is now studying using insects for chicken feed, in place of soy. One day, will we crunch a Bug Mac and say, “I’m lovin’ it!?”
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at