Charlotte Payne studies the environmental, health, and socio-economic impacts of using insects as food with the Department of Zoology at Cambridge and the Department of Population Health at Oxford. Working in collaboration with Darja Dobermann at Rothamstead Research Institute and Dr. Athanase Badolo at the University of Ouagadougou, Payne is developing methods to combat food insecurity in Burkina Faso through breeding a popular edible caterpillar species. Their project, Achieving Food Sovereignty with Edible Insects, made the BCFN YES! Competition finals in 2016.
Food Tank had the opportunity to talk to Charlotte Payne about her passion for food and agriculture research and the role of edible insects in tackling food insecurity and environmental degradation.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to become involved in food and agriculture research?
Charlotte Payne (CP): I love wildlife and jungles, so that’s where I began. When I began doing fieldwork in biodiverse, tropical forest environments, I also met the people who lived on the edges of the protected areas. I saw and heard stories of conflicts and difficulties overuse of forest resources and clearance for agriculture. I wanted to know if there was anything that I could do, as a researcher, to improve their situation and lessen the conflicts. It took me a while, but I eventually realized that one of the things I had been studying in the first place—insects—could provide a solution. On the one hand, wild-harvested insects are a source of wealth and nutrition to many of the world’s most marginalized people. Their value adds value to forests and trees, incentivizing environmental protection. On the other hand, many farmed insects provide protein more efficiently than mammalian livestock, using far less land and water and even thriving on agricultural byproducts. The more we value and understand insects as a source of food, the better we’ll be able to achieve a healthier future for ourselves and for the planet. This is what inspired me to become involved in food and agriculture research.
FT: Congratulations on your project Achieving Food Sovereignty with Edible Insects making the BCFN YES! Competition finals in 2016. Can you explain the role of edible insects in tackling food insecurity and environmental degradation?
CP: Thank you! In the context of our project, we’re working in an area with high food insecurity and high environmental degradation, where edible caterpillars are abundant for just a couple of weeks of the year.
We’re trying to develop a method of breeding the caterpillars year-round, providing a more stable and accessible protein source for food insecure smallholder farmers, and reducing the need for further land clearance and deforestation.
FT: Can you describe a typical insect farm?
CP: No—there are many many different insect farms all over the world! I’ve seen insect farming on a large industrial scale, where a lot of the processes are mechanised and the end-products are packaged and sold commercially, and I’ve also seen insect farming on a very small scale, where everything is done by hand and the insects are mainly farmed for subsistence purposes and to supplement family income.
FT: How can food cultures be adapted to improve nutrition worldwide?
CP: I think that wealth inequality is the greatest threat to good nutrition worldwide, since poverty limits both education and the accessibility of nutritious food. I do think our food culture—or rather, our consumer culture—does have the potential to challenge this inequality, but only if the wealthy are prepared to make genuine
sacrifices. The most obvious examples are eating fewer animal-based foods overall, and paying a little more to buy our food from traceable sources whose production and employment ethics we agree with. Globally, many of us now have the luxury of choosing to put other people’s welfare before the demands of our own palates. We might not manage to do it every time we sit down to a meal, but we can at least try.
FT: How do you think food and agriculture research can influence policy and create change?
CP: Firstly, through listening to the people whose lives might be changed by the research—sitting down and really trying to understand the perspectives of farmers, manufacturers, marketers and consumers, then adjusting research questions and methods accordingly. Secondly, through doing ‘good science’—carrying out studies that gather as much solid evidence as possible to test hypotheses, and being open-minded about the results. Thirdly and finally, through engagement with the people who have the power to make change—reporting results accurately to the press, to policymakers and to the general public through science outreach.