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We Need More Cricket Farmers: The Price Of Our Growing Taste For Insects

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Oct 7, 2014 8:30PM

(Image by netsuthep via Shutterstock)

We should all be eating crickets by now. No protein source is simply more sustainable than this gateway bug, fast making its ascendancy into mainstream diets as cricket flour-fueled protein bars and baked goods take more than TED Talks by storm. Cricket farmers, however, are struggling to meet demand and lower their product’s price in the process.

“Insects are already consumed by 80 percent of the world's cultures throughout Asia, Africa, Central and South America, basically everywhere but the U.S. and Europe,” Megan Miller, founder of San Francisco-based Bitty Foods, which sells baked goods made from cricket flour, told Chicagoist.

In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization published a report concluding that edible insects like mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers have the potential to stabilize the global food supply as the population skyrockets and available agricultural land mass diminishes. Crickets also contain the essential amino acids lysine and tryptophan found in only trace amounts in proteins like beef and chicken. And although crickets contain about half the protein as traditional livestock, they emit far less greenhouse gases and, needless to say, their farms take up less space than your typical cattle ranch, leaving more forests intact.

Entrepreneurs like Miller are banking on appeal to our ecological conscience as much as their products’ flavor as they dissolve insect eating taboos with what has become the poster critter for sustainable protein. “There are actually 2,000 species of edible insects to choose from, but we think crickets are great for Americans because they are high in nutrition and feel less creepy-crawly than other insects might,” Miller explains.

Cricket flour, it’s worth noting, more closely resembles protein powder than traditional grain flour. You can add it to other foods to boost their nutritional content, but alone it won’t make any muffins. “We start by dry-roasting crickets and milling them into a fine powder and then blend this powder with cassava and coconut to create our grain-free baking flour,” Miller says of her cooking process. You can even add cricket-based bitters to your cocktail with Critter Bitters, while Brooklyn-based Exo quickly sold out its first production run of 50,000 protein bars baked with cricket flour within a few weeks earlier this year.

But just because crickets seem to be everywhere doesn’t mean they come cheap. While a bag of wheat flour sells for about $1 per pound, a pound of cricket flour can easily induce sticker shock, costing between $20 and $40 per pound depending on the supplier and time of year. And successful as Exo’s sales have been, for example, the company has yet to make a profit until more cricket farmers can drive down the flour’s cost.

So far, however, cricket farming has proved less than sustainable for suppliers trying to keep their books in the black. The industry currently cannot keep pace with rising demand.

“The market [for cricket flour] has easily doubled in size every year since 2010,” Harmon Johar of World Ento, a supplier of edible insects that recently merged with Aspire Food Group, told us.

“But while other flours are milled from grains that are cheap to produce and have little to no protein content, cricket powder is extremely high in protein—always the most expensive form of food—as well as essentials like iron and calcium. Cricket production is also currently very labor intensive and is only just becoming automated.”

"Crickets are almost the California roll of the insect world—a tasty, unthreatening gateway snack that opens up a whole new category of food. Crickets are just the start."
The country’s first urban insect farm, Big Cricket Farms, is working to change that, however. Last April it opened operations in Youngstown, Ohio, powered by the technological and business savvy of Tiny Farms, a technology and infrastructure provider for insect farmers that aims to create a nationwide network and revolutionize the industry, making cricket farmers as common as backyard beekeepers. Thanks to its support, Big Cricket Farms has already succeeded in dramatically reducing costs of production and produces 50,000 pounds of crickets per month and sells a pound of frozen insects bred and fed for human consumption for $4.50 to $9 per pound.

“Until Tiny Farms, nobody had applied real science and engineering to the production of crickets. They're still raised in the same way as feeder insects for tropical pets—in boxes, on shelves, hiding amongst cardboard egg cartons,” says Tiny Farms CEO Daniel Imrie-Situnayake.

“Imagine walking through a warehouse of chirping crickets, adding feed and water to hundreds of boxes. Harvesting and rehousing crickets as they grow are tricky manual processes. Maintenance takes up large amounts of time. And as your farm grows you have to hire more staff to carry out the work, driving up the cost. If you double the number of crickets, you double the amount of work. There's also the problem of feed. The average North American cricket farm is fairly small and mostly independent. This means that they have to source cricket feed themselves, and they can't access the same bulk discounts as a large farm or co-operative. Our network of farmers won't have this problem.”

Ultimately Tiny Farms’ goal is to make insects cheaper than beef and chicken by helping spawn more farms like Big Cricket. “We've drastically reduced the cost of production by rethinking everything from the design of habitats to the way insects are fed and watered. We're using big-data techniques to measure and optimize every variable."

An ideal cricket farm, he says, reduces labor costs via automation, utilizes sensor data to optimize quality and productivity, reduces feed costs by using agricultural byproducts like corn stalks, and doesn't require a huge initial investment. Forming a web of suppliers located close to wholesale buyers is also key to lowering cricket flour’s price.

“To get our technology into the hands of farmers,” he adds, “we're building a contract production system. Farmers in our network will have access to everything they need to produce insects at an industrial scale. Once up and running, we'll help them get the best price for their produce, taking care of processing and quality assurance so they can focus on what they do best.”

Imrie-Situnayake notes that at Tiny Farms' inception two years ago, the market consisted of only seven or eight companies in North America supplying crickets for human consumption. Now there are more than 30, he told us, with new players every month, most of them food companies wanting to cash in on surging consumer interest.

"The market [for cricket flour] has easily doubled in size every year since 2010."
And as everyone attuned the cricket market knows, demand is real.

“There's a big market for high value food items, like Exo bars or Bitty cookies,” he observes. “We've barely scratched the surface of its potential for growth, so the industry is already sustainable. For insect protein to feed the world, though, we'll need some big improvements. Farms need to be incredibly scalable, so that adding one additional employee enables ten times the cricket output. We need to be producing more crickets in the same amount of space, and we need to find feeds that they'll thrive on but are more economical than current options.”

Progress, he says, is a given and a drop in price its natural corollary. A sustainable cricket industry with efficiently functioning farms also means only one thing: more bugs on more plates.

“As we become more comfortable with the idea of entomophagy, Western consumers will be able to experience a vast number of new dishes. Crickets are almost the California roll of the insect world—a tasty, unthreatening gateway snack that opens up a whole new category of food. Crickets are just the start.”

Miller, meanwhile, told us she takes heart from chefs like René Redzepi at Noma, the top restaurant in the world, choosing to include an array of insects on his Copenhagen menu.

“Insects are genuinely delicious,” Imrie-Situnayake adds, “as well as a healthier and more sustainable source of protein than meat. They’re also rarely a so-called poverty food. The majority of insect-eating people seek them out for the taste alone.”

(Ed Note: For more information on Bitty, we recommend you read this August article from our sister site SFist.—CS)