Before you stomp on the idea of eating bugs, see what this researcher has to say
April 25, 2023
By Ian Evans
Marwa Shumo was a Falling Walls Labs finalist in 2016.
Insects may play an important role in our diet, with the way the world is changing, says entomologist Dr Marwa Shumo.
Can insects save the world? Dr Marwa Shumo(opens in new tab/window) — sometimes known as Lady of the Flies but more accurately described as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Ecology and Natural Resources Management at the Center for Development Research (ZEF)(opens in new tab/window) — explained that at the very least, they will have an important role to play.
That role is dinner.
“Our global population is growing,” she explained. “We’re at around 8 billion people already, and some predictions suggest we will be at 10 billion by the year 2050, and maybe even surpass that. In parallel, there are nations in the developing world that are changing economically, so for instance in China, the middle classes are expanding and therefore moving towards a more Westernized diet, with more animal products.”
That trend is coupled with an alarming amount of food waste, Marwa said. She estimated that about a third of the food produced worldwide is wasted.
Here in Europe, it’s because of high standards and the shelf-life requirements that supermarkets have,” she said. “In the developing world, the waste happens post-harvest, as the infrastructure isn’t always there to get it to people who need it, and there are not proper storage techniques.
In addition to the increasing demand and the existing waste, Marwa also noted that there is a global trend of people leaving rural areas: “Especially in the developing world, around 60% — more than half the world's population — is going to reside in urban areas. The people who traditionally produced food for us are no longer going to be producing food for us in a traditional way and in a traditional environment because they are moving out of farm lands and rural places, where food is normally produced, and into cities. And therefore we have to come up with alternative agricultural and food production systems that can coexist with us and cities.”
Let them eat bugs
Insect-based protein provides a solution. After all, not only are insects rich in high quality protein, they grow up to 100 times faster than traditional animal protein sources, and they can be fed on food waste. Instead of rotting at dumps, food can be reprocessed to offer new nutritional value.
Of course, there is a “yuck” factor that comes with eating insects. Even as someone who has dedicated their life to the study of insects — to the point of becoming an expert in the black soldier fly — Marwa understands where that impulse comes from:
I get it! People think I’m crazy because I work with insects and talk about them all the time, but I understand it. When people started … agricultural activities, pests were a risk to their livelihood — the value they made out of selling — and they were a risk to their food source. Diseases like malaria were associated with insects, so people became more fearful, associating bad hygiene and sicknesses to the existence of, or the coexistence of, insects.
As Marwa illustrated, however, the often-strained relationship between humans and insects is one that humans are responsible for stirring up:
It's actually people who invaded insect territory. People who damaged the environment and created, still water for mosquitoes to multiply transmit malaria. It’s a problem humans created by trying to manage the equilibrium of the ecosystem and make it only competent for human pleasures and luxuries rather than taking into consideration our coexistence with other members of this ecosystem.
Marwa’s specific area of expertise is the black soldier fly(opens in new tab/window), which doesn’t carry infections and eats nearly everything, making it a great candidate for insect-based protein. It can reprocess waste food and provide new nutritional protein to the food chain. Insect farming itself uses very little space, making it less harmful to nature compared to the deforestation required to expand existing protein sources, and it frees up food sources that would otherwise be used for animal feed. From Marwa’s perspective, a move to insect protein represents the kind of evolution of food supply that humankind has always embraced:
It’s something that has co-existed with the history of mankind. People domesticated wild animals when they settled and started their agricultural farming activities. They stopped collecting things from the wild because they formed settlements of humans and they needed consistent supply. People adapted to the climate and seasonality of production — all things we now take for granted. Things are changing again, so again we need to be adaptable and come up with innovative solutions for our changing situation.
Recipe for Spicy Critter Fritters
We asked Marwa for some recommendations for an insect recipe, and she recommended Spicy Critter Fritters from Bug Vivant(opens in new tab/window).
The ingredients are:
1/2 cup cricket flour
2 beaten large eggs
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups fresh corn kernels
2 thinly sliced scallion
1/2 finely chopped seeded jalapeño
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup light sour cream
1 teaspoon lime juice
1/3 cup chopped chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon lightly toasted weevils (optional)
You can find the instructions — and more recipes — on Bug Vivant, here(opens in new tab/window)
Dealing with misinformation and negative stereotypes
Marwa’s commentary on insects and their huge potential for changing the way our food supply affects that planet is laced with enthusiasm and humor. However, the concept of insect-based protein, and climate action in general, can lead to polarized and aggressive debate. When Elsevier launched its Confidence in Research collaboration(opens in new tab/window), the associated survey revealed that nearly a third of respondents had experienced or knew a close colleague who had experienced, online abuse. More than half of respondents said they felt a responsibility to engage in social media discussions, and more than half also said that engaging with discussion online is essential to develop their reputation.
As someone who has embraced opportunities to raise the profile of her work through social media and beyond, has Marwa ever found herself on the receiving end of online abuse?
“Not just online — it’s happened in-person,” she said. “One of the comments I remember particularly well was someone questioning my womanhood because I work with insects, because I work with waste. Sometimes people will question your value as a human being because you deal with something they see as disgusting, and that there must be something wrong with me, as a woman, choosing to work in this field.”
When she was younger, the negative stereotyping, the judgment and the negative criticisms would get to her, Marwa said. “Now it just makes me want to work even more.”
Marwa also finds that her research area is subject to misinformation. She gave the example of recent debate in the international media around a European Union regulation that allowed the inclusion of insect protein in certain foods(opens in new tab/window). Marwa recalled how that went over online:
There was a lot of conspiracy theory. People were claiming that you should stop buying any product made in the EU because they were going to mix in flora and insects and things. I was trying to explain that this is a standard procedure for certain products that have to receive a certain permit before being marketed and that you will know an insect product is an insect product — it doesn’t mean that every slice of bread in Europe will have insect ingredients mixed in. People would say to me, ‘You’re just defending them because you make money out of it.’
Refuting misinformation can be exhausting and disheartening for a researcher. Marwa is of two minds as to whether researchers have a responsibility for engaging with those kinds of reactions:
I don’t think researchers are obliged to respond, but we do have a duty to enlighten people. In the past, I think many people in traditional research spheres weren’t engaged with the wider society, which is why people used to say academics are trapped in ivory towers. That’s why I'm a very active science communicator. I want people to see what we are doing. I want them to ask questions, and I want them to be able to be curious and then go home and start looking for further information.
Advice for dealing with criticism
When it comes to other researchers who may be dealing with criticism, she had two pieces of advice to share. At the forefront: finding a mentor:
I think I progressed a lot because of the great mentors I had, specifically my PhD supervisor. I’d talk to him about the times that people had disparaged me or my work, and he would reflect on his experience in his early years as a researcher or a scientist. You learn that you are not alone. These experiences are universal, and as humans, we encounter people that disagree with us and who will try and downsize us and our efforts.
The second piece of advice is to embrace the love you have for your work:
I am in love with my work and with my research. Even if I have these moments of weakness, I would wake up again the next morning excited because I was going to go to do something that I love. So keep on doing the things that you love and that make you feel happy and satisfied and that are always igniting your curiosity and interest and purpose in life.