Friday, January 13, 2012

For Japan Locust Eaters, A Plague of Cesium? By Yoree Koh

           Locusts are known for their fondness for feasting on Japan’s lush rice fields.

Less well known is the fact that the bug is also a delicacy in the country’s entomophagous culture – the practice of eating insects, not as widespread in Japan as in some parts of Asia if still popular with a minority.
But a Tokyo scientist, concerned the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident may swat the critter off the country’s bug-eating menu, is conducting research designed to save the tasty tradition as well as study the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

While buggy eats like silkworms and larva are gastronomic favorites for those who eat insects in other parts of the country, locusts are a bounty for the insect eaters of rice-producing regions like Nagano, Chiba and the towns of the northeast hit hardest by the March 11 disasters.
But Hajime Fugo, the vice president of Tokyo University of Agriculture of Technology and a physiologist specializing in insects, worried the locust-eating tradition may fall into extinction should connoisseurs shun the bug amid deepening anxiety among consumers over food produced in Fukushima, fearful of radiation hazards.

With a Geiger counter in his pocket, Mr. Fugo, along with two students, in October went to Iitate, a village located over 30 kilometers away from the nuclear plant and where hot spots of high radiation have been discovered. There they collected about 500 grasshoppers, a cousin of the locust which was in short supply in the area because local rice fields were barren. The radiation in the air varied from 2.5 microsieverts to a little over 3 microsieverts per hour at the time.
About 4,000 becquerels of radioactive cesium-134 and cesium-137 was detected in the grasshoppers, all 500 weighing a cumulative one kilogram. The levels far exceed Japan’s regulatory limit of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

Mr. Fugo said the results were astonishing. But the scientist thinks it is safe to eat the bugs because they are usually in snack-sized portions – crunchy soy-marinated locusts – enjoyed with cold mugs of beer. Additional research also showed that the amount of cesium dropped considerably after going through the routine steps taken when preparing the insects for consumption.

Hajime Fugo
                           A locust.
In contrast, radiation found in about 2,000 locusts collected further away, about 60 kilometers away from the plant, measured well below the government standard. The highest measurement of the samples reached about 200 becquerels per kilogram. The insects were freeze dried to a consistency comparable to instant coffee before being checked for radiation.
But it’s not all about food safety. Mr. Fugo plans to use the initial findings as a base for what he hopes will elucidate some of the long-term effects of radiation on humans.

One aim is to continue collecting samples from the same areas to analyze how much of the radiation is passed from adult insects to offspring. Because the locust and grasshopper’s breed about three to four months into their life cycle, Mr. Fugo says, studying the bugs may point the way to how much radioactive cesium, which has a half life of about 30 years, is contracted through the insects’ successive generations — much faster than waiting to observe the same process in humans.
A second objective is to dissect the insect to identify which organs are susceptible to higher concentrations of radiation.

Some preliminary results have been interesting. The scientist left one sample of locusts alone until they defecated, a necessary step before cooking the locusts. (It’s advised not to eat locusts raw because of the risk of parasite.) Compared to a group of locusts taken from the same area that did not release droppings, he found the level of radioactive cesium fell by nearly half, from 75 becquerels to 35, among the locusts who answered nature’s call.

Source: Wall Street Journal----Japan

1 comment:

  1. I hope the tradition continues. It is at least encouraging that allowing the grasshoppers to purge themselves reduces the risk...really though, I think this is a good strategy regardless of radioactivity levels. It was in the recipe I used for grasshoppers, I wrote about eating them here: