Although many Westerners would turn their noses up at the thought of eating beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers, insect rearing is gaining recognition and publicity for its potential to improve food security for billions of people while causing less harm to the environment than current agricultural production techniques.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN’s agricultural arm, estimates that food production will need to double by 2050 to feed the world’s population, but climate change, water scarcity and industrialization will place strains on global pastures and cropland. Insects, which are estimated to outnumber humans by a factor of 200 million to one, have subsequently become the cornerstone of a growing movement away from less environmentally-friendly forms of protein. While only about 2,000 of those species are considered edible for humans, arthropodal characteristics such as rapid growth and small ecological footprints may provide sustainable solutions to one of the world’s most elusive challenges. Moreover, with few resources dedicated to and limited knowledge of insect production in the West, bug farming may present a particularly exciting opportunity for developing countries.
The answer to one of the world’s most pressing issues, in other words, may have been right under our feet this entire time.
It is well known that our closest living relatives—fellow members of the taxonomic family hominidae, such as gorillas and chimps—consume bugs on a consistent basis. And it’s similarly well known that our evolutionary ancestors did the same. In fact, it has even been suggested that the development of the human brain is closely related to insect harvesting: when other forms of food were scarce, hominids had to dig for insects—which may have contributed to cognitive evolution and “set the stage” for advanced tool use.
Only with the rise of farming in the Fertile Crescent, and the decline in hunter gatherer lifestyles it encouraged, did the departure from insect eating begin. In much of Eurasia (especially Europe), the abundance of large, domesticable mammals and a lack of warm and stable climates that edible insects prefer all meant that in many places, insect eating eventually fell out of favor.
But perceptions in such places are starting to come full circle as governments and international organizations come to terms with the threat posed by ballooning populations and limited resources. In 2008 the United Nations—through its agricultural arm, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)—finally organized a formal meeting regarding the millennia-old practice of entomophagy, and only in 2013 did the FAO first attempt to “document all aspects of the insect food and feed value chain, with the aim of enabling a comprehensive assessment of the contribution of insects to food and feed security.”, Like our ancestors who turned to bugs in times of food scarcity, climate change and population growth may soon force today’s humans to do the same.
But, as the FAO has made clear, insects never stopped playing a central role in diets in many parts of the world. Especially in countries within or bordering the tropics, the reverse situation of European development tended to be true: the comparative dearth of large, domesticable mammals and the abundance of large, edible insect species generally allowed societies to rely on them as a sustainable source of food. In the tropics, moreover, insects tend to congregate in significant numbers during more predictable periods, enabling reliable and productive harvests.
Since the FAO released its first official publication on entomophagy in early 2013, the industry has taken off globally, especially in non-traditional markets, like the United States. Within the past two years, US health food juggernaut, Whole Foods, has even begun carrying cricket-based flour and bars, despite the lack of standards set by regulatory bodies in the country. The USDA does not yet offer any sort of concrete regulatory framework for the production of insects, nor has the FDA offered guidelines on edible insect safety. Not easily discouraged, producers of edible insects (and edible insect products) have still moved forward, improvising for the time being by operating within the general framework of “good” general agricultural and manufacturing processes.
In Texas, for example, Aspire Food Group has won attention and awards for not only its domestic production of crickets, but also for its plans to help industrialize insect production in key developing markets that already produce and consume insects, like Ghana and Mexico. In Ohio, Big Cricket
Farms caters to the US market, and is capable of holding roughly 5 million crickets and producing 50,000 pounds of crickets a month.
It is important to note here that while this new wave of companies is producing insects intended for human consumption at a scale previously unseen, crickets intended for non-human use (i.e. fishing bait and reptile food) have been produced in the country at a relatively large scale for decades.
And while many Americans may still squirm at the idea of chowing down on insects, the market for insect-based products is increasingly robust. As of late 2014, the US market for edible insects had an estimated value of around $20 million, but industry analysts expect that figure to continue to grow. Across the Atlantic, the story is similar: according to projections by a nutrition and food-focused consultancy, the European market for edible insects is expected to grow to $73 million by 2020.
Though some members of this new wave of edible insect production are selling whole insects (often roasted and spiced), many others, especially in the US, are introducing consumers to the idea of entomophagy by slightly disguising their core ingredient, and by emphasizing the healthiness of their products. By late 2015, for example there were at least three US companies selling protein bars made out of cricket-based flour. Of those three, Exo emerged as a favorite, touting its crickety bars as being free of soy, dairy, grains, suitable for paleo eaters, and friendly to the environment. Beyond protein, crickets also contain notably low levels of carbohydrates and saturated fats as well as high levels of various other micronutrients, such as calcium and iron.
While marketing cricket-based foods to nutrition-obsessed consumers was a natural first step, edible insect producers are now also finding success with a wider audience through multi-purpose cricket flours and snackfoods. Bitty Foods, for example, sells a cricket flour, just one cup of which contains 28 grams of protein (and is suitable for use in everything from pastries to pasta) as well as several different types of cricket-based cookies. Texas-based Crickers makes, as the name suggests, healthy and flavored crackers made out of cricket flour.
Beyond the “yuck” factor, insect-based food producers do sometimes face challenges related to cost. Big Cricket Farms sells its cricket flour for $4.50 to $9 per pound—comparatively, a one pound bag of all-purpose flour only costs about $1 and a pound of protein-rich, gluten-free coconut flour can sell for about $4 a pound. Still, there is room for the price of cricket flour to go down as the industry becomes more efficient. As Big Cricket Farms partner and Tiny Farms CEO Daniel Imrie-Situnayake put it, not until recently had people begun to apply “real science and engineering to the production of crickets...double the number of crickets, you double the amount of work.”
