Liesbet Minne from Belgium is walking through Khao San Road, known as the backpacking street of Bangkok, with chef David Creelle. They’re watching fellow tourists, young people, trying out the local cuisine. Besides the familiar Thai dishes the tourists are buying from food vendors – pad Thai noodles, satay sticks, and green curies – they’re also bravely trying crickets, grasshoppers, worms, larvae, and more.
Traditional diet of over 2 million people
More than 1,900 used as food
Quick growth rate
High feed conversion ratio
Can be fed any organic material
Marketing – could use different name
(Sky prawns for locusts)
Data is scarce on nutritional value
Regulations are geared towards keeping insects out of food chain
Rising population needs to be fed
Cheap source of protein
Novelty factor in West
Plant-based food industry is in rapid growth
Potential allergy issues have not been studied
Wild harvesting can damage environment
Some species are endangered
In northern Thailand, she and Creelle start to realize how important insects are in the local diet and culture. Kids are catching crickets and, after their mother quickly bake them, take them to school in their lunch boxes. Back in Bangkok, it is fascinating for the duo to see the contrast: on one hand, they see that eating insects is truly part of the culture and education in Thailand, on the other hand they see the eager western tourist strolling down Khao San Road, experiencing this for the first time.
“This image got us thinking and it was the beginning of this exciting adventure starting up our business,” she tells MPJ.
If you are looking to get on the ground floor of the future, look no further than insects. However, regulations, technology, and acceptance are far from being established. You will find people in the industry tend to be secretive – both raw and finish product producers – few champions, a lot of exaggeration, and little support from state and national governments.
Still, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t like a challenge.
In 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report proposing edible insects as a viable alternative for food and feed security – both in developed and developing countries. According to FAO, by 2050 the world’s population will be 9 billion people. To accommodate this number, current food production will need to almost double. Farm land with sufficient water is becoming scarce and expanding the area devoted to farming – such as in the Amazon River Basin – is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for food production.
“To meet the food and nutrition challenges of today – there are nearly 1 billion chronically hungry people worldwide – and tomorrow, what we eat and how we produce it needs to be re-evaluated…. We need to find new ways of growing food,” says the report.
This was probably not FAO’s most favorably received report – at least in Europe and North America.
“When Columbus came to the New World, he described indigenous peoples who ate bugs as being “como bestias” (like beasts) because the crew had only seen it before in animals. “I really think we haven’t overcome that,” says Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University in Michigan who studies entomophagy – eating insects.
Why those in the West don’t eat insects is in many ways more puzzling than why the idea turns so many of us off.
In Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America – in other words, most the world’s population – people don’t bat an eye at eating a grub. Eating insects is mentioned in the Jewish Torah, the Christian Bible, and the Muslim Koran. In all three, insects are given the green light. Indeed, John the Baptist is famed for living on locusts and wild honey.
MPJ has seen in Chinese live animal markets shoppers buying silkworm larva, water beetles, dried millipedes, crickets, stinkbugs, and live scorpions – a favorite in the winter. Throughout the world, nearly 2,000 different types of insects and arachnids have been recorded as being eaten with the potential for many more.
There might be a reason, however, why insect eating never caught on in ancient Europe and disgust is not it. Out of the 14 major animals domesticated by early man, 13 were in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, which most made their way into Europe. Twelve months out of the year – no matter how far north you are – a large ox can provide meat, milk, leather, warmth, wool, plough traction and a means of transport. Crickets can only provide a meal and a bit of music, and that’s for only a short portion of the year.
But today, you can also add ‘cash’ to what a cricket can provide you with.
According to a report published in 2016 by Persistence Market Research (PMR), in terms of value, the global edible insects market is anticipated to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.1 percent during the forecast period and is expected to account for $722.9 million by 2024.
Orthoptera (cricket, grasshopper, and locusts) segment is projected to register a CAGR of 8.1 percent over the forecast period, driven by rising demand for cricket granola bars, cricket crackers, cricket cookies, and cricket chocolates – with the majority of these foods made from ground cricket meal.
