There’s a lot of talk lately about sustainable food. Eating local, seasonal, unprocessed food is sustainable, and there’s a particular focus on sustainable protein, conversations about how to raise poultry and cattle with less environmental impact — how to keep things cheap, but still healthy.
One oft-neglected option? Edible insects.
Across the globe, eating insects is common practice. In Mexico and Latin America, bugs are normal snacks. In Asia, you can buy crickets and scorpions in the markets, seasoned just like potato chips. You can buy a paper cone full of bugs on the street, or you can eat them in high-end restaurants. There are chapulines, grasshopper tacos, and soups made from silkworms and mealworms.
Some of these delicacies have made it to the U.S., but for the most part, American menus are bug-free.
Andrew Brentano, co-founder of Tiny Farms, a cricket farm based in Oakland, Calif., wants to change that. Brentano describes himself as part-farmer, part-engineer. He and his small team want to increase the number of cricket farms in the U.S. to better utilize insects as a source of sustainable protein.
Currently, there are 30 domestic insect farms creating human-grade food from bugs — that number has doubled every year since 2009. Companies that use crickets in their food are also growing. For the most part, crickets are used to create flour and baked goods, or high-protein bars.
Brentano hopes that building more cricket farms will drive down the cost of crickets. “There’s this really incredible divide in the resources required for insects versus traditional livestock,” Brentano says. Farming crickets is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than farming poultry or cattle. Crickets produce 80 percent less methane than cattle, and need six times less feed.
Brentano says the biggest environmental gains are in water. It takes 500 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken meat, and over 2,000 for a pound of beef. A pound of crickets requires only about a gallon — crickets take in most of their water through foods like potatoes and carrots.
Feed conversion is another area where crickets beat out cattle and poultry. “There are big gains in feed conversion,” Brentano says, “a huge percentage of the world’s grain production is actually destined for animal feed, not human feed.” Crickets eat much less than poultry and beef, meaning less space taking up farming grain, and less water expended watering animal feed.
One of the biggest challenges with delivering edible insects to the market is financial. It’s expensive to produce edible insects. Current cricket farms in the U.S. aren’t profitable yet. Brentano says the key to making bug farming a success lies in lowering the price per pound of cricket.
Right now, the absolute cheapest small-batch crickets you can get hover in the $4-5 range. Brentano says that needs to come down to under two dollars to be able to compete with traditional meats, soy, and protein supplements like whey.
Breaking into the protein additive market would give cricket farmers a slice of a multibillion dollar market and a better chance to appeal to more consumers. Therein lies the other big challenge: appeal. It’s one thing to make an edible insect product that people can afford, and another to make something they really want to eat.
Several companies have changed their branding, using design to remove some of the most intense bugginess from packaging. For some businesses, it’s working. Bitty Foods cricket flour and bug-based baked goods have gotten a lot of positive attention, and cricket-flour protein bars will even make it to the skies when JetBlue starts serving snacks from Exo.
Insects are also popping up more frequently on menus. Restaurants serve up soups and snacks made of bugs and the barometer for trend-setting is just about broken by Don Bugito, a San Francisco food truck serving up insects.
Mario Hernandez, chef at The Black Ant in New York City, has different bugs on his menu at different times of year. “We change our insects according to the season,” he says.
That means waiting for specific bugs that come in the summer, or during the rainy season: agave worms, grasshoppers, ants and ant caviar (ant eggs), even one insect that he says tastes like chocolate, to use in deserts. He says that cooking with insects allows him to explore traditional Mexican gastronomy, and that each bug has a taste that adds something to his food.
Grasshoppers have an earthy, mushroomy taste and turn red when you cook them, just like lobster. Hernandez serves them in tacos and as a bisque with potatoes. Ants are spicy, nutty, and shrimpy — Hernandez uses their bellies in his guacamole and The Black Ant’s bartender uses them in the salt rims of his tequila and mezcal drinks.
For now, eating bugs may be mostly a novelty, but Brentano says things will change as the insect farming economy and public perception catch up to the need for sustainable protein. “There have only been products on the shelf for at most a year,” Brentano says, “the market is currently estimated to be market size about $20 million and it’s just sort of on an exponential growth curve right now.”
Get ready to eat some bugs.
[Infographic by Seth Kelley]