Sustainability, Food Security, & Entomofagia in Mexico

How my Entovegan diet helped me understand malnutrition in rural areas
Food security in Mexico through Entomophagy

I’ve been in Mexico for a while now, and as I’ve mentioned previously it’s been a challenge to eat in a reasonably healthy way as an Entovegan, given our busy schedule and the fact that we’re moving around on a regular basis.

But last week I discovered a couple more things that made a powerful impact on me and gave me even more inspiration to keep working on the project that we’re developing for improving food security in Mexico.

  1. The lack of good protein in the typical diet is startling, and for any type of vegetarian or vegan diet, extremely difficult
  2. Edible insect species are plentiful, but access to them is difficult because the prices are astronomical

While my sample size is small (my diet, and observation of others), the results have been negative to the extent that I think it’s worth sharing. But there are solutions! And that’s what we’re developing.

MEAT AS A PRIMARY PROTEIN SOURCE

People in Mexico eat meat. A lot of it. But setting aside the studies which have shown that meat in general is not healthy for the human body, the reality is that very few people are eating grass-fed, free-range, organic meats anyway. Most of what people eat are meats filled with nitrates and preservatives, and they combine it with as much mayonnaise and vegetable oil as humanly possible.

But those are the people who can afford the tastier local foods. What about in the very rural areas, where meat of any kind is a delicacy, reserved for those few in the community who can afford it (if anyone even can)?

Well, they eat corn tortillas, beans, and whatever vegetables they can grow or obtain cheaply. And only rarely meat.

So basically, the poorest of the poor eat a sort of forced vegan diet.

I’m here to tell you, in Mexico that’s going to lead you to lacking nutrients in the body pretty quickly. I’ve found this out over the past few weeks the hard way – I’ve lost weight and felt weaker and more prone to being sick, whether catching a cold or having stomach problems, than I can ever remember in recent years.

Quite a few times I’ve been tempted to just eat some meat, because from my lifetime of being a protein eater, my brain is still telling me that at least I’d probably be getting some of the nutrients I’m lacking, along with a dose of protein and if nothing else, calories! But I haven’t given in. And I’ve been feeling the effects of a low-calorie, low-nutrient diet.

Especially as I’ve run out of the 1st world nutrient supplements that I brought with me, thinking I’d only be here for 2 weeks and instead now pushing a month and a half.

While it’s possible to get certain things here, like raw turmeric root, overall I’ve been attempting to live without supplementation (of the powdered or pill variety), in part to see what happens and in part because most of the “health” supplements I’ve seen in stores here are loaded with unnatural ingredients and ridiculously expensive.

Ok, but what about insectos comestibles, right? Aren’t they supposed to be the answer to the world’s protein and nutritional deficiency problems?

INSECTS AS A PRIMARY PROTEIN SOURCE

Here’s the major difference between insectos comestibles in Mexico, and edible insects where I live in Asia: the availability and the price!

In Asia it’s possible to get insects like crickets or silkworms – along with many other types of insect – in large quantities for relatively inexpensive. In the cities, such as Bangkok or Phnom Penh, edible insects can be found in markets or sold by street vendors within a short distance of wherever you are. They’re common, and prices are comparable to most any other food item that would be anywhere near the same reasonable level of protein, minerals, and nutrients.

In Mexico, unless you’re in one of the areas where insects live in the wild and are collected and sold in local towns / cities, AND there during the months that they’re readily available, it’s going to be extremely difficult to find them. And the ones you do find, will be prohibitively expensive.

PRICES FOR INSECTOS COMESTIBLES EN MEXICO

As an example, my favorite beetle, the Chawi (or Cocopache), sells right now for 15 pesos…EACH!

They were only 10 pesos each when I was in Mexico in early June – that’s a 50% markup in 3 months, simply because they’re not “in season” right now. These beetles are small, about the size of a cricket.

That’s around $0.84 per beetle. To buy 100 grams, the price was 400 pesos, or about $22. That’s 4,000 pesos per kilo – $225 for a small bag of dried beetles.

The famous gusano de maguey, the red larvae that has been used for years as a gimmick in bottles of tequila, but is also famous as an exotic food plate, has increased from 800 pesos per kilo to now 2,000 pesos per kilo. About $113 for a bag of dehydrated larvae.

But those are exotic wild-caught insects, you say, let’s compare crickets to crickets. What about a kilo of chapulines (the very common Mexican version of the common Thai crickets, but it’s really a small grasshopper)? Well, those go for around 600 pesos per kilo, a very reasonable $33 per bag.

For a little perspective, a kilo of crickets in Phnom Penh is about $3. So the price is 10x more in Mexico, and that’s comparing the street cart price in Cambodia with the central DF bulk wholesale market in Mexico!

Let’s look at a couple more – tarantulas and scorpions. In Cambodia, where tarantulas are readily available and there’s a consistent marketplace for them, one can buy a tarantula for about 2,000 riel ($0.50) on the street, or plated at a restaurant for about $5. In Mexico, you can get a tarantula at a restaurant for 700 pesos, or $39.50 at today’s rate.

Scorpions in Asia go for between $0.50 and $3, depending on the location and the size of the scorpion. To get a kilo of frozen alacranes (small scorpion) from a farmer in Mexico, we were quoted a whopping 7,150 pesos, or roughly $403 per kilo. According to google, that’s comparable to the world’s most expensive coffee beans.

THE MOST VARIETIES, BUT LACK OF UNDERSTANDING

Mexico has a registered 549 types of edible insects, the most of any country. So why then are edible insects so difficult to find, and so expensive to buy?

