One man's meat, another man's poison

Insects, spiders and bugs are not halal and cannot be consumed by Muslims.

Malaysian Islamic Development Depart­ment (Jakim) director (halal hub division) Hakimah Mohd Yusoff says these animals, including pests, flies, lice and so on, are considered repulsive and hence not allowed.

"Other animals that are not allowed are the poisonous kinds such as bees, scorpions, wasps, snakes and the like," she explains, adding that Islam treats human beings as very special creations by Allah.

"You are obliged to eat food that is halal and good. There are good things that you can eat and there are bad things that you should avoid.

"These (the rules) are set for the good of humans, to protect them from danger and (bad) consequences of consuming such animals."

The FAO in its recent report titled "Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security" is promoting entomophagy.

In simple English, the FAO is calling on the civilised world to grow up, get over the "yucky factor" and dine on insects and arthropods (think spiders and scorpions) like our ancestors used to!

Released in May, the report reassures that people throughout the world have been eating insects as a regular part of their diets for millennia, with the earliest citing of entomophagy found in biblical literature.

From ants to beetle larvae - eaten by tribes in Africa and Australia as part of their subsistence diets - to the popular, crispy-fried locusts and beetles enjoyed in Thailand, it is estimated that insect-eating is practised regularly by at least two billion people worldwide, the report read.

For non-Muslims, more than 1,900 insect species have been documented in literature as edible, most of them in tropical countries with beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, cicadas, leaf and planthoppers, scale insects and true bugs, termites, dragonflies and flies coming in as the most commonly eaten insect groups.

Icky or delicious?

According to the report, insects are a class of animals within the arthropod group that have a chitinous exoskeleton, a three-part body (head, thorax and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and two antennae.

Grossed out yet? There's more.

Insects reproduce quickly and their respiratory systems are tolerant of air and vacuum pressure, high-altitude flight and radiation.

The total number of insect species is estimated at six million to 10 million and if the FAO has its way, the exoskeleton "armour" that protects these cold-blooded critters from the environment won't save them from hungry chopsticks and forks.

Urging consumers to think with their heads rather than their tummies, the FAO points to the undeniable benefits - insects are healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish.

Many insects are rich in protein and good fats, high in calcium, iron and zinc and are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children.

Also, insects are environmentally friendly. They emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases than most livestock, and are "extremely efficient" in converting feed into edible meat. It also makes economic and social sense because insect harvesting or rearing is a low-tech, low-capital investment option that offers entry even to the poorest sections of society, such as women and the landless, according to FAO.

So why the hesitation in tucking into a bowl of bugs?

Following the FAO report, the Royal Netherlands Embassy hosted a discussion where a panel of experts looked at how insects could be used as a food source for a world population estimated to reach eight billion by 2025.

The panel cited two main problems with the FAO's recommended diet: insects are still expensive to get and people, generally, are bugged by the idea of eating insects.

But it also predicted that the demand for livestock would be too great for the land available eventually and when that time comes, "people will have to turn to other, more sustainable sources of food - however icky they may be".

Even China, despite being one of the largest insect-consuming countries, is not ready for the mass consumption of insects, Gao Xiwu, an entomologist at Chinese Agricultural University who specialises in the economic value of insects, told China Daily.

He called for a clear and comprehensive food safety standard to pave the way for promoting insects as food as some insects carry toxins, pesticide residue and bacteria, and the method of preparing them as food is not sufficient to prevent potential risks.

In 1996, more than 30 health products containing ants were approved by the Chinese government but despite years of research, the Kunming Institute of Zoology has failed to come up with any scientific results on edible insects, according to China Daily.

Senior lecturer Dr Azidah Abdul Aziz from UM's Institute of Biological Sciences (Faculty of Science) who recently co-wrote the "Diversity and Abundance of Insect Species at Kota Damansara Community Forest Reserve" academic article, says arthropods are one of the largest animal groups (in the world) and insects are among the biggest groups within the Arthropoda family.

"Most of the world's insect groups, namely the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps, ants), Coleoptera (beetles), Orthoptera (grasshoppers, crickets), Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths) and Isoptera (termites), can be found in Malaysia although the species may differ.

"Beetles and wasps are abundant in Malaysia and they can be found anywhere - in your backyard, playgrounds and places with plants like Taman Negara, forests or recreational areas. (In fact) you can even find them in places where there are no plants!"

Despite the nutritional benefits, Dr Azidah does not see her fellow countrymen making a beeline for the nearest insect cafe - at least for now.

"For the time being, we have sufficient food supply, so I don't think Malaysians will opt for insects. Bak kata pepatah Melayu, tepuk dada, tanyalah selera (One man's meat is another man's poison)," she shrugs.