Co-authored by: Mackenzie Wade
Author Maija Palmer shared a thoughtful piece on Sifted exploring whether edible insects are “tasty and cheap enough” to go mainstream. Titled “Bug Bites: Are Insects the New Sushi?”, the piece raises some common questions about the future of the space. I wanted to take a moment to comment briefly on some of the critiques brought up in the piece:
““Urgh. I can’t. I’d have to close my eyes,” says a woman inching backwards from bowl of pasta topped with mealworms.”
The article puts a strong emphasis on the ‘yuck factor.’ As an industry, we are trying to redirect the narrative towards a ‘wow factor.’ As with sushi, lobster, and even tomatoes in the past, one of the biggest challenges faced by the entomophagy industry is overcoming what some call the “ick factor” or “yuck factor.” This refers to the current stigma around bugs – the reputation they have for being scary or unclean.
Many novice entomophagists look at bugs and imagine a scene from The Lion King – the one where Timon and Pumbaa are chowing down on grubs and say, “Slimy, yet satisfying!” as they slurp up the last worm. Many expect to bite into a bug and get a burst of slimy guts, or to be transported to a mental space similar to that of “Fear Factor” contestants.
That’s not the case at all. Though these are the images we are presented with, this is, in fact, not the reality of bug-eating. Many bugs today are dried and taste more like peanuts or sunflower seeds. Or they come in a ground-up protein powder form.
We might consider replacing the “ick factor” with the “wow factor” as a step in rebranding how we think about bugs. The “ick factor” sounds negative, while the “wow factor” is more closely related to the nervousness some might experience before riding a rollercoaster (an experience that can be positive, much like trying bugs for the first time.)
You may have heard a saying that love and hate are similar emotions – two sides of the proverbial passion coin. I’ve found that fear/anxiety and curiosity are quite similar. We fear what we do not know. But if we can educate people – if we can show them how interesting and cool bugs are – this fear transforms into curiosity. We are much more apt to accept what we understand.
As a long-time entomophagy advocate, I’ve experienced this first hand in the events I host. I’m used to people of all backgrounds and biases reacting up and down the spectrum to the idea of eating bugs. Over the past 6 years, I have personally served bugs to well over 50,000 people between the fairs, festivals, dinners, university lectures, wine & bug pairings, classes, workshops, demos, and cooking seminars.
My favorite groups are those with the “plus-ones” – the folks that clearly did not expect to find themselves at a Bug & Wine pairing but were dragged along by friends and take Instagram photos regardless. These folks enter saying, “No way” to all bugs, and leave asking where to buy more. I have yet to meet a group that I couldn’t get to at least try a few bugs. And while all might not leave as eternally-devoted customers, most will admit that the roasted crickets were more similar to chips or nuts than expected.
Those who report on the industry are often subject to their own bug biases, which contribute to their tendency towards reaffirming the ‘ick factor’ they have deemed as such an impossible hurdle. Many innovations are misunderstood in their infancy until the scales tip to wider acceptance. Understanding the scope of entomophagy helps to contextualize the possibility for growing acceptance. Taking both a global and temporal perspective, insects as food and feed are well established and incorporated in many traditional dishes. According to biological anthropologist, Julie Lesnik, we have always enjoyed eating bugs, from our early hominin ancestors to the billions of people who consider bugs a protein-rich food staple today. As insect agri-entrepreneur Tequila of Ovipost says, “I understand it’s needed to be said over, and over, and over, because it’s everyone’s first question, ‘can people learn to like new foods?’ Yes. Yes they do.”
BEYOND HUMAN FOOD
Even if the timeline for edible insect adoption in the U.S. is on a slower trajectory, the insect agriculture space is far broader than protein bars and roasted bug snacks.The industry represents diverse groups and individuals, working to close unsustainable food loops from multiple directions. Companies are raising insects for pet food, livestock feed, nutrient upcycling, waste management, and biosynthesis and by-product applications, accepting bugs on our plate is only one small aspect of a much larger picture.
And this picture is growing, along with the industry. Today, insects as food and feed is represented by over 250 companies worldwide. The insect feed industry alone was estimated to be worth $900 million in 2016 and is forecast to reach $1.5 billion by 2022 (Mordor Intelligence, 2017). The edible insects market is expected to reach nearly $1.2 billion by 2023, supported by a CAGR of 23.8% per a recent Research and Markets report.
