Why companies are mass-producing edible insects
(gentle clinking) - These right here are whole roasted, Texas barbecue-flavored cricket snacks. They started out like this and went on a wild ride: born on a robotic cricket farm in Texas, raised in a big tub, frozen into cricket bricks, then roasted and flavored. And for the record, they're alright. Eating
insectsis commonplace in lots of the world. It's just never caught on in the US, but some entrepreneurs think we're ready. In fact, the past five years have been a roller-coaster of insect farming booms and busts. And hanging in the balance is either a quirky snack or a food revolution. - I can't look at this. (laughs) - It's kind of nutty. (light guitar music) - Around the world, 2 billion people eat
insectsas part of their regular diet. In Europe and the US, not so much. - I can't do it, I won't. - People have tried. Back in 1885, entomologist Vincent Holt wrote a manifesto called "Why Not Eat
Insects?" He wrote, "Philosophy bids us neglect no wholesome source of food," and then gave us some pretty sweet dinner menus. - Slug soup, moth saute in butter, stag beetle larvae on toast. - But in 2013, the United Nations puts out their own version of a manifesto. The report starts with the apocalypse: 9 billion people by 2050, land scarcity, food crises, over fishing, climate change. But then it makes a pretty strong argument for
insectsas future food. Crickets, to start, are chock-full of fat, protein, vitamins, and fiber....
They emit fewer greenhouse gases than cattle, and they use a lot less land. And they're coldblooded, so they spend their calories on growth instead of warmth. So growing one kilogram of crickets only takes about 1.7 kilos of food. One kilogram worth of cow, maybe 10 kilos of food. And that's just crickets, one insect species out of the 1,900 we know to be
edible. In other words, it's time to take the idea of farming
insectsmuch more seriously. - You know, every now and then you'll hear a cricket that hit puberty. - Our cricket snacks came from Aspire, a futuristic insect farm in Austin, Texas. Mohammed Ashour is the co-founder and CEO. He officially started the company in 2013 after he and his team won the Hult Prize. It's a college business competition with a hell of an emcee. - From McGill University, Aspire. - And that year, a goal that played right into the UN report. - The simple premise was, who can build a business that in a span of ten years can address food security for 20 million people globally? - Mohammed and his team won by hatching a plan to farm
insectson a grand scale. This place can hatch up to a million crickets a day, that's 100,000 pounds per year. But apparently, that's nothing. - Moving from here, we'll be going to a commercial facility that allows us to do upwards of two orders of magnitude in terms of annual production every single year. - Depending on where you look, Aspire is either a Wonka-esque factory of the...
future, or a muggy storage unit with an infestation. Maybe both. - We do have a very low population of crickets just sort of wandering. - So here's how the farm works. The crickets are hatched from eggs and start out as tiny dots called pinheads. They grow up in this room for about six weeks with help from food and water delivery robots. Once they're nice and big, they go to the harvester. - We load the bins into them, and then they flip them over, and inside the machine, everything gets separated out. - Somehow, the live crickets get sorted from the dead ones, and from the frass, or cricket poop. That gets sold as fertilizer. Mohammed calls this a herding process, but everyone's light on details. - Sounds like some of the most proprietary stuff. - Yeah, that's pretty proprietary, we just... - Yeah. - It happens. (both laugh) - And then it happens. - According to Mohammed, the grease on all these wheels is automation, and they've got a whole R&D lab to tinker with new farming technology. - In our case, that cannot be understated. We focus on what are the steps that are isolatable, repeatable, and are perfectly suited for automated approaches. Automation is going to be crucial in order for us to be able to really do things at scale. - Finally, the harvested crickets are frozen to death. It's a common way to euthanize
insects. So all those thousands of crickets come back as 4.5-pound blocks of protein. The culinary steps happen off-site, but the end...
result is snacks. Whole roasted crickets or protein powder for bars and granola. It's a small step towards a big movement. - I think the challenge that we understood from the very beginning is that we're not just building a company, we're trying to lay out the foundation of an entire industry. - Which is exciting, but that foundation isn't exactly stable. - I'm not even going to approach, no, I'm already too close. (laughing) - So that 2013 UN report? It made waves. American insect startups got popular and the news media fell in love. -
Insectsmay be on our menu. - Bugs for dinner. - Eating
insects. - By 2015, the insect biz was booming and farmers were having a real moment. - Yeah, I fed bugs to the art director from Pulp Fiction, which is kind of my personal, you know, high point. - Kevin Bachhuber was in that new cohort of farmers and it changed his life. But the tidal wave of attention became a blessing and a curse. - We did this thing where we built up all this interest and all this demand and stuff, and production of actual living animals turns out to be a lot slower than production and spread of ideas. People are like, "Okay, I'm ready to try bugs, where can I get them?" And everybody was like, "Well, we're back sold for four months." - It didn't help that the press... was the press. - It's an absolute and utter exhaustion of puns from local news. - In a couple of years, business could well be hopping. -...
