Evaluating the safety and nutritional quality of a novel insect based food product in Benin

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Institute of Integrative Biology


Insects represent a vast but underexploited food resource. They have a global distribution and are amongst the most abundant animals in the world. Recent evaluations of their nutritional quality have also shown many of them to be comparable or superior as a source of nutrition to many of our current livestock animals.

Although not widely used in European societies, insects are already traditionally consumed in two thirds of countries worldwide, with over 2000 species being eaten around the globe. As a widespread resource that can be collected without cultivation, the sustainable harvesting and preservation of insects offer solutions to food security problems, particularly in impoverished communities within developing world nations. Whilst this potential has been realised in some places (e.g. mopane worm in South Africa), insects have been underutilized in many areas where food security is poor.

Our project will address food security issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many areas, such as the region of Benin where we work, experience seasonal food shortages. These arise as a consequence of extended dry seasons when crops will not grow. Limited development of food storage and preservation at the community level compounds this problem, as periods of plenty cannot be used to improve food security in famine times.
This project aims to bridge this food security challenge through developing termites as a sustainable and locally available food source. Each year, a single termite mound will produce thousands of winged individuals which will disperse from the mound, and can be collected locally. These termites, which are already eaten traditionally in the region by some communities, are highly nutritious. They are naturally 'overproduced' - of the thousands who fly from a mound, 99% are eaten by birds or reptiles. As such, alate termites offer great prospects as a sustainable food product.

We will assess the efficacy of different methods for the collection of termites, and combine this with an assessment of the total potential yield of termites regionally to determine the magnitude of natural capital represented in alate termites. We will then improve harvesting techniques, and develop preservation techniques that allow the product to be traded commercially/used locally over famine periods. Together, these data and techniques will allow us to determine the value-chain of a termite based food product. Within community use and local marketability will be examined as two means of maintaining nutrition through famine periods.

Our project will work in collaboration with communities in Northern Benin, and supply them with the direct means to enhance food security using termites as a food product. In doing so, combining existing regional traditions of eating insects with modern advances in food preservation and production, food security can be targeted using an entirely local approach.

The project aims further to be a proof of concept to establish more widespread use of termite as a food source across sub Saharan Africa.

Technical Summary

Insects are a widespread food source that can contribute to food security in regions where agricultural production is limited. This multidisciplinary project (ecology, food science and socioeconomics) will develop alate (winged) sexual termites as a community produced preserved food for use during periods of chronic food shortage.

We will perform three tasks:
i) Evaluating the natural capital of termites: Yields of alate termites from individual mounds will be assessed through capture. We will then estimate landscape yields by combining these data with mound density acquired through satellite and drone images to provide the first estimate of termites as natural capital at community and landscape levels. We will also optimize termite collection using solar light trapping, using materials and methods that are acceptable and co-designed with communities.

ii) Developing means of preparation and preservation: Preparation and preservation technologies for termites will be developed in the communities, ensuring simplicity and affordability (drying, grinding, and desiccated storage). We will deliver state of the art nutritional analysis of preserved termites including LC-MS and GC-MS metabolomics approaches, and biosafety analysis (bacterial contamination - qPCR;mycotoxin risk - quantitative ELISA). This quality assurance then enables both local use and marketing of the product.

iii) Community engagement and resource use: Community views towards, and active engagement in developing termites as a food source are central to this project. Traditional use of termites will be examined alongside simple collection and preservation techniques. Cost benefit analysis of harvesting and processing termites will be performed in the context of other community activities. Use of termites within the community and their potential value in the local market will be assessed.

Finally, the system developed will be promoted for uptake more widely across Sub Saharan Africa.

Planned Impact

This project is designed to drive impacts at multiple levels from local community driven enterprise and food production, through to a building a multinational and multidisciplinary collaboration framework that will facilitate further international expansion in the use of preserved insects as a means to deliver food security.

