A global study has reported a 40 per cent drop, in the last decade, in the population of the insects that pollinate two-thirds of the world'sfood production crops, raising an additional specter in achieving food security, at a time when global food prices are rising on poor yields also caused by climate change.
Farming patterns that are threatening the reproduction cycles of the insects and destroying their habitat have seen many become extinct.
Insects like termites and mayflies could become a delicacy in Kenyan homes and address environmental degradation, with local scientists promoting their benefits as a simple, environmentally friendly solution to the fragile food security situation now affecting over four million in Kenya where the insects are readily available.
Prof Monica Ayieko, a scientist and lecturer at Maseno University, has conducted a survey on how farmers can easily trap the insects, preserve them and turn them into a delicacy, arguing that such insects are favoured by the very weather conditions brought about by climate change. The insects, the Professor argues, should be adopted by farmers keen on protecting the environment because they emit less harmful gases than livestock adopted by farmers.
Insects' role as a food source has also been recognized by scientists at Wageningen University in Netherlands who found that farming them on a large scale for food would cause far less damage to the environment than equivalent livestock production.
The scientists compared emissions created by producing livestock for food and by producing insects. In particular, they focused on the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide, which have a greater warming effect than carbon dioxide. They also measured ammonia production, which harms the environment by acidifying soil and water.
They reared mealworms, locusts and crickets, all of which are consumed around the world, as well as sun beetles and cockroaches, which people do not eat, despite their potential as a protein source, while monitoring the amount of gas produced per kilogram of insect growth. Compared to cattle, weight for weight, insects emitted 80 times less methane, a gas with 25 times more impact on global temperature levels than carbon dioxide, while crickets produced 8-12 times less ammonia than pigs.
These insects are also readily available, even in arid areas where people often experience drought, and are rich in essential nutrients, such as protein, fatty acids, vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium according to Prof Ayieko. There are over 500 edible insects in Africa, with nutrition studies showing that eating 100 grams each day provides enough nutrients to maintain good health, with mayflies and termites, for example, assisting lactating mothers produce milk. Even though insects have been used as food in many Kenyan societies, the major challenge will be to popularise them, according to Professor Ayieko.
Wanton deforestation of Kenyan forests,with only about 2 percent of Kenyan land being forested, and pressure on water resources due to agricultural chemicals, effluent urban and industrial wastes and use for hydroelectic power have put a strain on Kenya's ecosystem and environment. Deforestation for example has led to change in weather patterns, which has had an ultimate effect of delayed planting and harvesting and dismal food production. Kenya currrently has over 4million food insecure people up from just 1 million five years ago according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Kenyan farmers who have been buffeted by the vagaries of weather, with change in planting and harvesting seasons now taking a toll on the food they place on the table, are yet to come to terms with having insects as a delicacy. “I am surrounded by termites from my livestock’s sheds to my farm. I have heard from the radio scientists discussing that they could be the solution to the food shortage we face including the low yields. But i still haven’t understood how anyone can bring themselves to place them in their mouth, chew and swallow them,” said Hannah Wanjohi a peasant farmer from Central Kenya who, like many of her fellow farmers, now only stare at bare lands, at a time when traditionally they would be enjoying a bumper harvest.
Scientists fully aware that marketing the insects is a tough sell have come up with creative ways . Prof Ayieko for example has already made dough and butter from the insects, a method she has patented and which has gained popularity in the US. "We managed to change the way insects look on the table during the project. Besides pastries, we can also make samosas and sausages out of them," she said.
Her idea has already interested the Research Project for Sustainable Development which has funded her research to a tune of $20,000. The Kenya Bureau of Standards is also investigating samples of her muffins, crackers, sausages and meatloaf to see if they could eventually be sold in supermarkets. She, however, warns that not all insects are edible and thus selectivity is important in order to identify and protect the edible ones from major hazards like the use of broad-spectrum insecticides in farms.
The discovery of insects as excellent food sources that contain nutrients more traditionally found in food sources such as beef comes alongside a report recently released by a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) researcher that predicted that by 2050 it will have become far more expensive to buy beef, as "the necessary resources for the production of beef will be three, four, five times higher than those of chicken and pork," making the meat a preserve of the rich.
Critics however argue that raising insects on a large scale could invite disaster since “rearing such insects in their millions would be hard to control and in the event that the insects disappear into nature, the entire world would face hunger," said Dr Philip Ndonga, an entomologist.
Gino Martins’ research, proving a powerful link between Kenyan food security and the country’s insect population, recently catapulted him to international fame as the recipient of a prestigious £30,000 (Sh4.2 million) Whitley Award for Nature, considered the Oscar of the conservation world. But it is through his impact on East African farming that he is now becoming a rising force.
A group of farmers assisted by scientists are now courting certain parasites and insects on their farms to act as natural enemies to other plant threatening parasites, in a model described as ‘sending a thief to catch a thief’.
Insects that include Ladybird beetles, spiders, bats and red fire ants, all long vilified as farmers’ greatest enemies, are now becoming farmers’ friends as multiple applications of synthetic pesticides by farmers fail to resolve the problems responsible for four fifths of the country’s harvests losses. Kenya currently spends close to Sh5bn a year on pesticides, much of it to battle insects.
