In September 2016, the U.S. government began soliciting proposals from private companies interested in genetically modifying insects for human consumption.
The solicitation, issued through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, frames the issue as one of "global security," touting the potential for insects to sustain humans in the face of international catastrophe, armed conflict and even space travel.
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This vision might sound like the plot of a low-budget sci-fi flick, but it’s also a sign of just how far the edible insect industry has come. In a matter of just a few years, the idea of eating bugs has moved from the fringe into our kitchens, boardrooms and halls of government.
Despite all of this progress, hurdles remain. If the edible insect industry is ever going to make the leap from science fiction to real-world savior, it must first win over skeptical consumers, overcome regulatory uncertainties and catch up with nearly a century of agricultural industrialization.
Insects for a hungry world
Among the first to take notice of Uncle Sam’s foray into bug eating was Megan Miller, co-founder of Bitty Foods. The San Francisco-based company, started by Miller and Leslie Ziegler in 2013, manufactures flour, snacks and baked goods using crickets.
Miller, like many of her peers, sees eating insects not as a fad, but a necessity.
“Economists are predicting that by the year 2050, there's going to be at least an extra 2 billion people on Earth,” Miller says. “The agriculture systems we have now are not going to be able to feed that number of people.”
Indeed, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has suggested that the world will have to double its agricultural output by 2050 just to keep pace with population growth and the rising middle class.
“For me, the light just went on when I realized edible insects could be turned into a source of nutrients that could feed into the global food supply and alleviate that stress,” Miller says.
That was 2013, the same year that the FAO published a landmark report on the issue. More than 2 billion people around the world already eat insects as part of their regular diet, according to the FAO. However, as incomes rise, more and more of these people are abandoning their traditional diets in favor of Western tastes. That means, among other things, eating a whole lot more meat.
If we are to convince the global middle class to stop trading their mealworms and crickets for meat and potatoes, Miller says, we must first convince Westerners that creepy crawlies aren’t so creepy. This, of course, is easier said than done.
Most of the startups operating in the space so far have confronted this challenge by targeting fitness enthusiasts, paleo diet adherents and other early adopters. The strategy has been successful in gaining traction — both in the media and in Silicon Valley.
“Investment is certainly accelerating,” says Zoe Leavitt, an analyst with CB Insights, via email.
Investors have poured $6 million into the edible insect industry so far in 2016, a six-fold increase over last year. Most of this money — some $4 million — went to Exo Foods, a company that manufactures protein bars from cricket powder and counts entrepreneur Tim Ferriss and rapper Nas among its investors. Bitty Foods, meanwhile, has raised $1.2 million in seed funding from investors including Arielle Zuckerberg, sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and a prolific investor in insect startups.
The figures are impressive for an industry that barely existed three years ago, but Leavitt cautions against making sweeping assertions.
“This space is still early, fragmented and immature,” she says, “so any estimates of overall funding trends should be understood as rough indicators of activity.”
Robert Nathan Allen is executive director of Little Herds, an Austin-based educational nonprofit, as well as a founding member of the North American Edible Insect Coalition. The trade group, started earlier this year, is in the process of electing officers, who will be tasked with, among other things, generating demand.
“We have a very unique problem that most trade associations don't have,” Allen says. “The National Onion Board or the Association of Broccoli Farmers, yeah, they've got a tough sell, but nothing like getting people to eat bugs.”
How exactly do you convince Americans to ingest insects? For Miller, it's mostly an exercise in branding.
“You get like, one cricket on a blade of grass, and that is cute," Miller says. "You get like, 100,000 crickets crawling over each other, and that's someone's nightmare. … It's just the visuals. We try to reduce the friction for people."
That’s why you won’t see a lot of crickets on Bitty’s packaging or marketing materials. “If you strip away the look and the feel,” Miller says, “all you end up having is a protein powder, and it’s really no different than any other protein powder. You can incorporate it into a variety of foods.”
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Allen says he hopes the coalition can build on the efforts of entrepreneurs such as Miller and begin marketing insects as a commodity.
“We need a ‘Got Bugs?’ campaign,” Allen says.
