Buzzworthy: A new blog series on edible insects, agricultural development and food security

Buzzworthy logoThis blog post was cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Have you heard the buzz about entomophagy, the practice of eating insects? It’s more common than you might think. Two billion people around the world consume insects as a regular part of their diet. Beetle larvae, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, termites and stink bugs are particularly popular as edibles.

Insects are considered delicacies in some communities and provide an important nutritional boost to undernourished people in others. Rearing or harvesting insects requires very little feed, land and water compared with raising conventional livestock like cows and chickens, which is part of why insects are trending in conversations about sustainable food systems. In the years ahead, insects have great potential to fill an ever-growing need for protein, fatty acids and key minerals in the diets of both humans and livestock.

In this blog series, I will explore the relevance of entomophagy to global food security. I will address questions such as:

  • Who is eating insects? Where and why?
  • How nutritious are insects, and how might they contribute to sustainable diets?
  • What are some examples of insect-based livelihoods in developing countries?
  • Why should agricultural development practitioners care about edible insects, and what actions should we take?

For a quick introduction to entomophagy and its role in agricultural development, check out this six-minute lightning talk:


If you are up for a longer read, I highly recommend FAO’s 2013 report, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security”. This report examines and summarizes the available research on entomophagy. It interweaves case studies, personal examples, caveats, and knowledge gaps to make the case for further attention to edible insects in a global food security context.

What questions do you have about edible insects? Share them in the comments below, or email me, and I will do my best to answer your questions in future blog posts!

Aflatoxin infographics: Making a complex issue more digestible

Aflatoxin – a naturally-occurring toxin produced by a fungus that infects certain crops – is getting a lot of attention right now in the agricultural development sphere.

I worked with a small team of USAID staff and implementing partners to develop an infographic on aflatoxin. Our goal was to create an eye-catching one-pager that conveys some core messages: 1) Aflatoxin is bad for human health; 2) Aflatoxin has global economic consequences; 3) Aflatoxin is a common/widespread problem; and 4) We can do something about it! This infographic has been shared with a variety of audiences to help spark interest in the topic and elevate it as a priority in international development.

Click on the image to view a larger version:

For another take on an aflatoxin infographic, here is a nice, concise image from the International Livestock Research Institute:

ILRI aflatoxin infographic

Kindling knowledge exchange without bandwidth: An interview with Peace Corps volunteer Ryan King

I enjoyed the opportunity to practice my on-camera interview skills for the latest entry in the Agrilinks “KM Insights” video series. (Two lessons learned: curb the instinct to blink, and don’t wear orange pants!) Watch the video below to get the scoop on Peace Corps Ethiopia’s strategies for supplying its volunteers with the information they need to run agricultural projects.

This post is cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Most agricultural development practitioners—certainly, those based in major cities—rely on the Internet for daily knowledge exchange. There is no faster way to obtain new technical reports, join training webinars and conduct research than to use your favorite browser and a trusty broadband connection. But what about project implementers who are stationed in remote locations for more than a week or two? For example, many Peace Corps volunteers serve in small villages without reliable electricity or Internet bandwidth. How can they obtain the information they need to do their jobs well?

Ryan King, a Peace Corps volunteer leader serving in Ethiopia, and I discussed these challenges and honed in on a few good practices in a recent Agrilinks “KM Insights” interview, which you can watch above. He manages projects that support Feed the Future’s objectives, such as volunteer efforts to build productive household gardens, alleviate environmental degradation and educate communities about nutrition. To succeed in these projects, Peace Corps volunteers need to be able to access the best available information on low-cost technologies that can be employed at a household scale. However, as Ryan noted, getting information to volunteers is a constant struggle due to lack of connectivity.

As a step toward simpler information distribution, Peace Corps Ethiopia has equipped many of its volunteers with basic Amazon Kindle e-readers, which are refreshed with updated reports and briefs when volunteers return to post. Ryan explained that volunteers used to be sent to their sites with “a suitcase full of books” for reference, but now, nearly all of those volumes can be stored on a single hand-held device with a long battery life.

Ryan and I also discussed the value of video as a training medium for smallholder farmers, and the need for alternatives to online streaming in low-bandwidth areas. Open-access videos are preferable because volunteers can transfer them to DVD and give copies to their communities. In addition, audio transcripts are useful complements to video products, especially when translated into local languages.

