That’s right; those wonderful little critters with their magnificent chirping.
You may have seen them on the news. An emerging revolution. The answer to all our problems.
So here’s the question: Can they REALLY solve food sustainability??
Okay, before I begin, here’s a disclosure.
I’m attempting to build a cricket protein bar business.
In other words, I’m WILLING this industry to do well, just like a dad cheering his son at football.
Kick it in the goal!!
However, there’s one major difference. I’ve not spent 8 years feeding, burping, nappying a bratty little, Fifa-playing shit.
If crickets aren’t the way forward, so be it.
I just want to help find the best solutions to our food sustainability issues, whatever those solutions may be.
Alright then, the facts.
Let’s start with health.
Dried insects typically contain 60–70% protein (Payne, 2019) and research suggests many edibles are rich in micro nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium (BBC, 2018; FAO, 2013).
Some Italian scientists have even gone as far as saying that because of the high levels of antioxidants found in crickets, they may reduce the risks of cancer (Bodkin, 2019).
Pretty bold claims on the health front!
Environmentally, it kinda looks hunky-dory too.
Because they’re cold blooded, crickets have high feed conversion rates, meaning they require only 2 kilograms of feed for every 1 kilogram of body weight gain.
How does this stack up against chickens, cows, pigs and sheep?
You guessed it! Gram for gram, crickets require 12 times less feed than cattle, 4 times less than sheep and half as much as pigs and chicken (FA0, 2013).
They also require far less water than cattle – both to survive and to grow the feed they need. Producing one gram of beef uses 112 litres of water, whilst one gram of cricket protein requires only 2 litres (Statista, 2019).
Insects are reported to emit far fewer greenhouse gases and less ammonia than our farmhouse friends (Statista, 2019).
Oh, and insects can be reared on ‘organic side-streams’. Or, to put it another way, they can POTENTIALLY be fed on our shit.
And let’s not forget their economic impact, particularly in some poorer countries.
You see, something that’s often overlooked is rearing crickets and other minilivestock is not resource intensive. This means it can be practised by women, men, the elderly and even children.
Insect rearing and collecting, in both captivity and the wild, typically requires only a small initial investment, followed by small, incremental investments. This can include nets, plastic sheets and containers.
Because of this, insect rearing and harvesting can contribute positively to equal participation and involvement in economic growth, especially for marginalised groups (FAO, 2013).
There’s no denying crickets and their distant cousins tick a lot of boxes then.
Now for the darker side. As a cricket enthusiast, this will be painful.
It occurred to me during a recent interview I gave that there are a lot of creases to be ironed out if crickets are to become part of our daily lives.
Let’s take a deeper dive.
Female crickets live for around 6 weeks, and in this time, they can lay around 600 eggs in the last week to ten days of their lives.
I know, I know; pretty incredible!
This is where things start to get a little murky though.
Incubation chambers for baby crickets are heated to 30 degrees (Ento Nation, 2017). Being cold-blooded, you see, is both a blessing and a curse. Like other insects and reptiles, they need the sun’s heat to survive.
All of this heating requires a lot of energy.
As Berggren points out in a piece for Reuters (2019), are we going to use fossil fuels for heating the cricket-farming facilities? If so, won’t this offset some of the environmental benefits of farming them in the first place?
Let’s imagine then that cricket-farming starts to concentrate in predominantly hotter countries. How are they going to be transported on scale? Again, what will the environmental impacts of this be?
Will cricket-farming ACTUALLY reduce carbon emissions compared to traditional bovine farming?
In truth, the vast majority of commercially successful cricket farms are using what amounts to three-thousand-year-old techniques, including troughs full of insects growing on the ground (McDonald, 2019).
One has to question whether this is really viable and can sustainably feed 9-10 billion human mouths by 2050 (FAO, 2013).
Having said this, there are many venture-backed startups popping up that are using more advanced, automated methods.
Such methods include using software to control temperature, humidity, feeding, air circulation and most of the safety and inspection procedures (McDonald, 2019).
The benefits of using automation in insect farming are substantial. It can bring down labour costs and contamination risks, as well as preventing cannabalism – something unique to insects (McDonald, 2019).
What would be happen if lots of insects escaped from a farming facility? Might some of them be invasive and pose a risk to natural habits?
This is just yet another consideration.
Speaking of which, there have been instances of viruses killing MILLIONS of reared insects in one fell swoop.
The insect-rearing company Kreca used to sell more than 10,000 boxes of Crickets – the Acheta Domesticus variety – each week. In 2000, 50% of the crickets reared by the company died within 8–12 hours, something never experienced before.
A densovirus was suspected to be the cause of cricket mortality.
A very strict sanitation regimen followed. All diseased crickets were removed, the entire rearing facility was cleaned, and strict hygiene measures were imposed.
It was bleak.
It’s for this reason heavy reliance on a single species is strongly discouraged – just as monocultures should be avoided in agriculture. They’re highly vulnerable to diseases and pests (FAO, 2013).
A similar fate beset Entomo Farms, one of the world’s largest cricket farms.
At Entomo, there are three 20,000 sq ft barns, each home to around 35,000,000 crickets.
They’re harvested every 6 weeks and Entomo produces around 15,000 lbs of cricket every month.
About 8 years ago, their livestock succumbed to a virus and around 30,000,000 happily chirping crickets died over night (Ento Nation, 2017).
So these are just a smattering of the arguments we’re likely to hear in the coming years. And I haven’t even touched on the issues with perceptions.
What do I mean?
In the insect industry, this is commonly referred to as the ‘yuck’ factor.
You see, despite over 2 billion people worldwide consuming insects every single day, there has been an aversion to eating insects in the West (FAO, 2013).
The history of why dates wayyyyy back.
It’s said that agriculture originated in northeast Africa. From there, plant and animal domestication spread throughout Europe.
There are 14 domesticated mammals worldwide, each weighing at least 45kg. Remarkably, Eurasia boasted 13 of these animals, and the 14th – the llama – was in the Americas.
These animals yielded not only considerable amounts of meat, but also warmth, milk products, leather, wool, plough traction and means of transport.
It’s thought that it was because of the utility of these animals that the use of insects – besides honeybees and silkworms – failed to gain much traction in the West.
Once habits set in and cultures build – well, the rest is history, as they say.
Can thousands of years of history and habit be overturned?
As late as the mid 19th century, lobsters were fed to prisoners and slaves (History.com, 2011).
The now ubiquitous Sushi was first brought to the US just 50 years ago (Butler, 2014).
And crickets are often touted in the Ento community as ‘prawns of the sky’ (Harding, 2017)
Perceptions can change.
Arguably the more important question we should be asking is can crickets solve our global food sustainability issues?
To this, I honestly don’t know.
I believe they could be part of a broader solution – a complement if you will – but I’m not sure they’re the smoking gun.
The magic bullet.
As we have seen, a lot questions need answering and more research needs to be done, particularly once cricket farming starts to scale and environmental concerns grow larger.
And as always, balance is what’s needed in this debate. Putting up blinkers won’t do any of us any favours.
And it’s my worry that we in the Entomophagy community may be getting slightly carried away with the benefits crickets and other edibles bring.
So as much as it sometimes pains me, balance in this debate is what I intend to keep bringing.