Meanwhile, Kevin was learning the hard way that raising livestock of any kind is not easy. - I used to joke that you weren't really a cricket farmer until you had accidentally killed your first 100,000 crickets, and now I think that you're not really a cricket farmer until you've, you know, mourned those, moved on, feel nothing when you accidentally sack out 100,000 at a time. - So over hype plus rocky production plus a lot of bad puns meant that the whole insect boom kind of misfired. Public interest waned, some
companiesfailed. Others make insect products, but outsource the farming. Kevin moved on to consulting, though he still dreams about farming. - It's kind of like a... one of those "when I'm old and retire" kind of fantasies. - But some startups made it through. And on the balance, Kevin thinks the chaos of the past five years was worth it. - We got a little carried away and you know what, sometimes you just get a little carried away and that's okay. - Aspire hung on, and they're still thinking big: robots and huge warehouse farms. But for what it's worth, it's not the only way. - Monica! - Hi, nice meeting you. - Thanks for having us. - This is the final stop on our cricket tour. Don Bugito is a boutique business with a tiny greenhouse farm in Oakland, California. - I see many different kinds of food, I see some Cheerios, I see lettuce, I see carrots. - Crickets are very sensitive, right? They cannot just eat anything....
They're the natural Cheerios, they're not really Cheerios by the way. - Oh, even they get the nice organic. - Yeah, they do actually (laughs) yeah. - It's the work of Monica Martinez who's been at it since 2011. She's actually in that UN report as a case study. She shares Mohammed's insect obsession and she sells very similar cricket snacks. But she tackles it all very differently. Her farm is almost totally free of plastics, it's unheated, and it's lit only by daylight. - So we are the organic, non-GMO. No free range, right, because you don't want your
insectsto be free range. - That would be difficult. - For Monica, none of this is revolutionary. She grew up in Mexico, where
ediblebugs are plentiful and delicious. She remembers her uncle bringing fresh agave worms home and frying them up with butter. - Once you eat it, it's like this... it's like this connection that you get with the plant. It's a really beautiful, kind of umami kind of flavor, too. - When Don Bugito launched, Monica was not a farmer. She bought all her crickets from other
companies, but she couldn't vouch for their quality. - So that's when sometimes we're stressed waking up in the middle of the night thinking, "What'd this cricket eat?" You know, "How do I know these are safe to eat?" There were some farms that were feeding their
insectsfish meal and the
insectswould taste like fish. - The solution was a farm of her...
own. To be clear, this is not enough crickets to run a business. Monica actually buys a lot from Aspire. But as much as she's hoping to grow, she never wants to be Aspire. - One of the opportunities to do
insects, because it's such a new thing, that we can do it differently. I don't want to say it's wrong or right, but, I mean, I would say right, but there's no need to go industrial farming practices with
insects. It seems like that's the easy way... we're doing the harder way. (laughing) - The hard way also means doing all the cooking, and seasoning, and packaging yourself, too. But one perk: free snacks. These two stories, Aspire's and Don Bugito's, they begin the same and they end the same. What happens in between looks and feels pretty different, but both
companiesare on the same quest. They're utterly devoted to their work. - It was sort of a group activity, we all went and got a cricket tattoo together. - They're DIYing equipment, killing thousands of crickets by mistake. - It's been like three times when we're like, "Oh my god,
massacre!" - They're weathering the economy and fickle consumers. - That's pretty gross. - They are plugging along, waiting for the insect boom. The big one. For real this time. - It's actually pretty good. - It's nice, got a good crunch, I like the crunch. - Oh, oh, oh, oh okay, alright. They taste like little corn chips. Okay, that's got a nice...
smokey flavor. - Mm, these are great. (laughs) They're so good. - You can see their eyes. They're like, they look like little crickets 'cause they are.