What to do when demand for food-grade insects exceeds the supply? Bring in modern agricultural technology.
Across the globe, billions of people rely on creepy-crawly things with wings and legs for food – but in the United States we’ve been a bit shy about bringing bugs onto the plate. Yet edible insects are slowly gaining favor here, with crickets emerging as the “gateway bug,” writes Marc Gunther on FutureFood 2050. And with good reason. We may have a cultural aversion to ingesting insects, but bugs are a low-fat protein source that require far fewer resources to raise than cattle or pigs, and their farming is thought to emit fewer greenhouse gases, according to a comprehensive 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
So bring on the crickets.But as hipster food startups are introducing confections and comestibles that incorporate cricket flour and food adventurers are introducing crickets into the mix, there’s just one small problem. Where to get the crickets?
That’s where Tiny Farms, based in Oakland, California, comes into the picture. Their little livestock? Crickets. While there are a few companies farming crickets, none of them are remarkably efficient, says Tiny Farms co-founder Daniel Imrie-Situnayake. And with that in mind, Imrie-Situnayake is mapping out the groundwork for industrial-scale insect production to bring the U.S. up to speed in the raising of the chirping critters.
“The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity.”
Imrie-Situnayake and the Tiny Farm team are examining feed formulation, habitat engineering, farm automation and management software to drive scale and lower costs, reports FutureFood 2050.
“We’re developing a technology for true, industrial-scale insect rearing,” he says.
While still a relatively small industry, edible insects are gaining traction; there are some 30 companies selling insect-based food items in North America, up considerably in just a few years. Insect-eating advocates compare eating bugs to eating sushi – which when introduced to the States in 1966 largely elicited audible "ew"s. Imrie-Situnayake thinks the time for bugs has come.
“Consumers are really, really excited about insects as food,” says Imrie-Situnayake. “People are ready, right now, to try insects as an ingredient in products, especially those that have a health and environmental story to tell.”
Started as a consulting company two and a half years ago, Tiny Farms is now developing its core strategies into a model for the modern insect farm. Using precision agriculture techniques, the team also hopes to connect farmers and create a community around the industry of insect rearing.
“As time has gone on, we realized that what we really do – what our role is in this industry – is to reduce the barriers to entry for new farmers,” Imrie-Situnayake says. “We had a number crunching and data background, so we could quantify how this new agricultural system was going to work.”
The Tiny Farms team has also created an innovative open-source platform to “stimulate interaction between farmers, researchers and hobbyists who want to change the world with edible insects.” Called Open Bug Farm, it covers topics as diverse as species guides, pricing data, equipment reviews and information about regulatory issues – and provides a place for discussions, information sharing, and events for a community that is pioneering insect protein.
“If you speak to anyone in the industry,” Imrie-Situnayake says, “you’ll probably hear the same thing – which is that what we are doing now is completely motivated by the goal of bringing on a new source of protein that can help reduce the impact we have on the planet, and increase the amount of food we are able to produce with the resources we have.”
Changing the world, one edible bug at a time? If so, factory farming never looked so good.