Crickets might just be the miracle food for a hungry 21st century.
Carol Toller/Canadian Business
There’s something disconcerting about watching a nine-year-old kid scarf bugs from a bowl in quick, greedy handfuls.
But for Kaya Goldin, a fat roasted insect holds the same tantalizing appeal that Gobstoppers and M&M’s do for other children. Spooning pile after pile of meaty wrigglers into her palm, Kaya tosses a few into her mouth, then lets out a happy sigh. “Mmm, waxworms!” she says. “They’re my favourite.”
Is this kid for real? Her father, Jarrod—one of three brothers who operate Next Millennium Farms, North America’s largest supplier of edible insects for human consumption—insists she is. Goldin says his children love eating insects. And he hopes one day in the not-too-distant future, you will too.
With a rapidly expanding farming operation in Campbellford, Ont., about a two-hour drive northeast of Toronto, Goldin and his brothers, Darren and Ryan, are part of the fast-growing entomophagy movement: bug-eating advocates who aim to move creepers, crawlers and flitters into the mainstream food supply. Insects, such as the crickets Next Millennium raises, are a protein-dense, more sustainable alternative to the foods produced by resource-sucking beef and dairy farmers, the Goldins and others argue.
To get a pound of beef, for example, a farmer needs 25 pounds of feed; a pound of crickets, on the other hand, requires about two. And a cricket needs only a fraction of the 25 to 55 litres of water that Ontario beef cows are estimated to drink on a daily basis.
As the world’s population explodes and resources dwindle, dozens of recently launched North American startups are betting that edible insects will be part of the future of food.
They’re already convincing investors—New Millennium just received close to $1 million in a round of financing led by Toronto-based venture capital fund Hedgewood Inc.—and a burgeoning array of early adopters, including pioneering chefs, adventurous retailers and corporate partners that could soon include Google. The boundary-pushing behemoth is conducting “preliminary talks” with Next Millennium about adding insect protein to food served in the company’s cafeterias, Goldin says. “It feels as if this whole idea is really taking off.”
To really take flight, North America’s small-scale startups must overcome significant hurdles, such as figuring out how to industrialize their operations to meet the needs of mass-market production and finding ways to make insect farming more efficient—a pound of Next Millennium’s ground crickets starts at $40 and jumps higher for bugs given organic and gluten-free feed, a price that makes it tough to compete with commodity meat producers. And then there’s the other challenge bug farmers face: enticing squeamish North American consumers to sink their teeth into insects, chew and swallow.
It may not be such a stretch of the imagination to think that the world will embrace the idea of eating bugs. At least two billion people already do, across sprawling swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The remaining five billion may be fickle now, but history suggests tastes can change quickly. The lowly potato, that most banal dinner staple, was considered a freakish, pernicious foodstuff when it was introduced to Europe in the late 1500s. The French believed it carried a host of vile conditions, including leprosy and syphilis. Two centuries later, France came around to the charms of the controversial tuber, thanks largely to a ruse engineered by military chemist and botanist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier and King Louis XVI, who was keen to find nutritious foods that could combat famine. Parmentier planted 100 acres of potatoes outside Paris and kept the crop under heavy guard, a strategy that convinced nearby villagers (and ultimately the entire country) that the starchy, misshapen lumps were desirable.
How we experience food stems as much from the thoughts scuttling through our minds as from the flavours hitting our tastebuds: 20th-century Canadians once jonesed for turtle soup—a dish that these days seems repulsive. And as recently as the 1980s, many North Americans hadn’t yet warmed to the idea of sliding wet slices of uncooked fish down their gullets; today, sushi sells alongside hotdogs and nachos at convenience stores and ball games. Whether bugs become the next toro—tuna prized for its rich, fatty taste and abundance of omega-3s—or suffer the fate of once-faddish, now largely forgotten menu items like escargots and frog legs depends on producers’ ability to push insects past the novelty-food barrier.
Producers like the Goldins believe bugs are headed for big-time consumption and point to a United Nations report published in 2013 as a turning point. The influential paper identified insects as playing a key role in solving global food security issues and urged for the diversification of human diets. It also approved of introducing insects into animal feed—a move that brings bugs a step closer to human consumption. Research into consumer attitudes toward entomophagy is relatively scarce, but a 2014 poll conducted by market researcher Mintel found a substantial proportion of non-insect eaters would be interested in trying bugs: 21% of Germans; 26% of Americans; 27% of U.K. residents and 52% of Chinese.
For many, the gateway bug is the cricket. It’s crunchy, not squishy, and it brings to mind thoughts of pastoral fields and Pinocchio’s friend Jiminy, a pleasant alternative to what you might think when you hear the word cockroach, for instance. For this reason, the handful of large commercial farms in North America are focusing on them—so far, to considerable success. They’re already being incorporated into high-performance energy bars and finding an enthusiastic market among hard-core athletes keen on their alluring nutrient profile (gram for gram, crickets pack more than twice the protein of beef; they also provide significantly more vitamin B12, iron, magnesium and essential amino acids). Goldin says Next Millennium can’t keep up with demand from customers like Exo, one of the biggest cricket bar manufacturers. Last year, the farm’s sales totalled about $65,000, he says. This year, they’ll “easily top $1 million. The only thing limiting us right now is our capacity.”
Inside the Goldin brothers’ Campbellford facility, it’s a stifling 90 degrees Fahrenheit—perfect for crickets, which fare best in warmer temperatures. Fans circulate the balmy air through the 9,000-square-foot space, which looks as if it could be a Home Depot warehouse, with rows and rows of blue plastic tubs sitting open on stacked shelving units. Look closer, and the contents of those bins reveal themselves to be writhing insects. (Cricket fun fact: Though they’re known as jumpers, they don’t typically leap unless they’re disturbed, so escapees are rare.)
