This guest blog post is by TEDMED 2015 speaker Shobhita Soor, a founding member of the Aspire Food Group.
At Aspire, we often get inquiries about how to start and scale up insect farms. The truth is, starting up a never-been-created-before edible insect farm is an exciting but challenging task. There is so much research to do, and so many unknowns around scaling up farming of the insects, the market’s response to your product and price point, and packaging possibilities. At Aspire, we faced these hurdles as well as the adjustments to living in a new country!
The crucial first step is to have an insect to market match. When choosing which insect to farm, our most basic question is: “Do people eat this already?” or “Will people even considering eating this?”. In Central and Southern Ghana, for example, the palm weevil larva is already consumed in a harvested form. Since the farmed version is almost identical but safer, we were sure it would be acceptable to consumers. In that case, an interesting nuance that we had to pull apart was whether buyers would be willing to pay for an otherwise harvested (and free!) product. We found that, since the supply in the wild had decreased due to increased use of pesticide in palm plantations, there was a strong desire for a steady supply of palm weevil larva. In the United States, however, it was a bit trickier. We had to look at analogous products and do some market testing to know whether segments in the American food market were ready for cricket powder and roasted crickets.
Once we have an insect that people are actually excited to eat (and willing to pay for!), we want to make sure that the insect species is amenable to large-scale farming in a cost-efficient manner. This can be a long process–we look at other existing edible insect farms, traditional livestock rearing, and methods with which to make this more efficient by collecting a lot of data on our farms. Early on, we also consider how to process and package insects. Since edible insects have often been harvested and eaten shortly thereafter, we find innovative ways of processing and packaging insects, so that they are not only attractive to the consumer but also safe for consumption.
The nutritional profile of the insect in question is also tantamount to our choice of insect – our goal is to choose an insect that matches the nutrition needs of the market. Take palm weevil larva, for instance – it’s rich in essential fatty acid and protein making. That means it’s well-positioned to address the problems of child stunting; it’s also high in zinc, which aids in preventing diarrhea. In the United States, we aim to farm crickets as a lean source of protein that is also resource-efficient. Our goal is to displace traditional sources of protein (that can wreak havoc on the environment) with alternatives that are healthy for our planet. Currently, there is little data on the resource consumption of edible insect production, and this is something that we try to consistently measure.
These are just a few of the considerations we take into account when starting up an insect farm ¬– yet another important factor is the political and economic climate of the country in question. Changing food culture is complex, as people’s food traditions tend to be strong traditions. That said, in the Western world, we’ve begun to see culture shift where insect consumption is becoming more popular. From cricket flour in consumer packaged goods to whole insects showing up on restaurant menus, people are beginning to embrace insects as a part of their normal diet. We’re so excited to see how these nutritious and sustainable sources of protein will improve our health, and the health of our planet. This is just the beginning!