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Workshop draws global audience

October 3, 2012


Presentation is everything in Frank Franklin’s solution for worldwide hunger.

Franklin, a pediatrician and professor emeritus from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said the U.S. currently uses a corn soy vitamin mineral mixture for global food aid, and it would like to begin adding whey protein, which typically comes from milk. Franklin is researching another way to add protein to diets worldwide, but he said the challenge is convincing people to consume insects.

“What you can do with insects is grind them, and you produce a flour,” Franklin said. “You don’t even have to see the insect. One of the things I did the other day was serve people oat mealworm cookies. What we did at home, my wife and I, is just (use) dry mealworms that you get from a Home Depot or a Lowe’s that you use as bird feed (and) put them in a food processor. It essentially replaces about a third or half the flour (from) the wheat and the oatmeal, (as well as) the oil. You can’t tell the difference between that and an oatmeal cookie.”

Franklin is the featured speaker this week at Mississippi State University’s 15th annual Insect Rearing Workshop (IRW), where students and professionals from around the world have gathered to discover new uses for insects and techniques to help their insects proliferate.

Frank Davis, now retired from his work with MSU as a research entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was one of the workshop’s founders and remains its coordinator.

He said students and fellow instructors for the workshop come from countries around the world, including Australia, Panama, Canada, England, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“This workshop is one of a kind in the world,” Davis said. “Even during this workshop, there are people contacting me to find out about the 2013 workshop.”

About a year ago, Davis said, MSU agriculture division vice president Greg Bohach announced plans to nominate the IRW to be highlighted in a book published by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. Davis said this nomination was successful, and the book will list the IRW among the top achievements of all land-grant universities in the 150 years since the Morrill Land Grant College Act passed.

“It’s nice that our administration recognizes the accomplishment of this workshop,” Davis said. “We’re very, very honored.”

A different guest speaker comes to the IRW each year, and Davis said Franklin’s presence and ideas have made this year’s IRW one to remember. With global human population projected to increase from 7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050 and more than 1 billion people currently malnourished, he said, worldwide interest in insects as a source of food for livestock, fish and even humans has grown in recent years.

“There’s a lot of interest because you can rear insects very quickly,” Davis said. “Their protein is about 40 percent of their body, the amino acid contents of that are good (and) the fatty acids are good.”

Franklin said global demand for beef in particular is rising, but meeting that demand by conventional means is environmentally unsustainable because of the methane emissions from cattle manure and the deforestation needed for cattle pastures.

By contrast, he said, creatures like the black soldier fly do not contribute to global warming and can be raised in vertical structures to conserve land. Black soldier flies also do not carry diseases, he said, and they are not pests that will threaten crops if they are released into the wild.

“Essentially, they’re four to 10 times better in converting feed to tissue than our cattle, and they can eat almost anything,” Franklin said. “Whereas one cow will have one calf in two years, one insect will have, a month or two later, 600 babies. In two years, you can end up with not just one (insect), but 10 followed by 33 zeroes.”

Other challenges exist than preparing the insects in a palatable manner, Franklin said. Land grant university research has made the livestock industry very cost-efficient at producing cattle, dairy, chickens and eggs, but that research is still forthcoming for insects.

“We have to get to a point where they’re cheaper to grow than a cow or a chicken,” Franklin said. “This has to be like a factory. You’re talking about producing a ton a day. That’s why I came to the workshop, (not only) to see what Frank and his colleagues are doing but also to see what you have to do to rear an insect. If you’re going to feed them to people, they have to be safe. They can’t be filled with pathogens, and they can’t be filled with toxins like pesticides or lead that would harm children’s development.”

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