What do food companies do to prevent prices from soaring and shortages from developing? They turn to whatever sources are available, no matter how unusual those are. And that’s exactly what the food industry did. But rather than appreciate their efforts, some people were shocked, others angered, and many more revolted. That’s because those other sources are farms that turn insects into feed for animals, and in some cases, into food for human consumption.
Strange as it may sound, the idea is practical. Insects are surprisingly nutritious: They are crammed with vitamins, protein, fiber and other healthful items. Moreover, they multiply extremely quickly and are surprisingly inexpensive to produce. Crickets, worms, beetles, and roaches are just a few of the insects that have become part of the food chain. Pound for pound, insects are the most efficient food source for animals and humans.
In the US, there have always been some people who eat bugs - not just on a dare, but as a supplement for traditional food and even as a substitute for it. Back in 1885, entomologist Vincent Polk wrote a book called Why Not Eat Insects? “Philosophy bids us neglect no wholesome source of food,” he explained. Polk even included a selection of recipes for insect side dishes, mains, and soups in his book. Despite the logic, this idea never caught on in America.
But it has caught on in many other countries. According to one estimate, there are more than 2 billion people around the world who eat insects as part of their regular diet. In fact, they are very popular in Thailand, China, France, and other countries.
Is America finally ready to go insect? Based on trends the answer appears to be “Yes.” Food supplies continue to be challenged by extreme drought and flooding, incredible plagues of locusts, production shortages because of the pandemic, over-fishing, a shortage of arable land, and related problems.
The Joys Of Bugs
In 2013, the UN released a report entitled, “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Food Security.” The report argues that insects need to be used for food because they are very nutritious, emit much less greenhouse gases than cattle, can be grown very quickly and inexpensively, and require very little land to farm among their other advantages. The report also pointed to shortages of food in many regions of the world. Unfortunately, since the UN’s report was released, widespread shortages of food and hunger have become even worse problems.
Black soldier fly larvae are one of the insect-related products getting attention because they produce at least one hundred times more protein per acre than traditional animal feed sources such as corn, soybeans, sorghum, oats, and barley. One food industry analyst said they “could be a sustainably sourced food if pandemic-related shortages develop along with soaring prices.”
Albert Edwards, an investment strategist at Societe Generale, recently published a report on soaring food prices. Quoting the latest figures from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Edwards noted that prices of oil seeds, dairy products, meat, and sugar are rising. The FAO food index hit a six-year high in November, and the price of food has increased for seven consecutive months. Adding insects to the food chain may help keep prices at affordable levels.
The New Sources of Food
In the last several years, companies around the world have announced they are getting into the business of farming insects for feed and food. Some already have, and others are planning to construct large facilities and are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this industry.
In October 2020, the French firm Ynsect announced that it would build an insect farm in northern France to help satisfy the world’s growing demand for food. Ynsect raised $224 million for this project, which is scheduled to open in early 2022. When completed, the farm will produce 100,000 tons of protein-rich insect products for livestock each year; it was billed as the largest such farm in the world.
But Ynsect’s claim became obsolete very quickly, when Chicago-based food processor Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and InnovaFeed, a French firm that makes insect protein for animal feed, announced they would build the world’s largest insect protein factory farm in central Illinois. ADM and InnovaFeed will grow and harvest billions of black soldier flies. The objective: Use their larvae to convert decomposing organic matter into nutrient-rich protein that can be used as animal feed.
The idea of using insects as feed and food is not as shocking today as it was just a few years ago. Much like other bizarre ideas we hear of today this is becoming more mainstream. A growing number of products sold in stores and restaurants list insects in their ingredients. It is already possible, for example, to buy cricket ice cream, cricket granola, cricket meatballs, cricket bars, cricket pasta, cricket chips, silkworm chips, mealworm burgers, and fruit fly oil.
Three startups in the US have already raised a combined total of more than $120 million. One of them will farm meal worms and the other two farm black soldier fly larvae. Other US companies are also getting into the game. And so are companies abroad.
China’s Gooddoctor Pharmaceutical Group is literally crawling with roaches - and they could not be happier. Gooddoctor breeds six billion roaches a year and claims to be the largest roach farm in the world. Cockroach farming is a booming business in China, where they are used in feed and food, to treat organic waste, in cosmetics, and in traditional Chinese medicines.
It is claimed that medicines derived from roaches can treat stomachaches, respiratory ailments, and other health issues. “The effectiveness of cockroaches has been tested by the bodies of our ancestors and proven by lab experiments,” said Gooddoctor’s Dr. Geng Funeng. The company hopes the medicines it produces will be recognized by the international community.
In the 20 years since it was founded, the Gooddoctor factory has expanded from 20 sq. meters to 12,000 sq. meters. The company is planning to open a second facility, which will be at least three and possibly as much as five times the size of the current one. Even more amazing is that it will be powered by artificial intelligence, “manned” by robots and other state of the art technology and absolutely nothing will go to waste. Even bug frass (discharge) will be used. Roaches bred by the company are also sold as human food.
Hawaii, Michigan, California, Illinois, and Louisiana are just some of the states that are home to insect farms in the US. Some of their “delights” are sold for domestic consumption, while others are exported to China, Japan, and other countries. The idea of munching on BBQ-flavored baked whole crickets, mealworm meatballs, Italian herb and garlic cricket loaf, and the like still does not appeal to most of us, but it has been catching on.
London’s first insect farm is trying to convince people to eat bugs. One company is now selling “The Hive,” which it claims is the first device to grow edible insects at home. Another teaches people how to make their own mealworm farm.
Several years ago, an experiment conducted on the International Space Station sought to determine if worms could exist and even multiply in space. At first glance, the purpose of this experiment appeared to be simply to gain new scientific knowledge. But others thought the objective was really to determine if worms could be used as a food source for humans in a colony on Mars.
Using insects to promote high-quality nutrition was once thought of as the food of tomorrow. But that’s no longer the case - now it’s considered the food of today.
Almost certainly, the number of insects used in feed and food will continue to increase in the months and years ahead. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you may want to try to make peace with it. The trend looks like it’s here to stay, and any changes would likely be in its expanded use. Call it a sign of the times.
Of course, for kosher consumers who pay premium prices for insect-free food to comply with halachic concerns, the idea of eating insects is totally problematic. Nevertheless, just when you think you’ve heard it all - you really haven’t!
Sources :cgtn.com; entonation.com; forbes.com; reuters.com; sciencedirect.com. YouTube: China: Inside The World’s Biggest Cockroach Farm; Why Companies Are Mass Producing Edible Insects; Using Mealworms as Cattle Feed; Bug Appetite: How Insect Farms And Technology Fight Food Waste; World’s Largest Insect Protein Farm Signals Future of Food Supply; Tiny Bug, Big Business