ON THE TIP OF YOUR TONGUE - EDIBLE INSECTS
Updated: Feb 17
We are creatures of the veld and forest, even though as modern humans we do our foraging at the food store and our gathering at the grocery. For aeons we picked and plucked from trees and shrubs and skoffled and dug in the dirt for our daily bread. Our staple foods consisted of a rich variety of berries, nuts, tubers, insects, and handfuls of potherbs that kept us full, as well as healthy. The protein provided by the odd kill was an occasion for a party, not an every-day necessity. Our ancient diets were a diverse mix of food-types from multiple plant and animal families and it was their varied quality that kept us supplied with enough nutrients to keep us in prime health, without the vitamin and mineral supplements that we rely on so much today.
Food security the world over is of great concern as the globe hurtles towards the scary statistic of nine billion people on the planet. After a decade of decline, the percentage of undernourished people in the world has sadly started to rise once more, while, strangely, global obesity also continues to climb. Health organisations and researchers believe that in order to overturn these trends, a multi-pronged approach is required - one of which is to return to our roots and dig up our old-style food sources.
Mašotša, marog and marula fruit, Stam-vrug and mabila and so many more - there is a huge variety of South African veld-food that is bursting with goodness, and good tastes, but that requires specialist knowledge to find, collect and prepare. This indigenous knowledge is dwindling as rapidly as world hunger is rising. Our grandparents, who understood where to find mopane worms (Mašotša) and how to prepare dinemeneme (flying ants), or in which season to harvest mogolobe (Rhoicissus tomentosa) have not been able to pass on their knowledge because the younger generation spend so little time in the veld and have easier food sources.
Lately there has been a revival in interest around ancient foods. Edible insects in particular have taken the limelight due to their low environmental footprint and the healthy mix of proteins, fats and vitamins that this food provides. In Europe, insects have been slathered with chocolate, ground into flour and baked into biscuits in order to encourage consumers into overlooking their six-leggedness. In South Africa we are more familiar with the upside of eating insects, having long understood the importance of mopane worms as both a luxury item as well as a free veld-snack. Many people have consumed flying ants in their childhood, even if they no longer wait expectantly for the first rains to herald these original “fast food” delicacies.
Our generation do not, however, have the time at their disposal to collect and carry, or clean and cook, the amazing variety of food that can be found beyond the city lights. In addition, there is important environmental and health legislation to comply with so that we don’t damage ourselves with unsanitary food, or destroy the environment by overharvesting what’s on offer. Modern packaging also requires a full disclosure of the nutrients, allergens and additives contained within each food-type sold on the commercial market. This is important paperwork to get done, but it means that the promotion of wild foods is a delicate and time consuming process, involving not just the person who gets to wander through the veld collecting berries and harvesting ants. Biologists, nutritionists, health and safety experts also need to be involved, in order to go from “food in the veld” to “food on the shelves”.
Martin Boima has walked the long road from collecting and cooking termites as a child around his father’s fire, to employing local experts to collect soldier termites from their mud mounds and turn them into specialised snacks. These are not the reproductive flying termites which are only available once a year for a few weeks. These are makeke, the soldiers, which are available year round if one knows how to find and entice them out. He has developed a unique flour, which is gluten free, high in protein and good fats, and can be utilised as the main constituent of energy bars or biscuits, or used as an additive to increase the protein content of conventional cereal flours. The termites themselves were analysed for their nutritional value at the University of Limpopo and once the bars were developed, their nutritional analysis was again tested by the SA Bureau of Standards in order that they could be correctly labelled when packaged.
Termites are tricky, taxonomically and therefore it was important to get them identified correctly. This was done both through genetic testing at the University of Stellenbosch, as well as through conventional morphological methods at the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC). Environmentally, termites are considered a pest and sustainably utilising them as a food source is better than destroying them with poisons. Creating a custodianship perspective around the mounds also gives incentive for rural communities to conserve open spaces, rather than develop every small piece of vacant veld. Martin’s kitchen was given a clean bill of health by the relevant authorities and finally after jumping through all the hoops, and perfecting the recipe, Martin is selling the bars on a small scale and plans to expand as soon as his packaging is professional enough for the commercial market.
Martin’s small business is a brave leap into the future of food - a possible alternative to crowded feed lots and battery chickens. Insects are also animals, however, they may not have backbones but they do have nerves and they are part of a food-web which involves not just ourselves but also our fellow creatures so we need to ensure they are not over-exploited nor taken for granted. In general though, diversifying our food sources, and eating more local products, could leave a softer footprint on our environment, so try out the Termite Delight or the Marula Crunch from Martin’s Nature Care range for a nutritious snack sensation and support this innovative South African food entrepreneur.
Connect with Martin Boima on 079 842 6330
Bronwyn Egan is a biologist at the University of Limpopo, South Africa, where she investigates indigenous resources and the traditional knowledge around their uses. She is also interested in finding ways to create sanctuaries out of the wild places that remain in the Limpopo Province, whilst promoting sustainable livelihoods within these spaces. She loves words more than numbers and writing more than measuring and is inspired by the mountains, plains and people of Africa.