Insects are a commonly consumed food item in most of the world except in Europe and North America. They may be found cooked with salt and oil and sold as crunchy street snacks in South America, Africa and Asia. Their flavors may be used to enhance the taste and texture of otherwise bland, soft foods. Protein powders made from cooked and ground insects can also be incorporated as a nutritional supplement in breads or used as a meat substitute in pastas, soups and stews.
Indigenous cultures who have migrated from their home countries will often attempt to buy their favorite snacks in the new countries and will pay a premium price for them. Additional interests have also been expressed by extreme-sports athletes who are interested in obtaining significant nutritional input from plant-based snack bars which often contain nuts, dried fruits, grains, sugar and salt. Insect-derived protein powder also contains available iron, calcium and amino acids as well as other nutrients not found in plant-based products.
Environmentalist who seek to reduce the planetary impact of water and grain production caused by commercial beef, pork and chicken production can have a product produced close to the point of consumption, that uses much less water, far less land, smaller amounts of cereal grains and can be grown in vertical indoor spaces.
I was personally surprised by how far along the commercialization of products and industry support services had come. The first conference of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA) was held in Detroit in 2016 and titled Eating Insects Detroit. This had followed a number of other conferences in Thailand and elsewhere sponsored by the United Nations that sought to document and promote the production and consumption of insects as human and animal feed.
In the past five years the eatable insect movement, Entomophagy, has gathered increased interest in Europe and North America with the availability of insect product on store shelves as not only novelty items, but also as foodstuffs for mainstream consumption. Presenters documented the current state of the art at the Eat Insects Athens conference August 13-15 at the University of Georgia. I have done a seven-minute overview of the conference as a YouTube video which you may see at: https://youtu.be/p6JRxH3wj8Y.
Crickets and meal worms dominate eatable insect production in the North American Market. Large-scale commercial producers like Armstrong Crickets are likely adequately supplying the present market for eatable crickets ether as frozen insects or cricket-derived protein powder. No small-scale producer is likely to be able to compete with them on price or break into established distribution circles producing crickets for bait or food. While an individual can raise crickets for his own use and perhaps supply some to his friends for fish bait or to feed pet reptiles, this is a hobby-scale activity that is unlikely to return significant profit – similar to small-scale bee keeping. I interviewed Jack Armstrong and three other participants of the conference and produced a video which may be seen at: https://youtu.be/B6WotfCQ-8o .
Raising other insects
Where individual entrepreneurs can break new ground is raising things like Chapulines or beetles that have not yet been industrially commercialized in North America. The Chapulines are large Central American grasshoppers that are gathered from alphalpha fields and sold salted, roasted and often seasoned with a pepper sauce as snack foods in southern Mexico and Central America. Although we do have large grasshoppers in the southeastern U.S., I do not know if the particular species that are harvested that far south on the continent are also native to the drier, hotter parts of the U.S. If so, they could be raised on pivot-irrigated alphalpha in the desert areas of the U.S. and confined to, and harvested from, those operations.
Importing new insects which might become pests has obvious hurdles, similar to what happened with the imported carp that were introduced to help solve problems at fish farms and ultimately escaped to become a real problem with North American fisheries. However, if a similar-sized native grasshopper species exist, this would not be so great a hurdle. The particular species is not as significant as is the nearly 1.25-inch size of the grasshopper. This would be a promising area for some basic science and development.
Pill bugs also known as rolly polleys in the Southeast are common in organic rich soils and rotted leaf piles. They are said to provide a red color when cooked and could be raised in large numbers. The problem with these and other soil-dwelling grubs is that they could carry potentially dangerous bacteria. If wild caught, I think that it would be a good idea to wash them to remove any clinging soil particles, and feed them out on some clean feedstocks before roasting them for consumption. I broached this feed-lot concept at the conference.