This growing industry is accompanied by associated benefits. Insect agriculture research and development has the potential to create agricultural jobs in both rural and urban communities and help the United States hold an advantage over other global competitors like China, which currently leads the world in insect farming. According to Mohammed Ashour, Co-Founder and CEO of Aspire Food Group, “we are helping America stay ahead of the demand for global sustainable protein sources by creating farms with replicable AgTech. We offer modern farming roles including front-line farm staff, robotic and software engineers, entomologists and entomo-nutritionists.”
ECONOMICS & SCALE
While it’s true that the nascent industry will face challenges beyond market education – most notably in the economics of scale – this is nothing emerging industry. As Maija Palmer points out, insects are still expensive to farm and struggle to compete with other food sources, but price goes hand-in-hand with consumer perception. Since the development of the industry, we have witnessed an increase in constructive competition. As larger purchase orders fuel the expansion of facilities, the prices will reflect this. Progress, as with anything, does not happen overnight, especially with years of a steadfast food taboo to combat.
It’s important to note that the challenges posed by Palmer are viewed inside the industry as opportunities to lead innovation. Much of the cost of crickets today derives from labor. Thankfully, with a growing focus on automation, data collection, research, development, and improved farming techniques, these costs will continue to fall. The forces driving these improvements are not going anywhere soon, as pressure for sustainable food innovation rises. In the face of climate challenges attributed to food industries, Insects present solutions to big-picture global challenges, namely:
- Growing Population & Protein Needs
- Animal-Protein Gap
- Fishmeal Supply
- Increasing Health Concerns (Consumer Attention on Nutritional Properties & Functional Benefits)
Insect agriculture is an intrinsic component of the movement to combat climate chaos, meet our growing population needs, and promote biodiversity health. As long as these needs exist, the industry will be incentivized to continue to grow.
STEP BY STEP
As it stands, the current food system is not meeting the needs which insect agriculture addresses, largely due to the inefficiency of standard feed products. The FAO estimates that commercial feed production will need to increase by 70% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for protein. Black soldier fly larvae, for example, are high in protein, making them highly attractive for various livestock production systems, and a possible alternative to the meat, fish, and soybean meal that currently comprise 60-70% of production costs. To date, insects for feed companies have not been able to meet the scale of a purchase order from a major feed player, but the demand is present and significant opportunity awaits those able to meet it.
This opportunity is being taken step by step. Insects for feed companies do not need to fill an entire purchase order at first but can aim for even a 1-2 % inclusion rate of insects in feed to get started.
RETURNS BEYOND CAPITAL
Finally, it’s worth noting that the returns from investments in high-impact industries like insect agriculture attract interest for their returns beyond capital. More than a new revenue stream, the insect agriculture space is equally a response to both global food insecurity and environmental unsustainability. In 2016, 108 million people globally faced urgent levels of food insecurity and this number has risen steadily to 124 million people across 51 countries and territories in 2018. With this significant growth in the number and geographic spread of people impacted each passing year, the incorporation of bug protein as a widespread food source is not only necessary but inevitable.
Equally relevant is the need for a truly sustainable protein source. The profitability of this venture, now more than ever before, is directly linked to the sustainable use of environmental assets (water, land-use, feed, etc.). This must be factored into the accounting of project profitability, as with other assets, because their depletion ultimately has a negative effect on the project bottom line. This is why the notion of a “triple bottom line” instead of a “double bottom line” is promoted by proponents of environmental and social sustainability in investment considerations. Many are using frameworks from traditional food industry perspectives in their consideration of insect agriculture, but the reality is that this framework has changed and requires a new perspective as global and environmental needs continue to expand. Moving forward, the World Bank urges that “instead of investing with a view to increase production and world food supplies, agricultural sector investments must now seek to increase competitiveness and profitability along the commodity chain from farmer to consumer, enhance sustainability for the environmental and natural resource base, and empower rural people to manage change” (World Bank, 2005:4)
Palmer’s article was largely based on the academic publication, “Insects are not the new sushi: theories of practice and the acceptance of novel foods” by Jonas House, a sociologist at Wageningen University. House critiques the framing of insects as “the new sushi” and points to discrepancies between the two products. Though, of course, insects and sushi were added to plates in distinctly different social and environmental contexts, understanding the possibility for acceptance of new foods is nonetheless an important story to continue to tell. For the continual growth of the edible insect industry and insect agriculture, storytelling is a necessary tool in the face of a changing world.
“…The environment and context for investments in agriculture has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Instead of investing with a view to increase production and world food supplies, agricultural sector investments must now seek to increase competitiveness and profitability along the commodity chain from farmer to consumer, enhance sustainability for the environmental and natural resource base, and empower rural people to manage change”. (World Bank, 2005:4).