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By Dr Pettina Love Dr Susan Lawler 28 July 2021 5 min read

Witjuti grubs are a traditional bushfood collected in the wild. (Image: Tobias Titz)

Increasingly, farming insects for human consumption is seen as one part of the solution to meet a growing population’s protein needs.

With climate change increasing disruptions to current agricultural systems, and the global population set to increase by two billion in the next 30 years, people are looking at how we can grow more food on less land. Insects have many advantages as a protein source; they are efficient, nutritious, and easy on the environment.

Although eating insects is common and widespread globally, most of the western world has yet to be convinced it is a good idea. In recent years, academics and others have highlighted the benefits of eating insects. An excellent example of this genre is a recent humorous clip on an ABC television show.

The edible insect industry in Australia is working to increase demand for their products. At the same time, Australia’s First Nations People continue to enjoy traditional bush foods such as witjuti grubs, bogong moths and honey pot ants.

Can these two groups join forces to create a uniquely Australian approach to eating insects? A recent publication by the CSIRO hopes so.

Launched on April 29, Edible insects: A roadmap for the strategic growth of an emerging Australian industry  sets out a vision for researchers, government, industry and Australia’s First Nations People to work together to promote edible insects. The report was co-authored by entomologist Dr Bryan Lessard and research scientist Dr Rocio Ponce Reyes.

Cricket flour, pasta, dukkha, granola and chips (Image: Bryan Lessard)

Australian native insects and bush food businesses 

There are currently 14 edible insect related businesses in Australia that farm predominantly exotic insects such as crickets, mealworms and silkworms. These businesses are all owned by non-Indigenous people.

At the same time, there is a thriving Bushfood industry that includes plant products (including wattle seeds, bush tomatoes and Kakadu plums) as well as Australian insects, like green ants. The growth of the Bushfood industry in recent years has led to higher Indigenous leadership, the establishment of the First Nations Bushfood and Botanical Alliance Australia (FNBBAA) and Australian Research Council-funded research collaboration between Indigenous Traditional Owners, Custodians and The University of Queensland to support the Indigenous led bush products sector.

Australian native insects such as bogong moths and witjuti grubs may not be amenable to farming and must be collected by wild harvesting. Gathering Australian native insects for food is a traditional activity that has social, cultural, and environmental benefits for First Nations People. Any commercial activity in this space will require the development of respectful relationships that support Indigenous leadership, acknowledge Indigenous cultural and intellectual property and ensure benefit sharing with Indigenous knowledge holders and their wider communities.

For instance, Something Wild Australia is an Indigenous-owned business that relies on wild harvesting. Their Green Ant Gin is an insect product made with the full participation of First Nations People. Daniel Motlop is general manager and part-owner of Something Wild Australia.

“We have built strong relationships with Indigenous communities, giving us the privilege of being able to promote and supply unique produce from one of the world’s oldest cultures,” said Daniel.

Zesty green tree ants are increasingly used in bushfood products around Australia  (image: Dr Rocio Ponce Reyes)

Access and benefit sharing, and avoiding biopiracy

When researchers use Traditional Knowledge without permission or take biological resources without official sanction, this is called biopiracy. Historically linked to colonialism, these types of incursions still occur, often taking advantage of sometimes already marginalised people.

Protections against Indigenous knowledge appropriation have increased lately but attempts to patent traditional crops still occur. Recently, an attempt to patent the Kakadu Plum by an international cosmetics company was defeated, protecting Australian communities and local industry.

The key to avoiding biopiracy is better education about how to create access and benefit sharing agreements, as supported by international agreements like The Nagoya Protocol - Convention on Biological Diversity. Fortunately, governments and researchers are increasingly aware of their obligations and more resources are available. A new book by indigenous lawyer Terri Janke explains the principles of respectful and ethical engagement with First Nations' knowledge and culture.

The CSIRO Edible Insect Roadmap acknowledges these issues and seeks to establish respectful relationships with First Nations enterprises. In this sense, the roadmap is ambitious, as it seeks to connect two disparate industries: one based on commercial farming with the economic goal of feeding the world, and the other relying on wild harvesting with a cultural goal of feeding the soul.

Sharing the future benefits of eating insects

The people who farm insects and those who promote bush foods share the challenge of encouraging the Australian public to consider adding edible insects to their diet.

Aunty Dale Chapman is a celebrated First Nations Entrepreneur, chef, lecturer, author, and founder of bushfood company My Dilly Bag.

“Eventually, I am sure we will be eating insects as another protein source but at the moment there is no consistent demand and therefore there is no consistent supply…but one day there will be,” said Aunty Dale.

Currently, the edible insect industry and the Indigenous-led bush products sector are relatively new and enjoying a growth phase. Perhaps now is the perfect time to establish protocols and find a framework that will maximise opportunities for all.

Mark Rullo is a PhD student whose supervisors Drs Rocio Ponce-Reyes and Bryan Lessard co-authored the Edible Insects Roadmap. He is currently studying the nutritional value of bogong moths.

“Goodwill and trust will be needed.  I just think we need to get everyone in the same room,” said Mark.

The key is to get the conversation started, and the roadmap is a first step in that process.

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