Of the various edible insect type products, the beetle’s segment is estimated to account for approximately 30.8 percent share of the global market share in 2016 [eaten in mealworm larvae form], and caterpillars segment is estimated to account for 17.9 percent share.
Nutritionally, insects can be good source of protein, minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, and fiber, especially in relation to conventional livestock. For example, the omega 3 fatty acid contained in mealworms is comparable to that in fish. And the iron content in mopane caterpillars varies from 31 – 77 mg per 100 grams of dry weight versus only six mg per 100g of dry weight in beef.
For the environment, they can present a series of benefits such as reduced land and water requirements, low GHGs emissions, little risk of zoonotic infections, and fewer problems with animal welfare issues, says FAO.
Whole or ground
In the insect industry there are two philosophies. One is to keep the bugs whole, omnem naturalem, and prepare them through either pan frying, baking, or drying. This is how most of the world’s bug eaters enjoy their meal.
The other school of thought is to disguise the insect as much as possible. After growing the cricket, meal worm larvae, or a few others, the insects are killed by freezing, then dried/baked, and ground, turning them into neutral-looking protein powder that is used in bread, pasta, protein shakes, or energy bars.
For insect meal, there are factors you need to consider from the beginning: are you going to grow and process your own meal or buy meal from others? Worldwide there are over 20 companies making protein bars with cricket meal; none are actual producers of meal, with at least half or more buying it from Thai or Chinese sources. Five companies make cricket powder protein shakes, and around 20 make snacks, pasta, or breads with cricket powder; again with these companies not growing and milling their own crickets.
If you’re planning on producing your own meal to sell on, can you produce the volume you’ll need to keep prices low? And last, but far from least, with there being movements to get people to reduce the amount of protein they eat or to switch to vegetable sources, how are you going to convince your perspective customers to give insects a try?
In North America Entomo Farms, with its headquarters in Norwood, Ontario, is one of the leaders in cricket meal and, as North America’s first and largest cricket producer, is ticking all the right boxes. What MPJ likes about Entomo is that its founders, brothers Darren, Jarrod, and Ryan Goldwin think in volume and have numerous products to cover various markets.
Crickets are grown in a 60,000-square foot barn which allows Entomo to grow at any one time around 100 million crickets. While other cricket farms grow in single cycles – egg to mature cricket and then start the process all over again – at Entomo the crickets range in all stages of maturation, giving them a continuous harvest. The type of farm they use for crickets, what Darren Goldin calls a “cricket condo,” also allows the crickets to grow in a more natural state.
“Crickets are naturally a swarming species and like being in a dark, warm place,” says Goldin. “The condos allow the crickets to live in a natural way as close as possible to how they would live in the natural world. They are free to hop from feed station to feed station, and can burrow deep into the condos if they so choose until it is harvesting time.”
Products that Entomo produces includes: cricket powder; organic cricket powder; organic gluten free cricket powder, mealworm powder; whole roasted crickets and mealworms; BBQ, chili-lime, and other flavored whole roasted crickets and mealworms; cricket-based pet foods, and farmed fish, chicken, beef, and hog livestock feeds.
Western Australia’s first edible cricket farm was given approval to sell its product for human consumption last year. Up until now just one other edible-cricket farm, based in Sydney, has been in operation.
But now a south-west start-up company, Grubs Up, is also in the game, producing crickets for protein powder and eyeing off bar snacks and condiments down the track. The business venture has been a long time in the making for founder Paula Pownall, who quit her job in 2015 to focus solely on the research and development of the cricket business.
Pownall told ABC that she was excited to finally be able to sell the crickets to consumers. “It means that we can actually sell that product and really upscale our business and production on a commercial level,” she said.