1) Benefit to local communities in Benin
The food security and socio-economic well-being of communities in Northern Benin are the central focus of this project. By evaluating and developing termite-based food production, this project is nurturing local production of food that can address food security at a time of year when there is chronic food shortage. Examining the value chain surrounding these food products can also stimulate the development of local business. In particular, the cross-disciplinary nature of our program is providing both the means to develop a novel value chain for termite based food products and interactively educate and work with local stakeholders to maximise the local benefit.

2) Wider benefit to countries across sub-Saharan Africa
Development of the termite preservation and value chain in Benin will act as an exemplar case for sub-Saharan Africa, and thus represents the first step towards broader development of a rigorous and reliable local food product in a part of the world where there are chronic annual food shortages that are projected to become more severe in the future.

3) Benefit to Institutions and science within Benin
Food security is a global challenge that requires collaboration at the international level. This project will establish a collaborative framework between the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, The University of Liverpool, and the Swedish University of Agricultural sciences (SLU). These links will help a) strengthen internally driven food production initiatives in Benin b) develop a rigorous risk assessment approach to assessing termite food products and c) create a strong network from which to expand the development of insect food products. In particular, SLU bring a track record of excellence in the risk-assessment of food products and the University of Liverpool have a strong track record in both insect-microbe interactions and the environmental evaluation of social insects.

4) Benefit to research institutions and science in the UK
The science and industry of insects as food and feed is projected to grow rapidly. Mass-rearing of insects is emerging at industrial scales and legislation surrounding insect products within the EU and worldwide is currently under review. This project combines insect food production with assessment of the associated risks and benefits. High level training of professionals in food science and preservation (with partners in Sweden) will provide Liverpool scientists with excellent skills in this emerging field. In addition, improving our understanding of both the risk-assessment of insect food production and examining the socio-economic aspects of food security are internationally relevant skills.


10 25 50
Description We are establishing the potential use of termite collection as a means of enhancing food security in West Africa. This year, we undertook a three month field trip to Northern Benin. We observed local collection methods and use of termites as a food resource. We established a cheap but effective light trap ($7) that can work off grid and will greatly improve harvesting efficiency from current methods; we will deploy this and test the technology next year. We established links with the local health/malnutrition centre to develop use of termites in aiding against malnourishment in this community. We additionally mapped termite mounds to ascertain the total resource available. We established satellite mapping was not effective, as when mounds are observed, they are commonly not alive. The proportion of dead termite mounds was unexpected, and the cause of mound death is unclear. Finally, we collected and preserved some termites for nutritional analysis; these proved the material was very high in lipid, protein and B vitamins, so represented an excellent nutritional supplement.

However, we have since shown that termites accumulate the element Manganese - 0.25% of a termite dry weight is made up of manganese. This was true of both termites we collected, and termites being sold commercially in the UK. This level of manganese exceeds daily recommended limits when more than 10g of termite is consumed. This clearly forbids establishing a value chain for this product into Western Markets - one of the original goals of the project, and also requires urgent consideration in terms of uptake by local stakeholders.

Further to this, we have assessed the quality of labelling of commercial available insects as food in the UK. There were two cases where the packaging clearly mislabelled the contents. This presents an issue for Quality Control, and also for regulation by the UK government. Mislabelling was observed only for foraged insects, not commercially reared insects.This has policy implications in terms of market and import regulation in developing this market.
Exploitation Route Termites and other insects represent a component of the diet in many traditional west african communities, and are also traded. Current collection techniques have poor efficiency. In creating an improved harvesting technology, alongside evidence of nutritional quality, this work can aid develop this resource to aid food security in these communities which have high levels of childhood malnutrition. However, the presence of high manganese requires education on consumption habits to minimize acute toxicity, particularly to children and pregnant women.

