For those of us that pay attention, the mass media is shouting about a massive locust plague ravaging much of eastern Africa and a wide swath running across to Pakistan. ‘Locust’ is a generalized term for swarms of grasshoppers and similar species that emerge when they reach a high population threshold. Due to more rain than average, the last few years have seen increased vegetation, and thus a peak in the locust population cycle in these areas. While this uptick in locust numbers occurs every 50-to-75 years and has for centuries, the politicians and other “leaders” are debating if “climate change” is to blame. Study your history folks: It happens regularly. Always has, always will. The politicians should get over themselves and get to work helping those impacted.
Reports state that the food and feed crops in these areas are being devastated as locusts can consume their body weight in vegetation daily. These reports state that nobody knows what to do to help with the problem. A few years ago I wrote several articles in magazines and newspapers about the viability of using insects as an alternative food source in emergencies. The UN even came out with a similar report on the subject, but the information is not being distributed to the people that need it.
A Time-Proven Food Source
If anyone bothered to study history, they would find out that many native peoples throughout the world have used these insects as a very viable food source. Documentation by naturalists in the 19th century found that Native American communities in the Great Plains region formed massive circles and beat the brush to drive thousands of grasshoppers and Mormon Crickets into bodies of water or trenches constructed with precise vertical walls for mass collection. They would then throw burning bundles of grass on bulk catches that killed and cooked the insects. These could then be ground into flour that could be stored for later use. This was a well-established method of food procurement that preceded the bison hunting activities that resulted from the introduction of horses.
Similarly, Australian Aborigines practicing traditional lifestyles have and still consume various grasshoppers, locusts and crickets as a regular part of their diets. They catch and roast a few at a time on coals to eat immediately. This “bush tucker” is a good source of calories and protein, and has made a modern appearance in cook books ‘down under’ rebranded as ‘sky prawn’ in reference to the popular shrimp like shellfish already consumed by Aussies. This came about after an outbreak of swarms in 2004 stimulated some chefs to think outside the box. A similar resurgence is occurring in Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. The religious leaders have acknowledged that eating locust is considered okay as they are declared ‘clean’ by religious food inspectors.
In Mexico, eating grasshoppers and crickets has a long tradition. Many people don’t realize how many chapulines (as they’re called in Spanish) that they have eaten ground up in salsas and semi-pulverized in micheladas while on vacation. In fact an entire industry of farming insects now exists, both legal and illegal. The legal farms grow the chapulines on alfalfa and other choice plants under controlled conditions. The illegal side of the industry is folks trespassing onto farms without permission and without knowing what chemicals have been used on the farm. Unfortunately, both sources make it to the open market throughout Mexico.
So why is this practice not happening in Africa? Well, in certain areas it is. Some of the peoples that continue with traditional lifestyles do consume locust and other insects. Other African peoples suffer the loss of native culture after the introduction of modern agricultural practices coupled with the western culinary practices being taught to the children in schools. This has contributed to a loss of the wisdom that has been handed down for centuries and could keep them alive until another food source can be secured. In addition, the terrain and weather magnified by the number of wars being fought in this region continues to exacerbate the problem in many areas as well.
The photo below shows a fried chapulines in a guacamole taco.
The nutritional benefits of locusts and other insects can vary, but in general, locusts are 60% protein and 12% fat with many of the vitamins and minerals needed to keep people healthy. The actual amount of the nutrients will often depend on the diet of the insects consumed. But how do we prepare locust as food? Well for a meal, here and now, you can roast or fry them. Make sure you cook them thoroughly as they can have parasites that could be harmful if eaten raw. The big problem is that the crops being eaten by the locust are often the long term food source for the villages. The locusts will be gone when the hot dry season arrives and the food and feed crops will be gone as well. This leaves the local people dependent on outside help if it is available. If help isn’t available, then the true famine begins. So how do we turn these critters into a long term food source?
As previously stated, the American Indians solved this problem centuries ago. I’m sure other societies did as well. Roasting the insects will remove moisture and kill any parasites that may be present. The roasting process also helps develop a more palatable flavor. To me it’s similar to the flavor of almonds. You can add your favorite spices during the cooking process to develop a flavor that you would prefer. In Mexico, dried chili pepper is generously sprinkled into the mix to add a little kick.
After the roasting process, you need to grind the insects into flour. Not only does this make the locust into a more usable form, but it also removes a lot of the gross factor. Just make sure to give them a thorough grind as many folks can’t handle finding a bug leg in their bread or stir-fry. If you don’t have time to grind them up, they can be bagged up and kept dry for use later. In Thailand the locust are salted and bagged, which keeps them edible for a year. They are just one of the critters the Thai people have learned are good to eat, mainly stemming from a major locust outbreak in the 1970s that launched an insect-based food revolution.
Find the Good Ones
The source of your locust should be of high importance. If the local farmers or governments have already been spraying insecticides to eliminate the swarm, do not use them for food!! You will potentially bio-magnify the amount of pesticide you can get dosed with. The best choice for consuming is found by raising your own ‘crop’ of locust. This can be accomplished fairly easily if you had time and equipment to start early. If you don’t have a locust farm pre-established, the next best bet is the younger, pre-flying stage insects found in the wild. Not only are they safer (less chance of pesticide and parasite exposure) than the flying adults, but they are also much easier to capture in significant numbers without large nets. They can be readily driven into the prepared trenches or small ponds and can’t fly back out.
If anyone has chickens or other types of fowl as livestock, these insects also makes excellent forage for them as well. Just turn the birds loose and let them eat their fill. The added protein will not only bulk up the birds, but make for a good supply of nutritious eggs as well. The Bedouin tribes have also used locust as a supplemental food for their livestock. Some of the desert areas the Bedouin travel through are so barren that a swarm of locust flying through may be the only food source for miles. If prepared properly, and with nothing else to eat, horses and other animals will readily eat these insects.
Americans are Spoiled
Most people in the US have become so spoiled that they would balk at the prospect of eating locusts or any other insect unless it was totally covered in chocolate, or it was at the bottom of a tequila bottle. When I went through a military survival course, we had a cursory introduction to insect cuisine. While somewhat informative, I felt that it should have been more in depth. Thanks to many years of instruction by several of my Cherokee relatives, I already had a good background in identifying edible insects. While this led to a lot of harassment in school, it has paid off in many back-country adventures, and led me to obtain a master’s degree in Entomology.
One word of caution: Please avoid the brightly colored grasshoppers, such as the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper common along the Gulf coastal states from Texas to Florida. These red and orange striped grasshoppers have the ability to store toxins from plants they consume that in turn make the grasshopper toxic, though not deadly. The bright colors are a reminder to predators that they won’t taste good. This is similar to the Monarch Butterfly that consumes the toxic milkweed.
I really want to encourage everyone to at least look into the possibility that someday you may need to consume locusts or other insects. Research what species can be used for food in your area. You never know when the defecation will hit the oscillation. If you don’t think you could consume insects you may need to get a copy of the US Food and Drug Administration Food Contaminants Allowance regulations. You may be surprised how many of these insects you have already eaten over the years without knowing it. With a little research and an open mind you will find out that the common grasshopper is one of the most abundant food sources in the world.