Just outside of Austin, Texas, Aspire is using robotics to feed millions of crickets, 24 hours a day, in a 24,000-square foot R&D center. If the technology proves successful for Aspire, it will duplicate the process in a farm 10 times as large – 240,000-sq ft.
Mohammed Ashour, CEO of Aspire, points out that non-cricket protein powder can be bought wholesale for $10 a pound; cricket powder costs double the amount. While some firms such as Tiny Farms tout small scale production, Ashour believes that only by going large can the price be brought down to make cricket meal competitive.
When you talk to either producers or users of insect powder, at times it feels like you are talking to an accountant, with facts and figures calmly laid out in front of you. Those who promote whole bugs, however, are true believers in all things six-legged or more.
This is understandable though. To get someone to try a cracker or bar made with seven percent cricket meal is not a lot of work. To get someone, however, to take the leap of taste and try a grub or cricket which looks like it was just plucked off a cabbage leaf hours earlier is considerably tougher.
Liesbet Minne has that look of a believer in her eyes. And, like a Bodhisattva, she’s not moving on until she gets everyone in the West to see the wisdom of eating bugs. After n returning to Belgium, she and chef David Creelle started creating insect recipes based on their Thailand experiences – as one does. In March 2014 they tested their recipes in a pop-up restaurant in the Flemish Ardennes. Less than a half-year later, the duo opened the first insect restaurant in Belgium – Bugs and Lunch – in the city of Ghent. Creelle followed this up with a recipe book, Bugs: culinair insectenkookboek, which was published only in Dutch. The cover didn’t mince around, it showed about six whole crickets speared onto a fork. Bon appetite indeed.
Was the restaurant successful? In one word – yes.
“A lot of well-known Flemings were curious, you had to reserve in advance for weeks,” says Minne. “We served insects in combination with raw and vegan food.”
Eighteen months later and Minne and Creelle closed a major deal with a large, well known Belgian chain of supermarkets. Due to limitations in time with trying to run the restaurant and supply the supermarket, they decided to close the restaurant and concentrate solely on the supermarket deal.
“Our bugballs are very popular [MPJ has tried],” says Minne. “The balls are based on vegetables and includes insects. You don’t see the little animals, but they are involved in the product.”
Minne and Creelle’s World Solution has the right products and Minne has the personality to be the perfect bug ambassador. They just need the right investors and advisors to take this to the next level.
Not all bugs are created equal
In talking with anyone involved in insect production or use, there is no missing the excitement they feel. However, much like only a fool tests the depth of a river with both feet, if you are considering insect production as a possible business venture, any and all data requires close scrutiny. One problem with insect production is that with few taking it serious for so many years, a tremendous amount of research needs to be done. On company websites, cherry-picking takes place, in particular showing the nutritional make-up of insects and their feed conversion ratio.
While no one would lump all mammals into one category, comparing the nutritional value of a vole mole against an elephant, people do with insects. The problem that has resulted from this is that members of the bug fraternity – who know better than to do this – tend to cite only the top figures.
The nutritional value of edible insects is very diverse mainly because of the large number and variability of species. Nutritional values can vary considerably, even within a group of insects depending on the stage of metamorphosis, origin of the insect, and its diet. Not only do values different between species, they can vary within as well due to different feed, according to Drs Lenka Kourimska and Anna Adamkova in their paper “Nutritional and sensory quality of edible insects.”
In addition, insect fans are quick to show feed conversion/water conversion ratios between cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, and crickets. It’s no surprise who always wins.
However, in another research paper entitled ‘Crickets Are Not a Free Lunch’, by UC Davis’ agronomy advisor Dr Mark Lundry and entomologist Dr Michael Parrella, it states that food conversion figures might be exaggerated.
“Everyone assumes that crickets – and other insects – are the food of the future given their high feed conversion relative to livestock,” Parrella told Entomology Today. “However, there is little data to support this, and this article shows the story is more complex.”
