Edible insects and locusts as more than pests

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Throughout history, locusts have been notorious pests causing extensive damage to agriculture worldwide. Efforts to control their outbreaks have primarily focused on suppressing populations and reducing crop destruction. However, it is important to recognize the ecological significance of locusts as extraordinary natural phenomena and vital contributors to ecosystem nutrient cycling, predating settled agriculture. Moreover, locusts have served as a nutritious food source for humans, both in the past and present. With the availability of more environmentally friendly biopesticides as alternatives to harmful synthetic pesticides, incorporating locust harvesting into control strategies becomes more feasible. Despite the existing logistical challenges, a change in perspective could lead to a more sustainable integration of locust outbreaks into regional food systems by using them as fertilizer, feed for livestock, and a valuable source of protein, minerals, fat, and fiber for human consumption. [1]

Locusts as food

In “Nsenene,” the filmmaker Michelle Coomber documents a Ugandan tradition under threat.

Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects can be traced back to ancient times. There is evidence of humans eating desert locusts as early as 2000 BC. There are multiple mentions of locusts being eaten in the bible [2] for example Leviticus 11:22 and Matthew 3:4. Eating insects was even considered a delicacy of the social elite present at royal banquets.[3] [1] Traditionally, the Khoisan of southern Africa ate grasshoppers and locusts after roasting them on grills.[1] In Brazil, the Nambikwara people regularly consume locusts, both hoppers and adults of Rhammatocerus schistocercoides.[4]Today, locusts are harvested and eaten in many diverse, small-scale ways, Mexico) and also produced in large commercial operations. They have been approved as food and feed in the European Union. [5] An estimated 2 billion people already see insects as food globally.[6] More than 126 species of crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts have been identified as edible in sub-Saharan Africa. Food companies such as Hargol in Isreal and Insectipro in Kenya and many more are farming this protein for use for human consumption. Both insects offer nutritional benefits and have been consumed for centuries due to their abundance, accessibility, and high protein content. Locusts and grasshoppers are rich in essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals such as iron and zinc. They are also relatively low in fat and can provide a sustainable alternative protein source with a smaller ecological footprint compared to traditional livestock. These insects can be cooked in various ways, including frying, roasting, or incorporating them into dishes such as stir-fries, soups, or snacks. As a result of their nutritional value and potential for sustainable cultivation, locusts and grasshoppers are increasingly being explored as viable solutions to address food security and promote sustainable food systems in different parts of the world.

Locusts as fertilizer

Fried locusts sold on a Western African market (image by S. Tchibozo).

Herbivores play a role in transferring energy from plants to decomposers through various means such as plant clippings, feces, and cadavers. Locusts and grasshoppers have the potential to accelerate nitrogen cycling and enhance plant abundance in certain ecosystems by altering the abundance and decomposition rate of plant litter.[7] The ecological impacts of locust outbreaks on a broader scale have received limited research attention. However, locust swarms can distribute nutrients across vast distances, far from the soil where the affected plants originally grew. This characteristic makes locusts significant carriers of nutrients, particularly in arid ecosystems with limited nutrient availability. The influence of a locust swarm on nutrient cycling hinges on the nutrient quantity present in their excrement (frass) or deceased bodies and the timeframe for those nutrients to become accessible to plants. Kietzka et al. (2021) calculated that nitrogen mineralized from the frass and cadavers of a 1 km2 area (100 ha) of locusts and their offspring could meet the nitrogen requirements of around 306 ha of rice crops and 59 ha of maize plants.

Harvesting locusts specifically for fertilizer is a more direct way to close the ecological cycle. Their cadavers can be converted into nutrient-rich organic matter. The Bug Picture Kenya in 2021, harvested locusts and tested rudimentary processing techniques for animal feed and organic fertilizer production (see photo) so that harvesters can take direct benefits from the desert locust without external involvement.

Harvesting locusts is often done at night when they are roosting and less active. This can be done using nets or traps, depending on the specific situation and location. After harvesting, locusts can be milled (ground into a fine powder or meal), crushed, or composted.

Locust upcycling projects

In recent years, mechanical control and harvesting have been used as a response to outbreaks although it is not necessarily a desired choice by the community or government. Mechanical control was used in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2023, Pakistan from 2019-2020, Pakistan turns locusts into chicken feed to tackle the invasion, and Kenya in 2021.

