By CARIN TUNNEY
Capital News Service
LANSING — Michiganders raised on meat and potatoes may soon notice a new high-protein food on their plates.
That is if entomophagy experts can convince people to eat bugs.
Michigan is among the areas where insect agriculture is expanding to meet the demands of a looming global food scarcity crisis, experts say. Wayne State University hosted the first North American conference on eating insects last May in Detroit. And a Detroit company is working with state regulators to launch the state’s first urban insect farm.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates the world’s population will grow to 9 billion by 2050. And it will take a big increase in food production to feed them all.
Entomophagy – eating insects – is a solution to food scarcity, said Julie Lesnik, an anthropology professor at Wayne State University who hosted the Detroit conference. Much of that conference was focused on marketing to younger consumers who drive market demand, she said.
“They are challenging the status quo and the previous norms. I think edible insects fit into the (younger) generation’s mindset. We don’t have to think about things and do things the way our parents and grandparents have done,” Lesnik said.
Industry growth increased after the FAO reported in 2013 that the practice must expand to North America. It is already widely accepted in Asia, Africa, Mexico and among indigenous people in Australia.
“Further exposure and introduction to entomophagy itself can help to reduce the surprise and novelty of seeing insects on the plate,” the report said. “Zoos, museums and universities can play an important role here. However, the emotion of disgust can be very hard to change.”
Lesnick predicts that the reluctance to eat insects will disappear the way it did for eating raw fish and seaweed. Many people considered sushi repugnant decades ago, but it is now widely popular, she said.
Detroit Ento joined the effort in 2015 to make entomophagy mainstream . The company visits restaurants, council meetings and schools to put bugs on more Midwestern plates, said co-founder Anthony Hatinger.
It is rehabbing a vacant warehouse in Detroit to create Michigan’s first urban entomophagy farm next summer, Hatinger said. It will produce cricket powder and eventually food products, supplements and vitamins.
Studies show insects contain protein, vitamin B, iron and calcium and have possible probiotic benefits that aid digestion. Supplements and vitamins could be a driving force behind the acceptance of entomophagy, Hatinger said.
“I don’t think it is as long off as people expect,” he said. “I think it is about how entrepreneurs, how the chefs, how the industrial regulations are putting forth a narrative of this is good, this is our future and we need to embrace it.”
Targeting new consumers also includes education on sustainability, Hatinger said.
“When we look at our future and population growth and exhaustion of our natural resources, insects are going to be one of the most viable things we can do for ourselves,” he said.
Insects eat much less per pound and require less energy and water than other livestock. That’s important because the FAO has identified the lack of water as a threat to food production.
One pound of consumable crickets requires about one gallon of water, growers say. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that more than 1,800 gallons are needed per pound of beef. But that number is widely disputed by environmental advocates who say it’s much higher.
Like Detroit Ento, most new insect farms, processors and makers of specialty products are online startups, making it difficult to determine the growth of entomophagy in North America. There are at least 25 companies in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Bug Burger website, a source of worldwide, industry information on entomophagy
The number of brick and mortar stores is increasing. Crunchy Critter Farms in Akron, Ohio, will begin selling live crickets to be eaten whole or manufactured into other products in November, executive director James Williams said. “It is a fun and exciting process trying to bring bugs to the dinner table and one we really enjoy.”
The company will create its own products as it grows and interest expands, he said.
Entomo Farms, in Norwood, Ontario, northeast of Toronto, is North America’s largest producer of edible crickets. Its 60,000-square-foot facility will expand to 100,000 by the end of the year, co-owner Jarrod Goldin said.
Entomo Farms holds 100 million crickets at any given time. It produces about 36,000 pounds of raw crickets a month. Goldin said the expansion could add another 24,000 pounds per month. The company is in talks with one of the largest food manufactures in the world, he said.
Stereotypes of people eating live insects are misleading, Goldin said. Crickets and mealworms in North America are most often ground into a high-protein powder or seasoned and roasted whole.
“The powder allows them to get into the door and realize it tastes pretty good,” Goldin said. “Maybe they will realize it’s not so scary.”
They’re also manufactured into chips, protein bars and tortillas. Powdered and roasted whole crickets take on the flavor of the foods they’re prepared with, Goldin said. They have an earthy taste like to mushrooms or grains if eaten unseasoned.
Neither Health Canada nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially recognize insect farms as food producers. But in October, Entomo Farms launched a new effort with the Canadian government to improve industry standards and further increase the environmental benefits by using less energy and water. The project indicates progress, Goldin said.
But there are concerns.
A recent study from the University of California Davis, published in PLOS One, concluded that crickets raised on livestock feed produce slightly more protein than chicken. But when fed discarded produce, the crickets’ nutritional value decreased and nearly all died.
Those findings contradict the idea that insects are the solution to sustainability, according to the UC-Davis researchers. More research is needed to improve the environmental benefits, they wrote.
People with shellfish allergies can also have severe reactions to insects, according to the FAO. And raising insects for food increases the potential to inadvertently release non-native species into new habitats.
Cost is another obstacle. Cricket-protein powder sells online for up to $40 U.S. per pound. A five-ounce bag of cricket chips costs about $3 U.S. As the market expands, industry experts say the products will become more affordable.
Online products also include whole insects, powders, protein bars, baked goods, snacks and candy. Health food and mainstream stores are adding cricket and mealworm products.
But demand is unsteady.
When he began selling cricket products in February, they were hard to keep in stock, said Brad McMullen, who runs the upscale Summerhill Market in Ontario.
But recently he moved them from the front of the store to a less prominent location.
“There were a lot of people intrigued by the idea of it,” McMullen says. “We had local press, newspapers, news coverage. People were calling from all around Toronto to see it and try it.”
That high interest disappeared. “It was a fast and furious push for all of those things. It was a lot of adventure eating,” McMullen said.
Today he’s unaware of any repeat customers except his daughter, who eats roasted crickets as snacks.