Overcoming consumers’s aversion to insects is a daunting enough challenge, but it’s not the only one hampering growth in the industry. Regulatory uncertainty is also a limiting factor — one which Allen says he believes the coalition can help alleviate.
One of the first orders of business will be to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to add crickets, mealworms and other insect-based products to the agency’s database of “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) ingredients.
“We need better regulatory certainty to encourage more infrastructure investment, as well as more distribution,” Allen says, “There are a lot of big-box retailers that are hesitant to stock products because they don't have that certainty.“
In general, insects don’t appear to present any peculiar health risks. In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority issued a risk assessment of the industry, concluding that insects present mostly the same dangers as other sources of protein, though the minimal amount of scientific literature on the subject leaves room for uncertainty.
Studies have suggested that people with shellfish allergies might be allergic to certain edible insects. Most other known risks are dependent on the way in which insects are reared, researchers have concluded.
It is perfectly legal to sell insects under current FDA regulations, as long as they have been raised for human consumption. Still, they won’t be considered technically safe until they’ve been listed in the GRAS database.
Allen says he would like to see the coalition develop a set of voluntary best practices for the industry. He added that recent media reports suggesting the coalition planned to undertake an aggressive lobbying effort were misleading.
“The solution isn't lobbying lawmakers,” Allen says. “It's to have a very clear set of standard operating procedures for insect farmers, processors and manufacturers. We're not creating new rules for something that's strange and unusual. We're trying to show how insects are a food just like shrimp, pork, soybeans or peanuts.”
The industrial cricket farm
Even if Allen could convince regulators and consumers that crickets are basically just tiny chickens with exoskeletons, the bugs's price tag would tell a different story.
“If you had an amazing food that made everything you added it to taste 10 times better and it was really, really good for you, that would be fantastic,” says Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, CEO of Tiny Farms. “But not if it cost more than gold. Right now, crickets are in that category.”
Situnayake says he intends to change this. His San Francisco-based company has been working for the last several years to lay the technological groundwork for an edible insect revolution. The company raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding earlier this year from investors including Arielle Zuckerberg.
Situnayake says his near-term goal is to transform Tiny Farms into a “Tyson of crickets,” with a network of contract farmers using the company’s proprietary technology to raise insects on a truly industrial scale. Of course, this analogy has its limits.
“I think the crucial point at which we part ways with Tyson is that we want to do this in a way that is sustainable,” Situnayake says, “not just in terms of the environment but in terms of the farmers and their livelihoods.”
The first step in that process is achieving price parity. Chicken currently costs about half as much as cricket protein, though Situnayake is quick to point out that this wasn’t always the case.
“A few hundred years ago,” he says, “you would have a chicken you wouldn't even eat because it was too valuable as a source of eggs. We're in kind of the same place with crickets, where we have a couple hundred years of agricultural industrialization to catch up with before they are cheap enough to compete with other foods.”
The good news, he says, is that much of the technology and insight needed for this revolution to occur has already been developed.
"The underlying properties of the cricket are better in terms of feed conversion, water use and yield per hectare than chicken will ever be," he says. "So while they're expensive, once we've gotten that kind of agricultural process figured out, they’ll be in another league entirely in terms of affordability.”
At least one, well-publicized study has disputed the industry’s claims about feed conversion ratios (the amount of protein produced per unit of feed consumed). The authors of that 2015 study reared crickets on five different diets. One group ate corn-, soy- and grain-based feed — a diet comparable to that of chickens — while others were fed processed food waste or agricultural residue.
The crickets that were fed processed waste produced protein no more efficiently than chickens. Nearly all of the crickets that were fed straight food waste died before they could be harvested, and the crickets that were fed a grain-based diet were only slightly more efficient than their feathered peers.
Still, Situnayake says he believes future innovations will improve these metrics. Already, he says, Tiny Farms has designed a pilot facility capable of achieving price parity with chicken. Tiny Farms is in the process of scaling this concept and looking for farmer partners.
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Situnayake wouldn’t put a timetable on the rollout, but he made it clear that this was only the first step in a much larger strategy.
“We see this as kind of the Apollo project for insect protein,” he says. “We want to show that crickets work as the spearhead for showing that it’s possible to use insects as an agricultural product. I think this is the start of something really kind of transformational.”