Although edible crickets represent just 80 or so species of the roughly 2,000 species of edible insects, American businesses have taken to the animals like moths to a light. Crickets seem to be the most socially-acceptable species of insect, or at least in terms of consumption. As Megan Miller—co-founder of Bitty Foods—explains, the animals are often associated with “pleasant summer nights and...chirping.” Combined with the demonstrated capability for mass production, as seen at Big Cricket Farms, crickets have become the go to insect for introducing Americans to the millennia-old practice. As Miller continues, “crickets are great for Americans because they are high in nutrition and feel less creepy-crawly than other insects might.”
Interestingly, the mass production of insects for human consumption offer health benefits beyond their nutritional content. Although insects, including crickets, can be susceptible to disease (the cricket paralysis virus, for example, can cause mortality of more than 95 percent in a farm), scientists are optimistic that diseases affecting insects, like crickets, do not seem to affect the people that consume them. In fact, in the 2013 FAO report, the organization, referencing a prior academic study, wrote that “no significant health problems have arisen from the consumption of edible insects.”The possibility for a swine or bird flu type outbreak, therefore, appears at this point to be close to naught.
Beyond their nutritional value, insects also boast a small ecological footprint. Crickets “need one-twelfth as much feed as cattle, one-fourth as much feed as sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein,” according to the FAO. It has also been estimated that up to 80 percent of a cricket is edible and digestible (that being said, whole crickets are eaten frequently: the remaining 20 percent passes through the body). By comparison, the mass of inedible bones and offals in livestock means that only 55 percent of chicken and pigs and only 40 percent of a cow are deemed edible. Insect farming also produces far less ammonia and fewer greenhouse gases—often by a factor of hundreds—than the raising of conventional livestock. Some companies, such as the South African startup AgriProtein, have even been successful in recycling waste from the traditional meat industry—such as blood, brains, offals, and even manure—into feed for fly larvae, thereby reusing inputs that otherwise would have been lost.
And on an often overlooked note, insects can be killed in much easier and more humane ways. For many species, a simple reduction of heat often put the insects in a coma-like sleep. If the temperature is lowered past that point, most species will start to simply shut down.
Regardless of whether or not consumers in markets like the United States ever warm to the idea of entomophagy, eating insects will always be popular with another, aforementioned group: livestock. Part of the reason that we may soon start seeing fewer cattle or aquatic animals, is that the world is simply running out of the resources needed for their production. Despite this, in both the US and the EU, it is still illegal to sell insects as livestock feed.
Developing countries possess a comparative advantage over their developed counterparts at almost every level of the global value chain for insects. Given lower labor costs and domestic populations that already consume insects on a regular basis, bug farmers in emerging markets possess a distinct advantage, both on the production and demand sides.
Indeed, the most widely discussed success story in edible insect production is Thailand. The country’s industry has enjoyed a deliberate revitalization over the past decade, and by 2013 it had more than 20,000 insect farms registered. While many of these production centers are small, medium- and large-scale enterprises are increasingly common especially in the production for crickets and palm weevils, both of which are particularly popular species in the country. Grasshoppers, weaver ants, and giant water bugs are also very popular, but are harvested from the wild rather than farmed—overall, their farming presents more challenges than the farming of crickets: when kept in close quarters, giant water bugs, for example, can be cannibalistic. The diverse nature of Thailand’s industry allows for staggered harvests and a steady, reliable influx of insects every month of the year.
Although insect eating never really disappeared from Thailand as it did in some other parts of the world, it is not universally practiced by the country’s residents: most entomophagy tended to occur in specific regions within the country, and some viewed the practice as something not done by wealthier people or urbanites. But thanks in part to efforts aimed at encouraging the practice in the country, the number of people eating insects in Thailand appears to be growing, while the types of people doing so diversifies.
The expansion of the insect industry has had, and continues to have, widespread benefits. The production and export of silkworms, which, in addition to enabling the production of silk, have edible larvae, helps generate tens of millions of dollars for Thailand every year, most of which went to poor, rural households. In fact, the harvesting of bugs disproportionately helps the poorest brackets of society, namely women and children, as relatively little inputs are required to access most insects. Also on a larger scale, the Thai brand HiSo has recently started mass-producing both silkworm larvae and crickets under rigorous quality standards, and has successfully marketed its bagged snacks to a younger and more open-minded demographic. While the snacks themselves are not yet exported to the United States or Europe, the company has been selling increasing amounts of its unprocessed cricket powder to Western countries.
Still, the comparative advantage for a country like Thailand lies in the sheer number of edible insect species it boasts, and in the fact that its climate naturally accommodates large edible insects. While producers in places like the US focus on producing farmed, common insects, their Thai counterparts can focus on carving out a niche market: one that focuses on native, unique species that are not easily produced elsewhere. Already, the wild-harvested insects in Thailand are often considered special delicacies, likely in part because of the difficulty associated with acquiring them. The same could eventually be true in foreign markets.
The edible insect industry appears to be at the precipice of a boom, and early market entrants, as well as countries with experience in insect production stand to gain.
But still, it’s hard to discern exactly when the boom will happen: preconceptions and predilections are hard to change in the short term, and so it is unlikely that insect-based hamburgers and fast food restaurants will be catering to the masses any time soon. Yet as the world continues to reconcile its ballooning population and its dwindling resources, the consumption and industrial production of insects will indubitably continue to catch the eyes of governments and environmentally-conscious consumers alike.