I think there are 3 reasons for it:

  1. People don’t see insects as a modern food source, but simply as comida prehispanica, something of a novelty for tourists and indigenous peoples
  2. There are few farms dedicated to insect farming, and those that do exist are run by large corporations using the insects for their own products, which are then exported
  3. Insects, why? Quiero chicharones! (I want fried pork rinds!)

LACK OF KNOWLEDGE

I’ve talked to a lot of people over the time I’ve been in Mexico this year, and while nearly everyone knows about edible insects in Mexico, and while most people have eaten chapulines or chicatanas at some point, nobody really understands the nutritional properties that insects have.

Recently I went with Chef Melgarejo to a university to talk about edible insects with a half dozen classes of culinary students. Probably 75% of them raised their hands when asked if they had ever eaten insects before. A handful of students enthusiastically volunteered to try an insect they’d never eaten.

But few, if any, of Mexico’s future chefs have any idea whatsoever about why people do and should eat insects. Nutritional values? Flavor profiles? Sustainability? No clue.

So culturally, while the entomofagia traditions have been retained for thousands of years, there’s a lack of knowledge about why they’ve been retained in the first place – reasons of sustenance that their ancestors most certainly knew and understood.

LACK OF CONSISTENT SUPPLY

Mexico has a growing economy and exports many products to the outside world: drugs, automobiles, electronics, televisions, computers, mobile phones, LCDs, oil and oil products, silver, fruits, vegetables, coffee, and cotton among them (source: Wikipedia).

So the infrastructure is in place to produce and disseminate the insects throughout the country – or world – as needed. But why then is the central market in CDMX smaller in scale than what a local street vendor in Thailand or Cambodia would have to sell on any given Friday night? And at astronomical prices between 10x and 40x the price per kg of their counterparts in Asia?

The most glaring reason is a lack of consistent supply. Most of the insectos comestibles in Mexico are wild-caught, and also seasonal. The famous and popular chicatana ants come out of the ground once per year, sometimes for only 1 or 2 days. That harvest then determines the supply for the year.

Demand is increasing, there’s no question about that. Domestically, and interest from other countries. It’s natural, given that A) entomophagy is rapidly growing in the western world and B) Mexico is well-known for its quantity of edible insects and variety of prehispanic Mexican food dishes using them.

While the main market in DF where insects are sold is small (the number and size of insect farmers), I’ve seen changes in the size, quality, and quantity of the vendors each time I’ve visited this year (April – June – September). Growth is definitely taking place,

But compared to Thailand, where there are an estimated 20,000 insect farmers, Mexico is very far behind. One of the biggest issues we’ve uncovered here is the lack of sustainability by insect collectors who “harvest” the insects from the wild.

The Mexican government recently funded a 3-year study on the Gusano de Maguey, and the lead entomologist for the project told us that A) even though the results show a very negative long-term outlook because of unsustainable practices, the government doesn’t have a solution, and B) it’s one of the only studies that has been done for an edible insect species.

That doesn’t bode well for entomofagia in Mexico as demand has already outpaced supply, but it does shine a bright light on the need for education on sustainable harvesting practices, and the development of criaderos de insectos comestibles, farmers who can raise these mini-livestock in rural areas.

This is one of the primary goals of the non-profit association we’ve set up with Chef Melgarejo, Fundacion de Criaderos de Insectos Comestibles A.C.. To, through education and use of edible insects, improve the health and livelihood of families in rural poor areas of Mexico, along with increasing the sustainability of los recolectores and the insect collection practices.

LACK OF DESIRE TO INCORPORATE INSECTS INTO THE DIET

Mexican food is famous the world over. It’s unique, flavorful, and has that mix of fried and fatty ingredients the human palate just loves (but for which the body pays the price later).

But as the country and culture has modernized over the past centuries through close contact with Europe and the USA, the idea of eating insects has become “gross”, seen as food people used to eat before Bimbo and Frito Lay arrived. There’s also the desire by many in the middle class to be fashionable, and eating bugs is not on the current list of upper middle class trends just yet.

So on one hand, the people who can afford to eat whatever they wish to, don’t want to eat insects because they’d rather eat filet mignon or mariscos (seafood). They don’t want to eat bugs, because it’s seen as the food of poor people or an antiquated practice of indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, people who can’t afford proteins like beef, chicken, or fish, are left eating salted corn tortillas with a little lemon and some nopal cactus, or if they’re a little better off, pork and fried potatoes. The idea that they could add insects to their diet in quantities sufficient to give them the protein intake they need is out of the question, because of the high prices of insects on the market.

THE SOLUTION IS TO CREATE MORE INSECT FARMERS

Mexico has myriad climates that would work for farming many species of insect. But the people who could most benefit from insects in their diet do not have the knowledge or resources to farm them. They’re able to collect them from the wild on those occasions when swarms of insects emerge, or whenever they’re plentiful. But that’s the extent of it.

What’s more, in some areas people do not make the connection between caring for the ecosystem and their harvest of insects. One example is the gusano de conote, a large caterpillar that can reach nearly 15cm long, which feeds on the bark of a tree most consider worthless.

Rather than care for the trees as a source of food for the gusano, which is a nutritious protein source, people cut the trees down to use for firewood.

As SE Asia has shown, though, education in both the cultivation of edible insects and the nutritional benefits of eating insects can bring wide-scale changes over time. But people in rural poor areas are not interested in eating as a novelty – they need nutrition, and in a way that fits with their current diet.

Our programs through the Micro Livestock organization and in Mexico, Fundacion de Criaderos de Insectos Comestibles, are aimed at doing exactly that.

Empowering people to farm insects for personal use and for sale to the wider market, and educating them on how to use insects in combination with the foods they currently eat, to maximize their nutritional intake.

Contact us today to find out how you can get involved and support this powerfully impacting work we are undertaking in Mexico and Cambodia right now.

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