Watch the full video for more of Ryan’s insights, and please share your experiences with low-bandwidth knowledge sharing in the comments section below.

Bringing technologies to scale in Nepal to increase farmer incomes: An interview with Bill Collis of KISAN

This post is cross-posted from Agrilinks.

A farmer’s cooperative in Nepal is reaping real financial benefits from producing high-value vegetables in the off-season. Cucumbers and bitter gourd are grown in low tunnels covered in plastic, which creates a greenhouse effect, reduces temperature fluctuations, and protects the crops from weather damage. This relatively simple practice can produce significant boosts in income, due to the timing of the harvest. The farmer’s cooperative received training on this practice through Feed the Future’s Knowledge-based Integrated Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition (KISAN) project, a five-year activity that runs from 2013-18 and is led by Winrock International. While the training is one of the successful highlights from KISAN, on a broader scale the activity aims to put established knowledge into action in order to improve agro-inputs, extension, market access, and farmer livelihoods in twenty districts in Nepal. In addition to KISAN, USAID-Nepal also has awards with the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA) and the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management, which both conduct research at local test sites to provide technologies and best practices that KISAN can bring to scale.

In March 2014, a group of USAID staff and partners (myself included) embarked on a two-day field trip to the Banke and Surkhet districts in western Nepal, where we visited field sites for the aforementioned USAID-funded activities. This trip was an addendum to the annual Feed the Future Innovation Lab Council Partners Workshop, which took place in Kathmandu. [Check out these blog post recaps of Day 1 and Day 2 of the field trip.]

I borrowed KISAN Chief of Party, Bill Collis, at one of the project’s vegetable sites for a brief interview about KISAN’s work on tunnel vegetable production. We also touched up the project’s model of collaboration with the Government of Nepal and with other Feed the Future implementing partners for spreading knowledge to farmers. Check out the video below!

Jeopardy Category: Food Labeling

A couple of weeks ago, Jeopardy had a first-round category on “Food Labeling.” I always get excited for categories that fall within my areas of expertise. The answers are listed below, and the questions (Jeopardy is reversed, remember?) are listed at the end of this post. Get your trivia on!






Bonus: On March 25, the Final Jeopardy category was “Agriculture.” Here’s the answer:








CORRECT RESPONSES (how did you do?):

$200 – What is Organic?

$400 – What is sodium?

$600 – What is the Vitamin B complex?

$800 – What is Free Range?

$1000 – What is a Rabbi? (My Jewish friend was quick to point out that Jeopardy got this one wrong. The answer should be mashgiach. Goes to show you that Jeopardy clues don’t always capture the finer details of their subjects, and it’s acceptable to guess the “obvious” response.)

Final Jeopardy – What are almonds?

Getting up to speed on mycotoxins in Africa: Is optic sorting the solution?

This post is cross-posted from Agrilinks.

Combating mycotoxin contamination is a major frontier in the agricultural development sector. While mycotoxins (a category of toxic fungal metabolites) occur on many crops in many countries, the associated health burden is more visible in Sub-Saharan Africa. If you’re not feeling up-to-speed on mycotoxins in Africa, I highly recommend watching the presentation below by Dr. Rebecca Nelson, Professor of Plant Science at Cornell University. To download the slides used in the presentation click here.


In a 35-minute narrated PowerPoint, Dr. Nelson highlights a number of recent studies examining mycotoxin prevalence in Kenya and the key factors that can influence mold growth and human exposure. Much of the research was conducted via local hammer mills in Kenya, which seem to be ideal sites for researching and managing mycotoxins. In her conclusions, Dr. Nelson proposes broadly-applicable steps that can be taken by consumers, farmers, traders/millers, and policy actors to tackle the mycotoxin problem going forward.