However, the new farmers’ friend insects either secrete unique fluids that chase away pests, or feed directly and swiftly on the pests. According to many farmers, it takes just a week to rid a farm of pests with natural enemies, as against months when using synthetic pesticides.
Ladybird beetles have been in the frontline of the new techniques. The beetles, both in the adult and larvae stage of growth, prey on aphids, leafhoppers, mealybugs, mites, scales and whiteflies, which are known to devour cereals. A single ladybird consumes approximately 200 - 300 aphids over its lifetime of 1-3 months. Farmers have even begun growing wild sunflowers, with a higher pollen count than domesticated varieties, to attract the Ladybirds.
Rove beetles, another of the new friends, eat all stages of a wide range of insects in the soil or in the foliage, including bean flies, cutworms, scale insects and spider mites. Young larvae search the soil for cocoons of flies and after eating the pupa emerge sometime later as adults.
Last year, a unique parasitic wasp was even introduced into the country by the International Centre for Plant and Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Agricultural Ministry and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and has recorded impressive results in parts of Rift Valley where it was dispatched to tackle the notorious African fruit fly that feeds on mangoes and avocados.
Orchards that have introduced the wasp, such as Lakita Orchard in Naivasha, have delivered yields of around 10 tonnes a hectare compared with 4 tonnes a hectare when they were using synthetic pesticides.
Beating the fruit fly has been vital to export revenues. The proliferation of the fly on avocados led to an export ban to South Africa that was only recently lifted, and which cost Kenya Sh200m a year for 4 years, particularly hurting smallholders, which account for 85 per cent of Kenyan avocado exports.
Farmers in Busia county of Western Province have even moved from the bugs and parasites to courting bats as predators to fight moths and other insects. “Besides eating tons of insects they have also been feeding on cucumber beetles and even Stink bugs which damage our tomatoes,” said Wekesa, a large scale farmer in Busia who claims bats are the most effective natural enemy of all because they form large colonies and have a huge appetite. One bat can feed on 2kgs of insects nightly, and they forage over large distances.
Scientists have also developed other natural enemies in the laboratories like the Diamond Black moth, which is very swift in feeding on the large grain borer that is catastrophic to both maize and woods. Scientists have been releasing them onto farms when there is an acute invasion of parasites in farms.
The moth provides swift pest control but does not harm the crops and allows for naturally grown food. “I strongly feel when we afford to control all pests without touching any chemicals will be when we say we have passed on a healthy chemical free future to our generation, and one way is embracing an agricultural system that imitates a natural system,” said Dr Ladslas Ritwo, a scientist from the University of Nairobi College of Agriculture and a consistent crusader of organic pest control methods.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
The disappearance of the pollinators has become acute in certain countries like China, to the extent that farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan have to pollinate apple flowers themselves by using pollination sticks, brushes made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters. This has seen the production of apples in the country sink to its lowest levels since records began, down 70 percent since 2010, a trend scientists now say could be headed in SubSaharan Africa where pollinators are starting to feel the effect of climate change and the changes in farming patterns.
The survey of several studies demonstrated a severe decline of pollinators and in the provision of pollination services across a wide range of intensively managed temperate and tropical agroecosystems like those in East Africa.
As it is, global crop production worth $190bn relies directly on insect pollination, meaning that the pollinators' decline is having a direct impact on the stability of food production and consumer prices, and might also have serious consequences for human health.
A decrease in fruit and vegetable availability could impact the health of consumers worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set a lower limit of 400 grams per capita per day for fruit and vegetable consumption. Some studies demonstrate than even now more than half of global households fall below this recommendation. As pollinator declines, further disrupting fruit and vegetable output and increasing food prices, that situation is set to worsen.
"Finally, wild pollinators provide an inestimable contribution to maintain the diversity of wild plants. Importantly, a wide range of pollinators with different preferences to flowers and different daily and seasonal activity is necessary to ensure pollination. Relying on managed honeybees only, which are also in decline by themselves, is a very risky strategy," said Prof. Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter from the University of Würzburg, Germany in a press conference.
"Therefore, conservation of pollinators' habitats and implementation of agro-environmental practices to enhance wild plants resources and nesting sites for bees in agricultural landscapes are vitally important!"
Some Kenyan farmers have however become proactive in ensuring insects are protected from extinction, aware that they hold the key to food security.
Kenyan born Dino Martins an international award winning scientist, has led the campaign for the conservation of long tongued bees, which are responsible for the pollination of tomatoes, Okra and many Kenyan flowers grown for the lucrative flower export market.
Working in both Tanzania and Kenya, he cites examples where women in Tanzania now allow bees to nest on the walls of their mud huts because they know they are the pollinators of their crops. “Farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture. Farmers everywhere are conservative and skeptical. So I make one or two of them my champions in the community, demonstrating the success of our techniques. When others see the proof, they all want to try it.” Martins also cites many other examples of vital pollinators, such as the Hawkmoth, which is the sole pollinator of papaya in Africa. The colour, flavour and seed quantity of papayas are direct results of the amount of pollen that’s been deposited on their frequent visits to the female papaya tree.
Other plants like watermelons, strawberries, mangoes, coffee, cowpeas and lentils need the same kind of frequent visits by pollinators to get the depth of flavour, colour and seeds.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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