Resources for Mechanical control

English short title Year published Category Author Species purview Geographic purview Language
Afghan northwest hit by plague of locusts 2008 Media Reuters Moroccan locust (Dociostaurus maroccanus) Afghanistan English
EMPRES strengthening desert locust management Guide FAO Emergency Prevention System for Transboundary Animal and Plant Pests and Diseases, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations English
FAO locust Emergency prepaRedness Toolkit (eLERT) Information hub FAO Food Chain Crisis Management Framework, FAO Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division, FAO Plant Production and Protection Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Southern Asia, Western Asia English
FAO warns of potentially devastating Moroccan Locust outbreak in Afghanistan’s wheat basket 2023 Media Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Moroccan locust (Dociostaurus maroccanus) Afghanistan English
How war threatens Ethiopia's struggle against worst locust swarm in 25 years 2020 Media The Guardian Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
In Kenya, this start-up is turning locust swarms into animal feed 2021 Media Kenya English
India combats locust attack amid Covid-19 pandemic 2020 Media BBC News Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
Kenya: A sustainable solution to locust swarms? 2021 Media BBC News Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Kenya English
Kenya's farmers struggle as locusts descend 2021 Media Deutsche Welle Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Kenya English
Locust Swarms as Big as Cities are Causing a Crisis in Africa 2020 Media Newsweek Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
Locust Swarms Ravaging East Africa Are the Size of Cities 2020 Media Bloomberg News Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
Locusts have caused problems for quite some time Guide Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), Red locust (Nomadacris septemfasciata) English
Pakistan turns locusts into chicken feed to tackle the invasion 2020 Media Aljazeera Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Pakistan English
The Biblical locust plagues of 2020 Media BBC News Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
This Kenyan Startup Is Turning Locust Swarms into Animal Feed 2021 Media Freethink Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Kenya English
Villagers In Sumba Chase Away Migratory Locusts With Loud Noises 2022 Media SEA Today News Migratory locust (Locusta migratoria) English
Why today's biblical locust swarms can't be stopped 2020 Media Mashable Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) English
Workshop of spray equipment used in desert locust control 1994 Technical report Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) Egypt English

Milled desert locusts are high in nitrogen. Photo by The Bug Picture.

Organizations involved in edible insects

Organization Acronym Website Type Focus Focus keywords Geographic purview
Hargol FoodTech View URL Private Sector Development, Research, Governance
Agricultural Development, International Development, Regional Cooperation, Sustainable Development, Technology, Edible Insects
InsectiPro View URL Unknown Other Edible Insects Kenya
The Bug Picture View URL Private Sector Development, Management Edible Insects, Agricultural Development, Sustainable Development

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kietzka GJ, Lecoq M, Samways MJ (2021) Ecological and Human Diet Value of Locusts in a Changing World. Agronomy 11: 1856. https://doi.org/10.3390/agronomy1109185
  2. Evans J, Alemu MH, Flore R, Frøst MB, Halloran A, Jensen AB, Maciel-Vergara G, Meyer-Rochow VB, Münke- Svendsen C, Olsen SB (2015) “Entomophagy”: An Evolving Terminology in Need of Review. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed. 1:4 293–305. https://doi.org/10.3920/JIFF2015.0074
  3. Van Huis (2021) Harvesting Desert Locusts for Food and Feed May Contribute to Crop Protection but Will Not Suppress Upsurges and Plagues. Journal of Insects as Food and Feed. 7:3 245–248. https://doi.org/10.3920/JIFF2021.x003
  4. Lecoq M, Pierozzi I (1995) Rhammatocerus schistocercoides Locust Outbreaks in Mato Grosso (Brazil): A Long-Standing Phenomenon. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 2: 45–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504509509469888
  5. Taylor (November 12, 2021) Craving locusts of larvae? The E.U. is approving insects as food. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/11/12/locusts-lavae-crickets-european-union/ Accessed 5/24/23.
  6. van Huis A, Van Itterbeeck J, Klunder H, Mertens E, Halloran A, Muir G, Vantomme P (2013) Edible insects Future prospects for food and feed security. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation. Rome. https://hopperwiki.org/images/e/ed/Edible_insects_Future_prospects_for_food_and_feed_security.pdf
  7. Belovsky GE, Slade JB (2000) Insect herbivory accelerates nutrient cycling and increases plant production. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97: 14412–14417. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.250483797