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The bittersweet taste of insects in Mexico’s rural areas

Far from from Mexican fine restaurants where ant larvae is served to discerning diners, workers dig it out of an arid climate for a small portion of the profits. 

When lakes surrounded the center of Mexico, the Aztec emperors of the city of Tenochtitlan were paid tribute to in the form of ant larvae called escamoles. Today, the lakes are asphalt rivers, and for centuries the consumption of insects was restricted to some indigenous and rural communities in the country. This situation has been transformed in recent years, partly thanks to the incorporation of edible insects into recipes served in gourmet restaurants. Today one can find insects in dishes of tiny portions, adorned with fine details of other classic Mexican food ingredients in elegant dining venues.

The current “boom” in anthropo-entomophagy, that is the direct consumption of insects or products derived from them, has not resulted in greater protection of the habitat of these species, nor has it meant the implementation of comprehensive programs to prevent uncontrolled collection and commercialization that destroys natural populations in Zacatecas, Mexico. How then can we incorporate insects into our diet without putting insect populations and their habitats at risk?

People in a dry field have their heads down digging for larvae, while oversize ants crawl around them
Illustration by Neha Vaddadi

Golden eggs - for some

Margarita and Tere prepare “gorditas,” a tortilla thicker than the traditional one, filled with a stew. Luisa, the youngest, laughingly confesses, “I have never tasted worms or escamoles,” while her mother says she has eaten them in eggs or “by themselves.”

Originally from Pinos, Zacatecas, a rural area located in north-central Mexico, they have been in contact with the ants’ nests all their lives. They have helped clean the larvae, or the escamoles, collected by one of their family members so that they are sold by the kilogram to distributors who deliver them to restaurants.

In 2020, for each kilo of escamoles, the collectors earned approximately 300 MXN pesos ($14.69 US), while the intermediary sold it for 600 MXN pesos (around $29 US). Meanwhile, for the final consumer, the average cost per kilo of escamol is 2,000 pesos (almost $100 US) meaning that the collectors receive only 15% or less of the total profit from the sale of the larvae they found.

On the other hand, when I asked Luisa and Margarita if they would include a “gordita” stuffed with escamol or worms in the menu of their small restaurant, their answer was a resounding no. This statement is not because they consider insects and invertebrates as exotic food – the region is famous for preparing field rat soup  – but almost no one in rural areas would pay them more than 40 pesos (around $2 US) for each piece, which would have to cost twice as much as a beef “gordita.”

Moreover, insects are not perceived as a nutritious food in their village because in contrast to other collecting communities in the center and south of Mexico, where the consumption and commercialization of insects represents a cultural legacy of identity, harvesting escamoles is a still recent activity in the area. More state efforts are needed to raise awareness of its nutritional properties.

For local people, including this food in their daily diet would mean giving up almost 15 dollars they receive for one kilogram of insects, money that could be used to buy 16 kilos of beans, 8 kg of eggs or 14 litres of milk for themselves and their families.

Caviar and Coyotes

In 2018, 83.2% of the population in Zacatecas was in a situation of poverty or vulnerability due to deprivation or income, according to data from the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. Surviving in a dry climate where there are few economic opportunities is complicated, but its arid environment makes it an ideal habitat for ants to build their nests and extract their larvae.

“In Pinos, we have been using these insects for more than 30 years,” says José Antonio Briones Santoyo, an agro-ecologist from the region, “at which time people from the centre of the country arrived to offer money for the escamolera ant”.

Farmers began to work with them, and more people from the community became involved in the harvesting of these insects as an alternative economic activity to livestock or agriculture during the driest months of the year (March-April). 

The insects, also known as insect "caviar," have had such an impact on the region that teams of workers from outside the community, hired by intermediaries or "coyotes," collect escamoles in some 10 communal lands of Pinos.

“Many people arrive, and three or four days later someone else goes by and uncovers the nest again. When they don’t find any escamoles, they get angry and leave the nest to the inclement weather, forcing the ants to settle in another place where they end up getting eaten,” says Briones.

“The way in which edible insects are collected, and their high extraction rates put the survival of the colonies at risk, and therefore their abundance,” Dr. Luis Antonio Tarango, a researcher in natural resource management and conservation at Colegio de Postgraduados Campus SLP, said.

There are more than 12,500 species of ants in the world.

In Mexico 973 species of ants are distributed; almost 8% of the world total.

Dr. Arámbula’s suggested solutions include improving conservation and preparation methods, geo-referencing nests, annual monitoring of insect populations and studying their conservation status, as well as establishing collection schedules and periods.

A key part of achieving these ideas is working as a community. Helping collectors develop their skills and capacities, from fine-tuning the process of searching for ants, colonies and their nests, to harvesting the product are essential to avoid the deterioration of the environment.

We do not have a planet B, nor unlimited fields. Dr. Arambula concluded by saying “If we only look for more and more land to harvest, now insects, without talking to local people and listening to their demands, entomophagy is at risk of being another predatory activity of Mexican ecosystems.”

 

Healthy for those who consume them, but leaving the country’s rural areas starved of nutrients.

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