Goldin’s brother Darren, who manages the farming operations, lists off today’s harvest: 23 bins brimming with a total of half a million little winged things. They’ll soon be euthanized using dry ice—the bugs are quickly frozen to death—and then ground into cricket flour, the product that constitutes the vast majority of Next Millennium’s sales.
A sandy, grey-brown substance that’s free of off-putting antennae and thoraxes, the flour is the Goldins’ bid to make their product more palatable to the masses. It can be used to bump up the nutrients in dishes such as soups, smoothies and baked goods.
With high-performance athletes already chomping happily on crickets, Next Millennium hopes the mainstream market will dig in next. Goldin and his brothers have had meetings with two major food retailers who’ve expressed interest in products that use cricket flour as an ingredient (likely a low-key one), such as protein powders and pastas.
“Once it becomes flour, it’s just food—it doesn’t seem like something so unusual anymore,” Goldin says. And he’s right. The dishes his sister-in-law Caryn creates using cricket flour reveal no signs of multi-legged ingredients: The graham cracker crust on her cheesecake offers no hint of the bug protein hidden within; the chili she serves with a bonus hit of insect flour tastes like a typical well-seasoned bowl of chili (except for Kaya’s; she sprinkles waxworms on hers).
Cricket flour is finding its way into products for human (left) and canine (right) snackers.
Still, trying to find product lines that will appeal to consumers is one of the biggest challenges facing edible insect producers, and several have turned to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter to test the viability of their ideas. In April, two startup cricket-bar manufacturers were seeking funding on the site; by early May, Jungle Bar (“a delicious protein bar made with dates, sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds, chocolate and cricket flour!”) had 648 backers, contributing a total of US$27,806. “Crowdfunding sites have played a huge role in helping producers figure out what can work,” says Dan Imrie-Situnayake, who runs Tiny Farms, an Oakland, Calif., consulting firm that helps insect producers get off the ground. “Before crowdfunding, if you’d started out trying to find an investor who wanted to go along for the ride, it might have been quite challenging. But the risk is taken out of a venture if you know people want the product already.”
Imrie-Situnayake and his partners used to work in the tech sector, and they’re trying to bring Silicon Valley rigour and data-driven analysis to insect farming. To help producers share information, they’ve started an open-source project and wiki page where farmers trade tips on selecting the best crickets for breeding and debate the merits of “gut-loading” insects with foods like apples and honey to give them a sweeter finish. “People have been talking about insect farming for a long time,” says Imrie-Situnayake, “but no one had really done much research into it yet. Right now, everyone’s a startup—there’s no expertise or industry standards to draw from. So we’re trying to take that on.”
Everyone in the business is looking for a breakthrough and, for now, nobody wants to reveal much about the techniques they’re trying, says Imrie-Situnayake. Most of the experiments endeavour to reduce insect farming’s most expensive input, human labour, which accounts for a stunningly high 60% of costs (in the heavily mechanized cattle farming industry, by comparison, it’s rare for labour costs to reach even half of that).
Tiny Farms aims to develop technology that will enable farms to automate feeding, watering and other tasks that currently suck up a lot of workers’ time. So does Next Millennium, and Darren says he’s excited about a new watering system he’s developing that could reduce the company’s high operational costs. Both Tiny Farms and Next Millennium also talk about bringing down the cost of feed by switching from relatively expensive grain to agricultural waste products and pre-consumer waste like unsold produce from grocery stores. “There’s quite a lot of scope for the price to be driven down further,” Goldin says.
The potential for change and growth in the industry is what attracted investor Jesse Rasch to Next Millennium. “No one’s ever really done this at scale,” says Rasch, who heads Hedgewood and led the recent financing round. “We have other investments in traditional agriculture, but they don’t get me nearly as excited.” A vocal advocate for global sustainability and health-focused initiatives, Rasch walks the walk when it comes to his investment: He’s an entomophagist himself and discovered Next Millennium when he was looking for a supplier for his family.
But even non–bug eaters are looking at insect protein and seeing dollar signs. For now, outside investments are relatively limited. Cricket bar manufacturer Chapul, for instance, scored a $50,000 investment from Shark Tank judge Mark Cuban last year after an appearance on the show. But the stakes appear to be rising: Exo recently raised US$1.2 million in seed funding to expand its operations. Pet food manufacturers are also showing interest in insects as ingredients; one Canadian company, Buddy’s Kitchen, recently launched a line of cricket-based dog treats.
Still, observers say the industry is in its startup phase and could see some growing pains. David Sparling, agri-food innovation and regulation chair at Ivey Business School, says there’s “no doubt” insect farming is going to grow.
“But there’s a lot of uncertainty. Other agricultural industries are far down the production curve. Technologies are far more efficient and cost-effective, and everybody understands the business. It’s still very early for insect farming.”
With the challenge of scaling comes questions about regulation: How will producers ensure quality control and consistency? “We just don’t know enough about insects yet,” says Sparling. “We don’t know all the diseases they’re going to be up against, and we don’t know what the insects themselves could end up eating that could introduce health threats.”
To combat any concerns, however, Next Millennium aims for total transparency. “We are proud to show people our production facilities,” Goldin says. “There are no antibiotics or pesticides or hormones. This is clean food we’re producing. It’s nothing but food.
“If people came and saw our farm and then went and visited a cattle farm, I think a lot of people would switch to eating insects.”
This article first appeared on CanadianBusiness.com