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Insect eating proposal leaves bad aftertaste

A recent United Nations study suggested eating insects could help solve the world's hunger problems but not all of Spain's chefs are taking the bait.

Insect eating proposal leaves bad aftertaste
Bugging out: The United Nations wants more insects on the world's dinner plates. File photo: George Arriola

The report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests eating insects — or entomophagy — could help fight hunger as the world's population swells to nine billion people by 2050.

In a section called ´Why eat insects?' the report's authors outline the many health, environmental and poverty-fighting benefits of eating our six-legged friends.

But not all of Spain's chefs are ready to include cockroaches on their tapas menu.

Three-star Michelin chef Juan Mari Arzak told Spanish news site Te Interesa that while he liked eating large grasshoppers (chapulines), he currently had no plans to include insects on his menu in San Sebastián. 

"They don´t form part of our culture," said Arzak, who also stressed it was important to respect the food preferences of other cultures.

Chef Nacho Manzano at the Michelin two-star restaurant of Casa Marcial in Asturias is also in no rush to put insects on the menu.

"I don´t mind eating insects, depending on which one they are. Still, it´s a question of education. If you've never tried a spider crab in your life, it would be really disgusting, but for us it's a delicacy because it's part of our culture."

Meanwhile, insects aren't on the menu at the Michelin one-starred Aponiente restaurant in El Puerto de Santa María either.

This is because they don't fit in with the philosophy of chef Ángel León.

León, who serves up plankton at his eatery, would prefer to focus on news species from the world's oceans.

However, Gorka Txpartegui at the Alameda restaurant in the Basque Country said they wouldn't rule out putting insects on the menu.

"Insects are good and I like ants. I love Asian cooking and we always have Asian cooks on our team. We are fundamentally Basque, but (insects) could be an option," Txpartegui told Te Interesa.

According to the FAO, two billion people worldwide already eat insects, particularly in Asia and Africa.

The organization says that insects are a viable alternative source of protein alongside chicken, pork, beef and fish.

The FAO also says insects are good for the environment, with their production involving far lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than most livestock.

Insect rearing and harvesting is also a "low-tech, low-capital investment option" the authors of the FAO report argue. Even women and the landless can get involved, they stress in the detailed study. 

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FARMING

How farmers are using insects instead of pesticides in Spain’s ‘Sea of Plastic’

"They work for me night and day," smiles Antonio Zamora, standing in his greenhouse. His minuscule employees are bugs that feed on the parasites threatening his peppers.

How farmers are using insects instead of pesticides in Spain's 'Sea of Plastic'
A red velvet mite walks on a pepper plant flower in a greenhouse in Dalias. Photos: AFP

Zamora, like most of his colleagues, no longer sprays his crops with pesticides, instead hanging small bags of mites on the plants, leaving them to attack parasites while sparing his produce.

He owns two hectares (five acres) in the so-called “Sea of Plastic”, some 30,000 hectares of greenhouses in southeastern Spain's Almeria province, where much of Europe's fruits and vegetables are grown.

The sparkling mosaic of white plastic bordering the Mediterranean — which is visible from space — produces tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes, peppers and aubergines all year round to supply Europe's supermarkets.

Last year 2.5 million tonnes of produce was exported from Almeria, half of Spain's total vegetable exports.

Like Zamora, virtually all pepper growers in Almeria have replaced insecticides with so-called “biological control” using insects.   

About 60 percent of tomato growers have done the same, along with a quarter of courgette producers, according to the producers' association Coexphal.   

Consumption of insecticides in Almeria — where agriculture employs some 120,000 people and accounts for 20 percent of economic output — has dropped by 40 percent since 2007, according to local authorities.

A trillion insects

The use of insecticides surged in the 1960s, but farmers have adopted new methods under pressure from consumer groups as well as the fact that their crops have become increasingly resistant to the chemicals.

“We have had to change course. The use of pesticides became excessive,” said Jan van der Blom, an expert in biocontrol at Coexphal.   

Encarnacion Samblas of environmental group Ecologists in Action described the change as a “very positive step”.

“In many cases the reduction in the use of chemical products has been drastic, and the substances that are still in use are softer,” she said.   

French agricultural cooperative InVivo, which has yearly sales of 5.5 billion ($6.2 billion), recently opened a “biofactory”, Bioline Iberia, in the heart of the Sea of Plastic.    


A worker holds a test tube containing “Aphidius Colemani” parasitic wasps at Bioline Agro sciences Company in El Ejido . Photo: AFP

Inside hermetically closed rooms with tightly controlled temperature and humidity levels, employees raise four species of mites to be sold in the region as well as in Portugal and Morocco.

The company projects production of a trillion insects this year.   

Several other factories of the same type have sprung up in recent years around the Sea of Plastic, and roughly 30 firms sell insects, at steadily decreasing prices.

“Spain can be considered the largest area in Europe and perhaps the world in terms of the use of biological control,” said Bioline Iberia director Federico Garcia.

Chemicals still prevalent

But the road to truly green farming remains long, said Samblas of Ecologists in Action, noting that many farmers still use fungicides and various other substances to disinfect soils.

“Farmers continue to use chemicals in a not very rational way, because they are recommended, they are sold to them. Often they use them as a routine, without really knowing why,” she said.

Even “organic” greenhouses — with 2,000 hectares certified as such or seeking the label — often pay little heed to biodiversity or fail to take proper care of the soil, the ecologist said.

She noted that European regulations on these issues are lacking.   

An increase in the amount of land used for farming has put pressure on water resources in an arid region, Samblas added.

Agronomist Jose Manuel Torres warned that year-round farming methods favour the growth of parasites, arguing that the region should halt production during the summer.

Samblas noted another problem: old greenhouse plastics often find their way into the Mediterranean.

By AFP's Emmanuelle Michel 

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