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Bug on food

Edible Bugs for Healthier and Greener Future: Master of Public Health Student's Capstone Sheds Light on Sustainable Food Systems

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Written by Rachel Larson on June 14, 2023

Bugs for dinner? It may sound like a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie, but edible bugs are making their way into the spotlight for a compelling reason: they may hold the key to a healthier and greener future. While the thought of eating insects may trigger apprehension for some, insects have been used for food and medicine by many cultures for centuries – up to 80 percent of the world's nations, particularly in tropical areas, eat insects. As our planet grapples with mounting challenges like climate change and food insecurity, the notion of turning to edible bugs as an eco-friendly option is capturing the attention of public health researchers, including Shaylee Warner, a recent graduate from the Colorado School of Public Health at Colorado State University.

Shaylee playfully recalls her childhood experience of eating bugs, which ultimately sparked her interest in exploring the world of edible insects. Her journey towards studying bugs as a sustainable food resource was fueled and cultivated through her previous service in the United States Peace Corps in Ghana. During her service there, and before she was evacuated during COVID-19, Shaylee received training around enhancing access to clean water and food in a rural community. Motivated by her desire to make a meaningful impact in this realm, Shaylee was drawn to ColoradoSPH at CSU and its Global Health and Health Disparities concentration.

Under the guidance of Heidi Hausermann, PhD, an associate professor of global health and health disparities, and community and behavioral health for the Colorado School of Public Health, and anthropology and geography at Colorado State University, Shaylee delved into the world of bug cultivation, collection, consumption, and their profound interconnectedness with the environment. As an anthropologist, Hausermann looks at the relationship between edible insects and public health, shedding light on the significance of this research.

"When we think about health, we’re thinking about the system in which the person lives and eats, and works and sleeps, and plays and goes to school, and all the things," explained Hausermann. By considering bugs as a food source, the researchers are examining the intersections between diverse food choices, environmental sustainability, cultural practices, and health.

"Public health is looking at systems and breaking them down and seeing where we could be better, and I think that bugs are a kind of fun place to explore, especially in terms of climate change," added Shaylee.

“In public health, we think a lot about food and people having not enough of it. Food being marketed in a way that makes people feel like they're not as attached to their food. There's not always a cultural tradition. And so, I think looking at bugs as food also leads into a cultural side of things," Shaylee explained.

Shaylee’s research with Hausermann revealed how edible insect practices can be situated in a larger agricultural context, as many farmers and their communities in Veracruz, Mexico, deeply value the subsistence, medicine, and cultural value insects provide. Traveling to five rural coffee farms in Veracruz as a student researcher, she saw firsthand the intertwined nature of this work “out in a farm, looking at all of the things, seeing how a bug is one part of a very big system that's being maintained and produced for generations.”

Shaylee, Dr. Hausermann, and Penelope Velasco, another ColoradoSPH student, recruited 14 participants from various backgrounds, including government officials, coffee farmers, chefs, insect producers, and edible insect sector stakeholders. Through semi-structured interviews and participant observation activities, the researchers documented participants' perceptions and knowledge about edible insects in society, food systems, and coffee systems. The research encompassed diverse settings, including edible insect cooking demonstrations, insect collection on coffee farms, and production operations in a local insect producer's home. The researchers also accompanied farmers to fields for insect harvesting and engaged in participant observation activities including consuming insects and collecting caterpillars and snails. Participant-led farm tours provided insights into agroecosystems, climate change impacts on coffee systems, agrichemical practices, and indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and insects in coffee communities.

Shaylee’s research demonstrates that coffee farmers, with their deep understanding and connection to coffee farms, have been able to resist volatile global coffee markets while coping with decreased crop yields due to climate change. However, the increasing range and intensity of stress factors on the system have resulted in seasonal hunger and poverty for farmers, their families, and rural communities. The study emphasizes the need to prioritize the livelihoods, health, and well-being of those working tirelessly to combat climate change, and the importance of maintaining the agroecosystems of coffee farms in Mexico.

Shaylee's work on this project has instilled a continued passion for the edible insect sector. She plans to explore various avenues within the field, utilizing her skillset and background to contribute to this fascinating and promising area of research. As part of her capstone project, she utilized GIS technology to create a map of existing edible insect production and farming companies in the United States and Mexico, providing valuable insights for further exploration.

As the boundaries of conventional dietary choices expand and society becomes more conscious of sustainability and nutrition, the study of edible insects emerges as a fascinating avenue for investigation. Shaylee's unique MPH capstone experience brought together her childhood curiosity, international experiences, and academic expertise. She hopes to start conversations and open minds about edible insects, removing decades of stigma in the process.

“I want to continue to highlight how people consume insects in their day-to-day lives—already in a way that's very sustainable—because it’s been going on since the beginning of time.”