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How Eating Insects Empowers Women

For women denied access to land or agricultural resources, the booming edible insect market is an essential source of protein and cash.

by Matt Broomfield
Apr 18 2016, 2:00pm

Image: Bugs for Life.

The fried tarantula saleswomen of Skuon, Cambodia, claim the snacks they hawk have beautifying properties. It's a time-honoured sales technique, and the cosmetic attributes of the spiders known as a-ping have yet to be scientifically verified. But the true benefits of a-ping are more than skin-deep.

The farming of insects (and arachnids) will play a significant role in the struggle for global food security. Ten kilogrammes of feed produces six kilogrammes of edible crickets, but just one kilogramme of beef. Urging the consumption of insects as a panacea to food insecurity, a 2013 UN report also noted that "empowering rural women can significantly increase productivity, improve rural livelihoods and reduce hunger and malnutrition." As such, the authors argue that the edible insect market can enable some of the world's most vulnerable women to escape economic and nutritional insecurity.

Women are responsible for cultivating up to 80 percent of the crops in many agricultural nations, and yet patrilineal land laws and customs often prevent them from owning their own property. The typical seed is planted by a woman in earth owned by a man. Divorce, the death of a relative or the failure to find a spouse can all prevent women from accessing traditional agricultural resources, and these women are less likely to have the capital to buy a goat or a flock of chickens. Given the amount of unpaid labor women are expected to undertake in the home, they also have less time available to spend rearing livestock.

For economically insecure women, insect farming is often a more accessible option.

Image: Bugs for Life.

"It doesn't cost as much as dairy farming," Jenny Josephs, founder of The Bug Shack, a company promoting insects as a sustainable source of protein, said. "You can use cheapish equipment, and you don't need much land. You can do it on a small scale, in a kitchen or a back garden."

Arable farming also requires a level of physical fitness which can exclude elderly, infirm, or malnourished women. Insect farming is safer, less strenuous, and often more culturally acceptable as a way for women to gain a measure of economic autonomy.

Two billion people worldwide already supplement their diets with insects—a practice known as entomophagy. Many of these insects are harvested by women. For example, the mopane worm is a protein-rich grub, and a seasonal staple across southern Africa. To prepare a mopane worm for consumption, its viscous intestines must be expelled. The worm is squeezed like a toothpaste tube, and whipped round by its tail until the guts fly loose.

In 2012, researchers found that more than 70 percent of low-level mopane worm traders in Zimbabwe were women. Insects are classed as NWFPs, or "non-wood forest products." A study in Cameroon found that 94 percent of NWFP collection was carried out by women.

"Insects' nutritional values are particularly relevant for pregnant women and small children."

The primarily female a-ping vendors make around 30,000 riels (£5/$7) a day, over twice the average wage in Cambodia. The trade requires no specialist equipment and no land, since the tarantulas are collected wild in public forests. In Zimbabwe, women can lay claim to a tree festooned with mopane worms simply by tying a piece of bark to the trunk. It is rather harder to stake a claim on a swathe of fertile arable land.

Before founding edible insect company Eat Grub, Shami Radia travelled through South-East Asia, observing the cultivation, preparation and consumption of insects in countries where entomophagy is commonplace.

"I saw a lot of cricket farming, essentially as a side business," he said. "It's mostly women who rear crickets. They have to do what is expected of them, looking after children and working the land. But they can rear crickets on the side, and earn additional income for the family." He adds that cricket farming is common in women-headed households, which tend to be particularly impoverished.

Image: Bugs for Life.

There are other benefits besides economic empowerment and independence. Insects are a much-needed dietary supplement for many women, whose diet would otherwise lack essential nutrients. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume over 70g of protein daily, compared to 60g for adult men, while menstruating women should consume twice as much iron as adult men. Yet in meat-scarce cultures, meat is often reserved for men.

Bugs for Life is an NGO which runs education programmes in Benin about the health benefits of entomophagy. In one survey, 50 percent of Beninese children presented acute signs of malnutrition.