Here are three of my major takeaways from Dr. Nelson’s presentation:

Maize that is sold to market is often more contaminated than maize that a farmer keeps for her family. A study found that among a sample of households in Kenya, maize that the families kept for their own consumption had a 20% chance of exceeding the legal limit for aflatoxin (a notorious mycotoxin). Maize for sale, on the other hand, had a 40% chance of being over the legal limit for aflatoxin. Why such a stark difference? The discrepancy could be due to the particular maize varieties in question: a survey of 100 Kenyan farmers showed a tendency to keep the local varieties of maize (perhaps better-adapted to resist mycotoxins) for own-consumption, and sell the large-grain hybrids. Or, it could be that people simply take better care of maize that they are planning to keep: 50% of farmers surveyed admitted that they took less care in drying and storage for the maize they intended to sell. Another study showed that contamination was higher at mills than in storage, perhaps because farmers selectively sell older maize that will sooner reach its spoilage point.

The human eye can’t discern if maize is contaminated by aflatoxin, but a specialized optical sorting machine can. The fungus that produces aflatoxin can worm its way into the center of a maize kernel, making it undetectable by the eyes of a farmer sorting her crop. Mechanized spectral grain sorting is being tested as a potential way to identify and remove contaminated kernels. An optical sorting machine uses an LED array and sensor to take a spectral image of each kernel, detects specific wavelengths associated with contamination, and jettisons contaminated kernels into a reject pile. In one study, toxic samples were rejected at a rate of 0-25%, while clean samples were rejected at maximum rate of 1%. Hopefully, further studies and technology advances will allow for a higher rejection rate of contaminated kernels.

Hammer mill shops are practical places to enact mycotoxin awareness and reduction programs. Kenyan householders often visit neighborhood hammer mill shops to grind small quantities of maize. These local mills are good places to educate both maize producers and consumers about various mycotoxin mitigation methods. Many mills already have screened tables allowing people to pick out rotten kernels, which are discarded or go to livestock. This type of hand sorting is effective at reducing levels of some types of mycotoxins produced by visible molds, but not at reducing aflatoxin. If mechanized spectral grain sorting were paired with hammer mills, householders could walk away with a cleaner batch of maize to feed their families.

Overall, I am impressed with the quality and creativity of the research performed by the Nelson Lab and its partners. Further economic studies and cost-benefit analyses will help researchers determine the feasibility of optical grain sorting at the local grain mill level.

For more on mycotoxins, check out these resources:

Antibiotics in animal agriculture – what’s the latest?

Back in my days working with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), I was highly tuned in to the issue of antibiotic use in animal agriculture. In short, the majority of antibiotics produced in the United States are used for livestock, and not just as a treatment for sick animals, but as a low-dose feed additive to help them gain weight. In 2007, I helped organize two Hill briefings on the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which sought to ban non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in raising animals for food. PAMTA was reintroduced by Louise Slaughter (the resident microbiologist in Congress) in May 2013 and holds the support of over 450 organizations, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the National Academy of Sciences. Basically, everyone in the medical field agrees that antibiotic resistance is a major public health issue and that overuse of key antibiotics in livestock contributes to a loss of effectiveness for human use.

I haven’t kept very close track of the issue in recent years, but I was happy to see it gaining traction in the latter half of 2013. Even moreso, I was thrilled that my friend and Tufts Friedman School classmate Dawn Undurraga had the opportunity to appear in an “Animal Antibiotic Debate” on the daytime talk show The Doctors. Dawn also co-authored an Environmental Working Group report titled Superbugs Invade American Supermarkets, which demonstrates unsettling levels of antibiotic-resistance bacteria in supermarket meat.


While watching the video of this debate, I was surprised to hear Dawn’s opponent, Dr. Scott Hurd, say that the “growth promotion” use of antibiotics on the farm will “soon disappear.” That would certainly be a good thing – except that his statement was most likely based on the voluntary industry guidance that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released on December 11, covering the use of antibiotics in livestock feed and water. The guidance document asks pharmaceutical companies to remove growth promotion indications – such as “increased rate of weight gain” or “improved feed efficiency” – as allowable uses on the labels of animal drugs. However, it also contains this disclaimer up front:

FDA’s guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities. Instead, guidances describe the FDA’s current thinking on a topic and should be viewed only as recommendations, unless specific regulatory or statutory requirements are cited.

