image Photo: Courtesy of Biblical Protein

Israeli firm transforms biblical locust plague into a blessing

The State of Israel remains vigilant against deterring any approach of the Desert Locust, which continues to devastate swathes of land in Africa and the Middle East. The Spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dafna Yurista, informed TV7 in an earlier interview that the situation is being carefully monitored “24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Meanwhile, one local start-up company is on a mission to turn the terror presented by locusts into a benefit for humankind. Dror Tamir founded a farm called Hargol Foodtech (“Hargol” means grasshopper in Hebrew) in 2014 using unique and innovative growing methods and technologies. He nurtures the same potentially destructive swarms that so many others in the region are actively working to eradicate. They are bred, incubated fattened on wheatgrass at six facilities in the Golan Heights and upper Galilee region – yielding an astonishing 20 million locusts on each dunam (1000 square meters) of land.

“Locusts,” Tamir told TV7 in an exclusive interview, “are an amazing solution to the global search for a healthier and more sustainable source for protein – which is essential for good health.”

An estimated 1 billion people currently suffer from a lack of protein in Africa and Asia, Tamir explained, stressing that the demand for protein is expected to double in the coming decade. This presents a major challenge, as existing sources are reaching their limitations. Animal protein is widely acknowledged to be damaging to the environment given greenhouse gas emission, water consumption and arable land usage necessary for livestock. The other alternative, from plants such as rice, soy and wheat, is also problematic in that it requires heavy processing to extract minimal amounts of protein, can contain allergens and other health-related risks.

Hargol’s last cycle produced locusts containing 73.6% protein (referred to in the industry as “concentrated protein”) and all of the amino acids. They also contain 5% Omega 3, Omega 6 and Omega 9 fatty acids and other nutrients such as iron, zinc and folic acid – which Tamir points out are prescribed for expectant mothers, while containing neither saturated fat nor cholesterol.

Tamir cited the Bible as his inspiration to establish the first commercial locust farm in the world: Two millennium ago, John the Baptist lived in Israel on the banks of the Jordan River, where he ate natural healthy food: “his food was locust and wild honey…” as it says in the Matthew 3:4.  The company website also refers to Genesis 50:20, “As for you, what you intended against me for evil, God intended for good, in order to accomplish a day like this—to preserve the lives of many people.”

Interestingly, Tamir was also motivated by the memories of his grandparents, who founded Kibbutz Ma’anit in northern Israel, where he was raised. When members of the collective agricultural community did their best to eliminate swarms that migrated into the country during the 1950s, Yemenite Jewish immigrants came to collect them for food.

Scientists agree that entomophagy – or the consumption of insects – was an important part of human diets since ancient times. According to the Encyclopedia of Entomology by John L. Capinera (2004), cave paintings of edible insects found in Spain date back to around 30,000 to 9,000 BC. Since that time, several cultures in African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries continue to consider locusts as a delicacy.

While the Book of Exodus cites locusts as one of the 10 plagues unleashed on the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to free the ancient Israelites from slavery, a passage in Leviticus pronounced that that certain kinds of grasshopper, including locusts, are kosher; in what Tamir attributes as “a remarkable testimony to God’s creative power.”

Biblical Protein“products marketed as “healthy, environmentally friendly treats” and “sourced from the banks of the Jordan River in the Holy Land of Israel” include oven-dried locusts, energy bars, chocolate and nectars. Tamir describes the locusts as having “a mild and neutral flavor profile” that make their powdered form “easily adaptable for an array of different foods. Hargol entered the North American market two months ago, and products are also available in Europe and Australia. Next month the company is planning to introduce several new products: a pancake mix that “tastes amazing,” says Tamir, in addition to 3 flavors of smoothie mixes to be added to milk or ice – Milk and Honey, Coffee, and Chocolate and Nuts.

Several customers are so enthusiastic that they have posted photographs on social media of themselves posing along the quintessential Holy Land jars of honey… alongside containers of locusts.

Those residing outside Israel are not so fortunate. The scourge of Desert Locusts is ongoing in the Horn of Africa (HoA), which is the easternmost projection of the continent situated along the southern side of the Red Sea and extending hundreds of kilometers into the Gulf of Aden, Somali Sea and Guardafui Channel.

In ancient times, the area was known as “Habesha” in the Amharic language which evolved into “Abyssinian” in Latin. Today, the sovereign states Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Republic of Djibouti encompass the HoA, which is home to an estimated 115 million people. Ground and aerial control operations, including the use of biopesticides, are being used to combat the insects.

According to the latest data from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, immature swarms of locusts are persistent in northwest and northeast Somalia, and low numbers of adults are present in the central region of Galguduud. Immature swarms in Ethiopia have also been identified in the Somali region near Dire Dawa and Djibouti in the western Ogaden, as well as within a vast area of freshly green vegetation in northern Rift Valley of Afar region. An immature swarm from northwest Kenya has appeared in the southern Rift Valley of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), which is one of Ethiopia’s 10 ethnically based regional states.

A few spring-bred swarms persist in parts of Turkana and Samburu counties of northern Kenya itself, where aerial control operations are being continued. At least one immature swarm from northwest Kenya arrived in South Sudan near Kapoeta since the start of the month and has since been moving northward, where ground control operations were taken. There have been no reports of swarms arriving from northwest Kenya in Sudan, however, where so far only low numbers of scattered adults have been detected in annual summer breeding areas favorable to breeding by both by local and migrating locusts.

Green vegetation has also provided favorable breeding conditions that is likely to already be in progress in West Africa. Scattered solitarious adults have been located in southern Mauritania, central and northern Niger, and in western and eastern Chad.

Hopper bands and swarms are now forming in Yemen following increased breeding due to recent rains, and another swarm migrated to  the northern Red Sea coast on 4 August. A late instar hopper group, bands and immature adult groups are forming on the southern coast of Oman near Salalah, as further north near Ras Al Hadd. Control operations are ongoing.

Summer breeding is also ongoing along both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border. Control operations are in progress in Pakistan against hopper groups and bands in southeast Sindh near Nagarparkar, and low numbers of adults that are present in Cholistan and Lasbela. Only a few spring-breed adult groups and swarms are believed to remain in India’s northern Rajasthan, where control operations are targeting widespread hatching and the formation of hopper groups after conclusion of most of the first-generation laying.

City-sized clouds of locusts can fly up to 150 km (90 miles) a day with the wind, and adults can consume roughly their own weight in fresh food per day – which is about two grams every day. This means that a one kilometer-size swarm of some 40 million locusts is capable of eating the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people, according to the United States Department of Agriculture estimate that each person eats on average about 2.3 kilograms of food per day.

The FAO offers the following startling comparison, “A swarm the size of Paris eats the same amount of food in one day as half the population of France; the size of New York City eats in one day the same as everyone in New York and California; the size of Rome eats the same of everyone in Kenya; the size of Sydney (Australia) eats the same amount of food in one day as Australia eats in 1.5 hours.”

Dangers presented by the Desert Locust are not to be underestimated in what has been the worst infestation in 70 years in some areas, in a region where 19 million people already go hungry – as opposed to Israel; where ingenuity and inspiration have transformed disaster into delectable and healthy treats – known as “Biblical Protein.”

—  By Erin Viner