Jack Armstrong of Armstrong Crickets responded that using wild foods like grass clippings to start his crickets could introduced predator insects, fungal diseases, molds and other undesirable elements resulting in a lower survival rate for his crickets which was an unacceptable risk. The use of high-costs commercial feed compounded by major animal-feed suppliers allows him to keep his FDA certification for his products and helps insure the safety and profitability of his operation. The highest cost in this operation is the labor required to tend, move, harvest and ship the insects. The price of the feed is a significant, but secondary, cost element.
Automating the large-scale production of insects presents challenges that have yet to be overcome. Armstrong remarked that everyone he knew who had tried automated watering systems had torn them out and gone back to hand watering because one system failure could result in the loss of millions of crickets. Automatic starting back-up generators or battery storage of solar-generated power and underground power lines could provide a safety margin for a continuous power supply, but all mechanical things will someday fail. Reducing this failure rate to an acceptable level with a back-up capability presents some interesting design problems very similar to those faced by hospitals.
Machinery to handle live insects is a more difficult proposition. Given any opportunity many insects will attempt to escape confinement. If crowded into too small a space they may die and partly decompose before they are frozen and result in the entire batch of products being discarded. This process must be rapid, continuous and sterile – a practical, but solvable, problem.
Man has a love-hate relationship with insects. Almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of a butterfly, the industry of social insects like ants and the honey made by bees. Few enjoy the sting of a mosquito, being chased by hornets or surrounded by a swarm of gnats which are getting into your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Spiders provoke great fear in a segment of the population, others find them affectionate pets and some eat them. I am fond of spiders and appreciate the good work that they do in catching less desirable species. I consider them more as pets than food.
Insects that are recognizable as being closely related to species that we still have today were already thriving during the Carboniferous Period, 300,000,000-years ago. Roaming among the fern-rich swamps that would become the coal we burn today were cockroaches that were 12-feet long when insects underwent a period of gigantism. Fortunately these were killed off during a world-wide extinction event, and we only have their much smaller relatives today. Man with a history in the fossil record going back only 1.5 million years is very much a new arrival on the world scene.
What insects are, their colors, diverse shapes and methods of moving have provided inspiration for the design of everything from vehicles, clothing, jewelry to crawling robots that can run, climb and fly. Some of these now only exist in the movies, but others are rapidly approaching reality. When a class of animals has evolved for hundreds of millions of years, nature has much to teach us about design.
Marketing eatable insect products to a sometimes fearful and suspicious public presents its challenges. The best results thus far has been to present a group of insect-derived products in a stand-alone display, rather than having insect-protein enhanced breads among other breads, high protein bars mixed with candies and protein powders in the baking isle. This approach makes two things very clear to potential buyers, A. That they are purchasing products derived from insects and not being in any way mislead about the products or what is in them and B. Separate displays allow the beneficial impacts of eating insect-derived protein to be explained. In short, the combined display has selling power that ordinary rack placement does not.
For the sake of drawing attention to insect-derived products nation wide, it is desirable for the industry to help sponsor a fine dining restaurant in at least one major city, say New York, that specializes in the production of good tasting insect-derived dishes that are fully up to the standards of fine dining – something much more advanced than sprinkling a few bugs on top of a dish. The establishment’s name should directly and easily be identified as to the type of food that is served and its derivation. A name like The Bug Palace would not be too outlandish. The contrast between this name and a fine dining experience would draw instant attention from the press and reviews, good, bad and indifferent would highlight the eatable insect moment and perhaps even spawn a TV show. The possibilities are there, they just need to be promoted.
The U.N. , the FDA, FFA and 4-H organizations can offer aid and be enlisted to help promote insect farming as a valuable crop to be harvested as a by-product of commercial organic agriculture or a off-season activity for farming operations. Successful commercial insect production as food is labor intensive, but requires much less space and fewer resources than any other type of agriculture while returning a larger profit margin. For example, the conversion of spaces once used for dairy-farming to insect-rearing operations could take advantage of existing structures and a history of clean food-handling practices to produce a more profitable product than milk. This potential switch in operational outlook will require retraining and a considerable marketing campaign.