"Why are entomologists sitting on the sidelines while others are called to save the world? Why are we fighting for funds to inventory the world while we ignore the fight to reduce the threats to insect habitats? After all, how much tropical forest will be left in 50 years?
"Last year, I documented and described 28 new species in Madagascar with students and colleagues—and also began to fundamentally change my research program. Instead of investing in just basic research with limited short-term outcome to Madagascar, I created a network of entomologists working in Madagascar with a shared interest in applying results to outcomes that matter now. This network, called Insects and People of the Southwest Indian Ocean (IPSIO.org), is focused on developing insects as “ecological barometers” in protected areas, and farming edible insects to sustain forests, eliminate malnutrition, and engage the public in the excitement of exploration and insect diversity."
–Dr. Brian Fisher, Patterson Scholar and Curator of Entomology
Read Dr. Fisher's report on his 2018 research findings below.
Feeding Madagascar's hungry children—and sustaining wildlife
Madagascar’s remarkable biodiversity is threatened by the rising demand for food. Traditional farming practices and lemur (bushmeat) hunting cannot sustain a population that will double in 25 years, especially when existing cropland is degraded and only 10 percent of natural habitat remains. If current trends continue, the island’s unique wildlife will vanish alongside remaining natural habitats.
Conservation efforts can do little to halt the continued destruction of this living resource when locals are hungry and malnourished (watch "Eating Insects to Save a Forest" below). In Madagascar, more than 90 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line—and almost half of all children under five are malnourished. Madagascar as a whole experiences the world’s fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition.
This broad-based effort uses wild and edible insects to both sustain local habitats and feed local communities, especially malnourished children. Farming insects will increase the economic stability of rural areas, add value to forest protection through food security, help restore forest, and reduce demand for lemur hunting. Our community projects improve the diets of malnourished children with a farming system that increases the value of the forest in the eyes of local people.
"With insect protein, we can feed all of Madagascar’s children and reduce pressure on the remaining forests."
-Dr. Brian Fisher
In Madagascar, insects—whole or in powder form—are an indispensable part of seasonal diets for many ethnic groups. At the Madagascar Biodiversity Center, we strengthen the tradition of eating insects with innovative techniques to make this valuable food available to every child, while encouraging forest conservation. In addition to increasing insect farming within the region, producing insects in large quantities would greatly facilitate efforts by the World Bank, the National Nutrition Office, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Production to improve the lives and health of the Malagasy people by significantly addressing malnutrition, stunting, and micronutrient deficiencies.
At the same time, our method connects the benefits of insect farming to the preservation of the natural forest and Madagascar’s celebrated biodiversity by diminishing the need to hunt bushmeat—lemurs. Insects farmed for food can provide an environmentally sustainable and nutritious alternative to traditional protein sources. Offering a far greater range of nutrients than commonly consumed meats, insects require a much smaller footprint to produce. More importantly, insects grow quickly, are easy to breed, and are inexpensive to raise, making their production accessible to the poorest members of society. And, the byproduct of this industry—insect frass (manure)—is a superior fertilizer that will extend the use of current farmlands and reduce the need to clear virgin forest.
Our IPSIO collaborative—a partnership of the Madagascar Biodiversity Center, Entomo Farms, CRS, and several research scientists—has developed native Madagascan field crickets as a major source of food affordable to everyone and encourages the protection of the natural forests and wildlife. Crickets convert a wide range of organic waste products into nutritious food with about twice the efficiency of chickens and pigs and six times the efficiency of cattle—all without causing the devastation of overgrazing and erosion. Insects contain up to 65 percent protein and are rich sources of minerals and vitamins such as iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, selenium, biotin (B7), and pantothenic acid (B5).
We are introducing our edible cricket products to urban and rural communities across Madagascar. Stage one, the development of farming techniques for native species, was completed in 2017 at the Madagascar Biodiversity Center. We currently produce 100 kilograms (approximately 220 pounds) of crickets per week, yielding 65 kilograms (143 pounds) of protein powder, enough for 2,600 meals. We process the crickets following protocols developed with Entomo Farms, the largest supplier of food-grade crickets in North America. Our first sales were in 2018 and focused on feeding communities experiencing high rates of acute malnutrition in the south of Madagascar and providing school lunches for children. With investment, we can scale production in 2019 to provide enough protein for every child in Madagascar.
While our 2018 efforts were focused on building a production facility in the Antananarivo area, we also started a new collaboration with Cortni Borgerson (Montclair State University) to use edible insects to reduce lemur bushmeat consumption. We established a network of farmers near Masoala National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest national park in Madagascar, to rear the local favorite edible insect called sakondry. These farmers will sell their insects at local markets as income- generating activities to support their families. Local production of insect protein will help address the malnutrition that is so pervasive in isolated, rural areas of Madagascar, where people tend to be poor, have low dietary diversity, and habitually hunt bushmeat. Rearing insects for local consumption reduces the need to hunt lemurs and other animals for bushmeat, and is our best hope for conserving iconic species key to the lucrative ecotourism industry.
The rapid transformation of the few remaining natural habitats and the resulting mass extinction of species along with the collapse of local ecosystem services continue to be Madagascar’s greatest threats. In partnership with the local community, we can address these threats head-on to change the conservation narrative, while also ensuring that all of Madagascar’s children do not go hungry. By training Malagasy students and leaders in science, we also empower biodiversity discovery and build on the tradition of entomophagy in the country.
Together, we are mapping insect biodiversity across Madagascar and creating genomic monitoring tools to track and observe flying insects at 50 parks across the country. This is the future of biodiversity monitoring. Finally, to make this critical research accessible to the general public, I continue to develop innovative techniques to translate biodiversity data to the tools needed for immediate conservation action.