"We work in a high malnutrition area, where children are not [culturally] supposed to eat eggs or meat, so there's not a lot of protein available," Bugs for Life spokesperson Mariangela Veronesi said. "Insects' nutritional values are particularly relevant for pregnant women and small children."

Farming insects creates just 1 percent of the greenhouse gases generated by farming an equivalent mass of beef or pork.

Insects are rich in both iron and protein, as well as calcium, fatty acids and amino acids. Mopane caterpillar meat contains five times the amount of iron that beef does, while termites eaten in Venezuela and grasshoppers eaten in Mexico are 65 percent and 70 percent protein respectively, compared to 40 percent for ground beef. In parts of the Amazon, indigenous women already get 26 percent of their protein from insects, compared to just 12 percent for men.

Though edible insects such as a-ping and mopane worms are normally fried in fat-laden oil, these dishes are snacks, not dietary staples. Insects farmed for consumption rather than the market can be prepared in a healthier fashion. Crickets are ground up into a protein-rich, flour-like base for pancakes; lakeflies are baked into patties that are seven times as nutritious as beef-burgers.

Image: Bugs for Life.

A final key benefit of insect farming is its tiny environmental footprint, which intersects with issues of female empowerment insofar as women are more vulnerable than men to the effects of climate change. Women are often tasked with collecting fuel and water, both roles made more onerous and dangerous by the effects of climate change. A number of cultural limitations and stigmas, from lack of education through to restrictive traditional clothing, mean women are also more likely to die in natural disasters driven by climate change.

Farming insects creates just 1 percent of the greenhouse gases generated by farming an equivalent mass of beef or pork. If there is a food shortage following a natural disaster, women often prioritise their husbands' needs and go without nutrition; but where floodwater devastates crops, a cricket farm can simply be picked up and placed on the roof of a shack.

The only real money is in mass-farming insects in Western nations to be processed into livestock feed.

Unsurprisingly, it is men who profit from the higher end of the insect market. The Zimbabwe study found that while women sell mopane worms at bazaars, bus terminuses and beer halls, the lucrative wholesale trade (worth $8 million annually in Botswana alone) remains the preserve of men. Women cannot access the infrastructure necessary to transport large quantities of worms cross-country. Moreover, as men have the capital to buy worms in bulk, on average they pay only 90 Zimbabwean dollars per kilogramme of worms, compared to the 160 Zimbabwean dollars paid by women.

This is where NGOs can play a part. During his entomophagic grand tour, Radia visited refugee camps in western Thailand. A charity called The Border Consortium has helped Burmese refugees set up cricket farms, selling what he describes as a "high protein, income-generating snack." He says more NGOs should "empower women to control the whole process: rearing, collectively bargaining, and finding routes to market."

The Border Consortium spokesperson Duncan McArthur sounds a note of caution. "Small-scale income farming was piloted as an income generation project for refugee households in a particularly densely populated camp," he said. Insect farms, he explained, "use less space and pose less problems for public hygiene than livestock… while still offering supplementary nutritious value."

But The Border Consortium found that crickets were "fussy eaters", and difficult to protect against other insect competitors within the confines of the camp. These complications, alongside "funding cuts to core support for refugees", forced them to scrap the program. When it comes to attracting investors, insects are not a sexy prospect. The only real money is in mass-farming insects in Western nations to be processed into livestock feed.

Bugs for Life has also found that scarce funding and the lack of extant research are limiting factors on their work. However, the company plans to start providing insect-farming equipment to impoverished Beninese households over the next couple of years. Veronesi said that Bugs for Life is looking to "promote opportunities for women in rearing insects," despite the difficulties of operating in a society where "women will defer to their husbands" rather than opening up about the issues they face. To achieve this, they plan to amplify and support pre-existing local practices, to work on a co-operative basis within villages, and to involve men, women and children in the farming process.

By providing women and families with modern, waste-fed insect farms, NGOs can help them monetize a resource whose collection and preparation has long been women's work.From grasshoppers in Mexico to honey ants in Australia, insects constitute an accessible, nutritious way for food-insecure women to diversify their diet. That said, some are more nutritious than others: a-ping are served fried in salt, oil, and MSG powder.

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.