The work can additionally inform UK government regulation of insects as food - first establishing safe levels of insects to consume, and second, establishing labelling standards for import.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment,Retail,Security and Diplomacy

URL https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2016/01/25/watch-insect-haggis-served-up-for-burns-night/
Description We have demonstrated that termites contain potentially toxic levels of manganese, and consumption of high levels may be neurotoxic, especially to children. We are disseminating this information through peer reviewed publication in the first instance, then to local communities in Benin through a public education campaign, to the UK Food Standards Agency in the form of a briefing, and to UK commercial suppliers of insects in the form of a briefing note. We have additionally identified shortcomings in the labelling of insects as food. This information has been disseminated through peer reviewed publication in the first instance, witjh advisory notes to the suppliers in question, who are likely unaware, and to the UK DEFRA, responsible for food importation and control.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Labelling and provenance of insects as food
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Implementation circular/rapid advice/letter to e.g. Ministry of Health
Impact We tested insects sold as food in the UK for the identity of material in packets, to establish the degree to which package information reflected package contents. This was true for 'farmed' insects, but was often in discrepancy for field harvested material. We wrote an advisory note to UK vendors of insects as food with respect to our findings, which are now published. This also include best practice guidelines for product labelling.
Description Application of Black Soldier Fly to African resource poor settings
Amount £9,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Liverpool 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 07/2019
Description IITA 
Organisation International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
Country Nigeria 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Assisting in the training of local PhD students in termite use for food.
Collaborator Contribution Collaborators in Benin, providing logistical assistance and project advice; have extended our work to encompass analysis of pesticide residues.
Impact Outputs to come
Start Year 2017
Description Prof R Landberg 
Organisation Chalmers University of Technology
Country Sweden 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Supply of termite material for analysis, and PDRA to conduct the analyses
Collaborator Contribution Training of Postdoctoral worker in nutritional analyses; providing facilities for analysis on a consumables cost basis, making machine use free.
Impact To come
Start Year 2017
Description ACCE phd programme conference - Invited Speaker 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I presented an overview of my career from PhD to Post-Doc. I also discussed entomophagy in general, and more specific aspects of the edible termites project in Northern Benin. There was good engagement from the audience and a lively question session afterwards about the relative role edible insects can play in contributing to food production and food security. A number of post graduate attendees also approached the speaker after the event to further discuss aspects of entomophagy, particularly regarding sustainability and cultural preferences for and against eating insects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://acce.shef.ac.uk/acce-dtp-annual-conference-invited-speakers/
Description Identification of candidates and research goals for future Benin based PhD students. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The award of the edible termites project from BBSRC has allowed the University of Liverpool to forge a formal collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), based in Cotonou, Benin. One of the results of this collaboration has been the identification of two PhD candidates to continue to work on diverse aspects of termites as food and feed. For example searching for evidence of pesticide residuals and heavy metal toxicity was identified as one particularly interesting avenue of research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Insects as food and the nutritional value of edible termites in northern Benin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact During the placement of the PDRA in Chalmers Institute of Technology, a presentation was made to the department of food science and technology. The aim of the presentation was both to summarise progress on the nutritional analysis of termites, and also to introduce the subject of entomophagy and the nutritional value of insects to member of the department. The presentation was well received and suggestions about methodology changes and further analysis were made. It also provided a useful arena to explore the potential of future collaborations between the PDRA and Chalmers, and also future projects between the University of Liverpool and Chalmers Institute of Technology.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Piece in Bulletin aimed at Amateur, Professional Entomologists 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 1500 word illustrated piece on the use of termites as food, including description of the Benin project rationale, aims and objectives.The piece is listed on the publication list - Verspoor and Powell Antenna 42: 103-106
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Project introduction research talk - IITA, Cotonou, Benin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project objectives were presented to researchers from IITA, Cotonou, Benin. There were also international attendees from other IITA institutes across Africa. The discussion also provided an opportunity to introduce two PhD students who would be starting to work on the subject of termites as food, in collaboration with the project. These students would be based at IITA Benin. Following the presentation there was a lively discussion and a number of interesting points were raised. Discussion of a metabolite and nutrition bank for insects across Africa was one particularly popular point in the audience. There was also a discussion about changing attitudes to eating insects in different countries in Africa, and how it is important to guard this cultural information and transform it into modern, popular and usable food products.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description RES SIG 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact RES SIG for edible insects attended by PDRA in April, including poster presentation of project work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019