In other words, the livestock and pharmaceutical industries have no legal incentive to comply (although many companies have already indicated that they will take the voluntary measures). Some groups are worried that FDA’s guidance document will ultimately make the situation worse, as it will serve as a diversion from PAMTA and other legal action on the issue. It may also encourage a shift in the way antibiotic use is tracked – low-dose feed additives previously used for growth promotion might get reported as being used for illness prevention instead. I am doubtful that FDA’s guidance will result in a significant decrease in antibiotic use on livestock farms. Industry doesn’t seem worried about this guidance, but I believe that we would see vast industry push-back if a binding law was passed to truly limit low-dose antibiotics in animal feed/water.

Antibiotic resistance is very scary and needs to be addressed head-on. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report in September that clearly implicated animal antibiotic use as a main driver in the spread of resistance. See this infographic from the report:

CDC couldn’t put it more plainly: Antibiotics should only be used to treat infections. Constant, low-dose administration for growth promotion or disease prevention in animals needs to cease. How will the stakeholders proceed in 2014?

Further reading:

The Basics: Food Safety vs Food Security

My career has focused on issues of both food safety and food security – two concepts that sound extremely similar but are actually quite different. My family members often get them mixed up and can’t remember which is which, so I thought I’d lay out the definitions to help clarify. I’ll be discussing topics within both disciplines on my blog, so best to get the basics out of the way!

Food Safety

The discipline of food safety deals with the proper handling, preparation, and storage of food with the goal of preventing foodborne illness. Foodborne illness (aka “food poisoning”) may be caused by bacteria, viruses, molds, parasites, heavy metals, or contaminants that make our food unsafe to eat. You’ve probably heard of some of the most common foodborne pathogens: Salmonella, E. coli, Norovirus, etc. Food safety standards and processes are very important all along the supply chain from the farm to your table. When a food company discovers that one of its products is unsafe, it may recall that item. Unfortunately, minor food safety incidents are ubiquitous – we’ve all experienced the tummy aches or worse – but standards and inspections are in place in the United States to guard against major issues. Of course, fresh food can never be 100% insulated from pathogens, and so the consumer needs be conscious of some basic safety rules such as proper cooking, storage, and reheating temperatures.

The heading of food safety also includes food defense, which is the protection of our food supply from criminal or terrorist interference.

Food safety resources:

  • – A U.S. federal government site that contains recall information, food poisoning basics, and tips on how to keep your food safe.
  • Food Safety News – A robust online newspaper covering the latest news and views from the food safety beat.
  • Codex Alimentarius – International food safety standards that influence trade.

Fight BAC graphic from the Partnership for Food Safety Education

Food Security

Food security is more closely aligned with what you may think of when you hear the word “hunger.” If you or your household are food secure, you have a consistent, adequate supply of safe and nutritious food for an active lifestyle. If you are food insecure, then you have a limited or uncertain ability to acquire the food you need to be healthy and active.

Food security is generally seen as having four dimensions:

  • Availability – Adequate supply of foodstuffs to meet the population’s needs
  • Access – Ability to purchase/acquire food when needed
  • Utilization – Knowledge of how to prepare and consume food to enhance nutrition and reduce food safety risk
  • Stability – Consistency of the other three dimensions over time

Improving food security is not just a matter of providing food aid to the poor (in the form of actual food or money to purchase food), although this type of aid is very important in times of famine or disaster. International development organizations, governments, and non-profits need to work together to establish good policies, markets, and supply systems that allow all people to produce and/or purchase the food they need. Food security is intimately linked with issues of economic growth, nutrition, and natural resource management, among others.

Although many people think of hunger and food insecurity as problems that reside in developing countries, they are real problems in the United States as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 14.5 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2012.

Once you know the term food security, you will start seeing it frequently. With the Earth’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, it seems like everyone is talking about global food security and how to feed the world (which is fantastic!).

Food security resources:

Habiba Tukhtaeva shows off the vegetables she grew in her family’s kitchen garden with support from Feed the Future.

So how are food safety and food security related? You can’t have true food security without food safety – after all, contaminated or unsafe food is certainly not adequate for a healthy and active lifestyle free from hunger. Poor food safety measures can affect the availability of food, since spoiled/unsafe foods should be removed from the supply chain.

After writing this post, I asked my husband how he would describe the difference between food safety and food security. He responded: “Food safety pertains to making sure my food won’t kill me and food security pertains to whether I have enough of it.” Not too bad, hubby! 🙂