The call by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. food agency to fight off the demands of food production on one hand and growing hunger by including edible insects like grasshoppers, ants and other members of the insect world is most interesting. The FAO has in a report stated that says 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diets with insects, which are high in protein and minerals, and have environmental benefits but that the majority people who are yet to include insects in their menu must fight off their disgust and take to insects on their plate since they are an underutilized food source not only for people but also for livestock and pets. In South East Asian countries, insects are considered a delicacy though the West and Europe are yet to wake up to the ‘gastronomic delight’ of insects. In India, the main food preference is on cereals and pulses with meat down in the list of priority food. The irony of a nation starving on one hand while having a sizeable cattle population on the other, is often cited by westerners who cannot seem to work out why a nation that is starving is not taking to cow meat, which is a good source of nutrition. Of course, religious sentiments will not allow a majority of the citizens of this country to eat cattle but starve to malnutrition and sometimes, even death. Apart from religious beliefs and practices being factors underlying eating practices, there is also the factor of climate and terrain contributing to what kind of food is being eaten in what particular region. For instance, people in Ladakh whose core belief is non violence and who also practice buddhism still eat meat for the simple reason meat helps to increase the body temperature. Interestingly enough, the conflict between the basic need for food and the necessity of keeping the body warm with eating meat is resolved by having animals slaughtered by other communities. Coming to the north-east region, many people frown on people who eat animals and rodents. What is not realized is that the people who do eat animals out of the usual fare of chicken, pork, beef and mutton are often from hilly terrain where agricultural crops are scarce and food resources low.
Food being a basic need for survival, every human being has to make do with what is available. Food habits also change with time and when boundaries open up. This is true everywhere. In Manipur too, the traditional food preparation processes of cooking without oil and spices have changed into a more pan Indian style of cooking and very much influenced and fused with the Bengali style of cooking which is not strange given the import of Hindusim from Bengal. Earlier generations of Hindus in the state brought up with strict codes of ‘pure’ and impure’ stayed away from eating meat even as fish remained the main focus of food in the valley. The fish could not be done away with since it supplements for protein intake and milk is not really favored by the people of the region. The call by the FAO to turn to insects as a source of food is being validated by the fact that they provide high-quality protein and nutrients when compared with meat and fish and are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children. While many people may find it disgusting to think of eating insects, there are emerging studies quoted by the FAO saying that they can be rich sources of copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium and zinc, and fibre. The humble beetle, ant or grasshopper are all being said to come close to lean red meat or broiled fish in terms of protein intake per gram.
Given the growing rate of population on one hand; the shrinking space of agricultural land to produce food, the hazards of eating processed and packed food, the lack of proper storage facilities for food grains in the country, turning to insects may be a practical if not so easy change of food habits. To those of us who do not hesitate while wasting food, the other side of the story is that many starve to death and have to resort to eating dry kernels of fruit to keep themselves alive. The other extreme end is that while the majority of the people may turn their noses at the thought of people eating insects or rodents even, there is the practice of ‘anything goes’ if the same fare gets served at a fancy restaurant at exorbitant rates. Hunger is basic and so is food and if the lowly insect can reduce the gap between the two what needs to be tackled is the value judgment given to people who eat what they eat.