Although it has been suggested that crickets reared for human or livestock consumption may result in a more sustainable supply of protein, this study finds that such conclusions will depend on what the crickets are fed and which systems of livestock production they are compared to, writes Lundry/Parrella.
When compared to broilers and fed similar diets, crickets showed little improvement over chickens. Whether crickets could be raised economically on substrates of similar quality and level of processing requires further analysis, they write.
“Insect cultivation is more likely to contribute to human nutrition at a scale of economic and ecological significance if it does not rely on a diet that competes with conventional livestock, but more innovation is needed for this to become a reality. Moving forward, the imperative will be to design cost-effective processes that enable large populations of insects to capture protein from underutilized organic waste and side streams.”
The authors note that, in addition to crickets, many other insects are also being considered as possible food and feed sources, and that some — such as the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) — may be better suited for converting low-quality, organic materials into protein.
No level playing field
What insect producers are finding in all Western countries that not only do insects fall under regular food/livestock laws, like a moth to a light, they attract strict and odd interpretations that apply to no other foods.
Blog writer (The Future of Edible Insects) and owner of Incredible Foods, Mark Nagy, follows US laws/regulations like no other and is a valuable source of information for those in the States. As he points out, at times nothing makes sense.
For example, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), insects raised for animal or pet food cannot be diverted to human food. They cannot be ‘wild crafted’ (collected in the wild) and sold as food due to the potential of carrying diseases or pesticides.
“Why must insects be raised specifically for human consumption? Corn is diverted all over the place,” says Nagy. “What is the basis for disallowing wild crafted insects? I feel this is no different than trolling for shrimp.
“People have been eating insects for the past 10,000 years; 2 billion people around the world currently consume insects as part of their diet,” he says. “They are already in our food coming from unavoidable defects…a course they are safe.”
According to FAO, any effort to release the huge potential that insects offer for enhancing food security requires that the following four key bottlenecks and challenges are addressed simultaneously.
1. Further documentation is needed on the nutritional values of insects in order to more efficiently promote insects as healthy food.
2. The environmental impacts of harvesting and farming insects must be investigated to enable comparison with traditional farming and livestock rearing practices that may be more environmentally damaging.
3. Clarification and augmentation of the socio-economic benefits that insect gathering and farming can offer is needed, in particular to enhance the food security of the poorest of society.
4. A clear and comprehensive legal framework at (inter)national levels is needed to pave the way for more investment, leading to the full development (from the household to the industrial scale) of production and international trade in insect products as food and animal feed sources
“Despite the growing list of reasons to practice entomophagy, the western world remains doubting,” says Minne. “This is largely due to culture and our association of insects with pests. The fear of insects and the idea that insects are dirty, is not stimulating people to eat insects.
“It is important to keep talking about the subject, so that the next generation gets adjusted to the idea. Education on cultural, nutritional and ecological issues associated with entomophagy can partly overcome this aversion towards insects.
“I, being a teacher myself, believe schools could play a big role in this. When I teach my pupils about entomophagy, it keeps on surprising me how open their minds are about it – especially when you compare their reactions to the ones of adults!”
One of the problems that promoting entomophagy will always have in the West is its potential sensational coverage by the media. While a story about ham would not be illustrated with photos taken from the initial stage at a slaughterhouse, the same gloves come off when it comes to bugs.
“While some of our media coverage showed our products as tasty dishes, others took a more sensational route. Showing a bowl full of living maggots isn’t the most inviting,” says Minne. “We have to understand that insects, too, need to be processed, just as meat is processed before it arrives on our plates. We don’t eat the cow right after it comes back from its meadow.”
For those in the food supply chain, the emphasis has always been on keeping insects out, not putting them in. For insects to become a food item in the West, baring a global catastrophe, a major change in mindset will be required from producers to consumers. That said, with low production costs, insects have a lot going for them. When the Puritans came to New England in the 1600s, the idea of eating lobsters seemed disgusting. In 2016, the Maine lobster was worth $533 million. With insects it might be similar, only happening much faster.