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Could Squirmy Livestock Dent Africa's Protein Deficit?

February 26, 2015
Terry Devitt trdevitt@wisc.edu 608-262-8282

MADISON - As a cheap and easy source of protein for humans, it might be hard to beat the mighty mealworm.

Consider:

  • The capacity of insects like mealworms to convert feed to body mass exceeds that of traditional livestock such as beef by orders of magnitude.
  • Mealworms are 100 percent edible, whereas only about 40 percent of a cow or 55 percent of a chicken can be consumed.
  • Microlivestock such as mealworms take up little space and require little water.
  • Mealworms can be reared on less feed and using organic byproducts such as corn leaves and stalks.
  • Because they are exothermic, obtaining warmth from the local environment, mealworms do not use energy to maintain a constant body temperature the way conventional livestock do, and cultivated insects produce less greenhouse gases.

"Mealworms are so easy to farm. You can do it in a plastic bucket," says Valerie Stull, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies graduate student who does just that in her home kitchen to provide an extra dash of protein to cookies, banana bread or a stir-fry.

But Stull and her collaborator - fellow UW graduate student Rachel Bergmans, who likes her mealworms powdered as a protein supplement for smoothies - are just practicing what they are beginning to preach: insects, and mealworms in particular, are an overlooked, healthful, economically viable and sustainable source of nutrition for people.

"We want everyone to see the benefits of insect consumption, not just from a nutritional standpoint, but a climate standpoint," says Bergmans, who is pursuing her doctorate in the Department of Population Health Sciences in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. "Farming insects can be a side stream for existing agricultural activities."

Stull and Bergmans are working to introduce highly productive kits for farming mealworms to regions such as sub-Saharan Africa where eating insects is already culturally palatable. With the help of $25,000 in prize money from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation's annual Agricultural Innovation Prize, Bergmans and Stull have begun to establish a presence in Zambia, where they plan to distribute their kits along with microfinancing opportunities for insect farming to rural women's cooperatives. The pair's project was also selected this week as the winner of UW-Madison's Climate Quest competition, which will support a pilot project beginning this fall.

"What we're trying to do is introduce the farming of insects through these kits and culturally appropriate training," Bergmans explains. "We want to see if farming mealworms can be done at the local level in Zambia in a sustainable way. Our interest is in partnering with these communities."

Stull and Bergmans are working with the Oakland, California-based company Tiny Farms to develop their kit and optimize microlivestock habitat, rearing and feed formulation. Although still in development, a kit might include a rearing enclosure, a solar dryer, and a rocket stove to facilitate quick-turnaround processing.

The ultimate design of the kit, says Stull, will ideally use local materials and resources. Corn stover, the often unutilized stalks and leaves of maize, is an abundant resource in Zambia that could be turned to mealworm food. Stull is conducting a feeding study in UW-Madison's Department of Entomology to better assess that possibility. The two graduate students are also investigating production optimization and have formed a company, MIGHTi or Mission to Improve Global Health Through Insects.

"We see potential down the road for the insect farming to become an extra source of income for families," Bergmans says, noting that farmed insects can not only be a source of protein for human diets, they can also feed livestock such as goats, chickens and farm-raised fish.

On their forays to Zambia, Stull and Bergmans have begun to conduct informal market research to better assess their chances of success: "We get really interesting and mixed reactions," says Stull. "People have legitimate questions: Is there a market? What does it taste like? Will the mealworms eat my crops?"

Taste tests may be the next phase of market research, say Stull and Bergmans. They are, in fact, planning a spring tasting event on the UW-Madison campus to highlight the benefits of entomophagy (eating insects) and raise funds for scholarships in the Department of Entomology.

Mealworm Recipes

You won't find mealworms at your local grocery - try a pet supply store.

Mealworm Cookies

Ingredients:
550 ml (2 1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
5 ml (1 tsp.) baking soda
5 ml (1 tsp.) salt
250 ml (1 cup) softened butter
175 ml (3/4 cup) white sugar
125 ml (1/2 cup) crumbled dried mealworms
175 ml (3/4 cup) firmly packed brown sugar
5 ml (1 tsp.) vanilla
2 eggs
360 grams (1 1/2 cups) chocolate chips
Place the cleaned and prepared insects on a cookie sheet and dry in the oven for 1 -2 hours at 100 C (200 F). Preheat oven to 190 C (375 F). In a bowl, mix the flour, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, cream butter, white sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla. Stir in eggs. Gradually add the flour mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and mealworms. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto a cookie sheet, and bake 8- 10 minutes.

Mealworm Canapes

Ingredients:
85 ml (1/3 cup) mealworm larvae, slightly thawed
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 ml (1 tsp.) tomato paste
15 ml (1 tbsp.) olive oil
5 ml (1 tsp.) lemon juice
5 ml (1 tsp.) red wine vinegar
Plus: red wine vinegar, freshly ground pepper, loaf of French bread (baguette), finely chopped fresh parsley
With a mortar and pestle or in a blender, mash the mealworms, garlic and tomato paste into a puree. Stirring constantly (or with the blender running), add the oil, a few drops at a time. Add the lemon juice, wine vinegar and pepper. Cut the baguette into 1.5 cm slices. Under the broiler, toast one side of the bread slices, and spread the untoasted side with the mixture. Place the canapes on a baking sheet and bake at 200 C (400 F) for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley.

Mealworm Banana Bread

Ingredients:
1/2 cup shortening
3/4 cup sugar
2 bananas, mashed
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts
2 eggs
1/4 cup dry-roasted mealworms
Mix together all ingredients. Bake in greased loaf pan at 350 F for about one hour.

For more information, contact -
Valerie Stull vstull@wisc.edu 303-993-9549
Rachel Bergmans bergmans@wisc.edu 616-318-0546


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