This article was originally published on Localvore Today's The Daily Beet on February 29, 2016.
We’ve all seen them: scorpions entombed in sugary lollipops, meal worms curled and sunk in their watery graves at the end of a tequila bottle, or starved contestants gobbling up creepy crawlies, tears streaming down their faces as they battle for another chance to win the million. These are our cultural mental images of eating bugs — but probably not for long. What may feel kitschy, foreign, or something you’d only do to ring in retirement two decades early is being considered by many thought-leaders in agriculture, environmental policy, and global hunger to be a cure-all — and inevitable movement — to resolve the planet’s greatest issues. It’s bugs for dinner.
Or, crickets, more specifically. Steve Swanson, owner of Tomorrow’s Harvest, a developing cricket farm in Williston, VT, began investigating the world of edible insects shortly after the birth of his first child two years ago. “When my son was born,” Steve recalls, “We read some books, but it doesn’t really hit you until your child is there. And you think, ‘Oh crap, this is real.’ And then you turn to the Internet and Google about how to raise your kid without turning him into a serial killer. You just Google everything. And one of the things I kept coming across was how unhealthy our food system is in general. And when you really get into it, it’s more specifically about the livestock industry and how unhealthy it is for us and the planet.”
The most influential document Steve came across was the 2013 Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ “Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food & Feed Security”. In it, the FAO outlines not only how strenuous the current livestock practices are on the health of the environment, but also how beneficial an insect industry could be to out planet. “That was the ‘Aha Moment’,” Steve recognizes. “The livestock industry is maxed out; there’s pretty much no room left without clearing the rainforests. The population is increasing, and more people around the world — China, India — are demanding more of a Western diet, which means meat. My wife and I are carnivores; I’m not a proponent of getting rid of meat entirely, but it has to be small, organic farms that do it right. There’s a way to eat meat that doesn’t destroy the planet.”
In addition to insects needing significantly space, they also need far less water and feed. As Steve explains, “The real benefit will come down the road when we’re comfortable eating insects, and we can feed them our food waste. For instance, black soldier flies will recycle our waste into useable protein. And then you can feed those insects to other animals.” Insects have the potential to be useful at every step within in the food cycle.
And so Steve set out, two years ago, to learn the industry of edible crickets: “I spent the first year proving I could do it — I literally had crickets in a shed in my garage. And then after I was comfortable with the basics, we began renovating our basement into a cricket farm. This will be big enough to turn out some products, but it’s the last proof of concept for moving into a big warehouse. Plus, my wife would rather not have millions of crickets living in our basement.”
Although eating insects has been a practice of many cultures for thousands of years, there hasn’t been a great deal of research regarding the best ways to farm bugs. Steve built his operation through online research: “Even the biggest farms are all about crates, egg crates, food, water, and bugs. And that’s it. It’s been done the same way forever. I’ve taught myself how to farm crickets, and I’m looking into how to get more efficient. You want to figure out what the bugs like and what is best for them. There is so much opportunity for research and development because it hasn’t been touched.”
Crickets are considered the “gateway bug” for western cultures, Steve explains: “They’re very healthy and easy to raise — as are so many insects — but Westerners don’t have the aversions to crickets that they have to almost any other insect. If I said ‘I’m going to give you crickets, mealworms, cockroaches, or maggots. Choose one,’ you’re probably going to take the crickets.” Maybe it’s the memories of chirping during summer evenings, or maybe it is just the least gross sounding name. Either way, the edible cricket swarm is heading to the states.
“Once you have that first cricket, you really get over it. My wife and I started this business before ever even eating a cricket. Now we like them sautéed, sort of like shrimp. You can take off the legs and antennae if you want, but that’s more of a comfort thing than anything,” Steve says. But cooking up bugs doesn’t have to be quite so arresting. Dried, crunchy bugs have been packaged to look similar to seeds, and Chirps are pressed into chip-like shapes in an effort to mask the true identity of the main ingredient — crickets. But Steve believes one treatment in particular will be easier for American consumers to digest (both literally and figuratively) — powders.
“Some people call it flour, some people call it powder, but we prefer powder,” Steve says. “It’s the world’s best protein powder. When you dry out the crickets and mill them up, they are 70% protein, and that’s higher than any other protein powder out there. We see this being incorporated into everything: pastas, sauces, breads, smoothies… This is the out of sight out of mind option.”
Steve won’t be selling powders immediately under the Tomorrow’s Harvest brand, but it’s something he plans to expand into in the future. His first product on Vermont shelves will be frozen crickets, and he is consistently receiving good reactions when he holds classes and tastings. “The reception has been surprisingly positive,” he says. “The initial response is always ‘that’s disgusting, you’re a crazy person.’ But that would have been my first response, too. I wasn’t raised eating insects. But when you talk people through it, and explain all the benefits, and say that you can incorporate it into meals without ever seeing it [people come around].”
And for those more difficult to persuade? Steve says, “My ace-in-the-hole is always the FDA Defect Level Handbook. It shows the amount of ‘defects’ — as they call them — that are allowed in food before they have to take action. It tells us that basically everything we have ever eaten has insects in it already.” In terms of insects, these defects are specifically given the alluring titles of “insect filth” and “insect fragments.” Golden raisins are deemed worthy of FDA approval with up to 35 fly eggs per 8 oz. Canned or frozen spinach can contain up to “50 or more aphids, thrips, and/or mites per 100 grams.” But Steve’s favorite example is tomato paste, in which 30 fly eggs can be found per 100 grams of paste and still go out on the shelves. “It’s impossible to process food on a global scale without some bugs getting in that food,” Steve explains. “We’ve all been eating insects our entire lives, but we didn’t know it. If I go up to someone and tell them that the tomato paste they’re eating has a bunch of fly larvae in it, most people will be grossed out… but still eat their pizza.”
But these allowable defects don’t only affect the things that you chew — the mighty hop itself can nest away up to an “average of 2,500 aphids per 100 grams,” one of the highest allowable values on the list. “So if you drink beer,” Steve smiles, “especially hoppy beer, you’re drinking aphids. Very high levels of aphids.” Cheers!
Regardless of the eew-factor, edible insects are at the forefront of conversations concerning our response to some very real global crises. As Steve puts it, “Insects have been right there with us the whole time, but we thought they were a nuisance. Now we’re rediscovering not only that they are not a nuisance, but possibly the solution to so many of our problems. They just found mealworms that will eat Styrofoam — something we thought lasts forever.”
By early spring, Steve foresees having his product in the frozen section of local markets. And if all goes to plan, Tomorrow’s Harvest will expand into additional options such as powders and dehydrated crickets. And with over 2,000 insect species identified as edible, the “gateway bug” could open the doors to a much more diverse range of insects to grace your plate.