Crickets, caterpillars and grubs are high in protein and minerals and could be an important food source during droughts and other emergencies, according to scientists.
"I definitely think they can assist," said German biologist V.B. Meyer-Rochow, who regularly eats insects and wore a T-shirt with a Harlequin longhorn beetle to a U.N.-sponsored conference this month on promoting bugs as a food source.
Three dozen scientists from 15 countries gathered in this northern Thailand city, home to several dozen restaurants serving insects and other bugs. Some of their proposals were more down to earth than others.
A Japanese scientist proposed bug farms on spacecraft to feed astronauts, noting that it would be more practical than raising cows or pigs. Australian, Dutch and American researchers said more restaurants are serving the critters in their countries.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 1,400 species of insects and worms are eaten in almost 90 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Researchers at the conference detailed how crickets and silk worms are eaten in Thailand, grubs and grasshoppers in Africa and ants in South America.
"In certain places with certain cultures with a certain level of acceptance, then insects can very well be seen as part of the solution" to hunger, said Patrick Durst, a Bangkok-based senior forestry officer at the FAO.
The challenge, experts said, is organizing unregulated, small bug food operations in many countries so they can supplement the food that aid agencies provide. The infrastructure to raise, transport and market bugs is almost nonexistent in most countries.
Prof. Arnold van Huis, a tropical entomologist known as "Mr. Edible Insect" in his native Netherlands, blamed a Western bias against eating insects for the failure of aid agencies to incorporate bugs into their mix.
"They are completely biased," van Huis said. "They really have to change. I would urge other donor organizations to take a different attitude toward this ... It's excellent food. It can be sustainable with precautions."
There are questions about the safety of eating bugs and potential dangers from over-harvesting them, said Durst, who became interested in the practice known scientifically as entomophagy during his years working in Bangkok, where crickets and bamboo worms are sold as food by street vendors.
Tina van den Briel, senior nutritionist at the World Food Program, the U.N. agency that provides food in emergencies, expressed doubt that insects can benefit large, vulnerable populations. Most bugs are seasonal and have a short shelf life, she said.
"They can be a very good complement to the diet," said van den Briel, not a conference participant. "But they do not lend themselves to programs like ours where you transport food over long distances and where you have to store food for a few months."
She suggested a more practical benefit might be adding insects to animal feed or crushing them into a meal powder that could be used to make cookies or cakes.
Meyer-Rochow said aid agencies might even find a way to harvest crop-destroying swarms of locusts and crickets.
"These mass outbreaks could be a valuable food source," he said. "If the technology is available, they could be ground up like a paste and added to the food humans eat."