Sometimes the obvious solution to a problem is crawling around at our feet.
Roughly 1.6 billion people are malnourished. Simple math tells us that when the global population reaches 9 billion in 2050, that figure will be much higher. With food sourcing already a growing concern throughout the world, there will soon be a lot of hungry people out there. That means a lot of menus are going to have to change. Therein lies the problem.
But Dr. Aaron T. Dossey, founder of the startup All Things Bugs LLC, has a plan. And yes, it involves eating insects.
A Bug Company, Hatched
“My company was one of the first in the US, if not the first, producing insect-based food ingredients,” says Dossey. “It was the first in the western hemisphere selling wholesale, maybe the world.” The chief editor and author of Insects as Sustainable Food Ingredients, Dossey has long championed the notion of dining on creepy-crawlies, with All Things Bugs’ larval stage coming via a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant in 2011. Its subsequent metamorphosis has been guided by funding from the US Department of Agriculture and DARPA—funding that has aided in the development of their patent-pending Griopro cricket powder, a sustainable food that’s rich in protein.
Meanwhile, the industry itself has expanded dramatically, with financial projections putting about $1.18 billion into the market by 2023.
Says Dossey, “Since All Things Bugs started, the industry has grown from three or fewer companies to 30-50 or more in North America at this point, 80 or more in Europe and many in Central/South America and Asia. I am not as familiar with Africa but I am sure there are some there, too. Remember, I am talking about prepared foods and insect-based ingredients. I know whole insects have been eaten all over the world for thousands of years by various human groups.”
Insects as Food: The Cold, Crunchy Facts
According to Dossey, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant was born from the noblest of intentions.
“The announcement for that project was to do something to alleviate malnutrition in children,” he says. “My proposal was to make a food product to treat malnourishment in children using insects as a primary protein source.”
At its most basic level, the idea wasn’t a new one. Over two million people in Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia claim insects as part of their diet. Insects are, after all, high in protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. In other words, they’re pretty darn nutritious.
But Dossey’s research has added a layer of complexity to the whole nutrition aspect. He points out that insects have a low level of saturated fat, good omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, B vitamins… he even throws in gut health as a benefit.
And then there’s the whole “bugs versus livestock” debate…
Bugs vs Livestock: A Sustainability Debate
Cows are much bigger than bugs. This is indisputable. And the space and resources required to raise and maintain livestock dwarfs that required for insects. In fact, insects are remarkably efficient and prolific when it comes to reproduction. Cultivating them requires minimal space, making them ideal for urban environments and vertical farming.
For livestock, nearly 6 kilograms of feed is needed for every 1 kilogram of weight gained. But for edible bugs, such as crickets, this ratio is about 2 kilograms or less for every kilogram increase. When it comes to the bug vs. livestock debate, it isn’t even really a debate from a sustainability perspective.
Biodiversity: Elephant in the Room
In the All Things Bugs’ laboratory, Dossey has developed a wide variety of insect-based products, including pasta, tortillas, puffed snacks (“Think cheese puffs!”), cereals and alternative meats. Without question, these prototypes all point to a diverse range of food options. But what of the issue of biodiversity? If the world were to wholly embrace insects as a food source to feed the human population, how would that impact the biosphere?
Says Dossey, “The elephant (or the massive meteor headed our way) in the room is: Feed what size of the human population? The one we have now? A little less? One growing infinitely/exponentially? Even the most efficient systems we can ever think about have their limits as to how many we can feed.” In other words, although eating insects might seem like a food sourcing panacea, there are no magic bullets for infinite human population growth. “The main goal is to reduce the amount of land and resources used by humans and allow more lands to go back to their natural pre-human states. Using a much more efficient and robust resource like insects is an important part of the solution.”
“Do we have the right to irreversibly alter the entire ecosphere and drive thousands of species to extinction and permanent habitat loss?” says Dossey. “On biodiversity loss, insects are the canary…. no, the 22-year-old Olympic swimmer in the coal mine. If we are losing them, things are really bad.”
Accepting Our Crunchy Future
Dossey and All Things Bugs are not alone in their crusade. A growing number of other startups have embraced edible insects as the future. Among them include Entomo Farms, which is pursuing the clinical and health benefits of insects. Likewise, companies like Bitty, Chapul, and Crunchy Critters are all exploring how to advance edible insects into the mainstream. But is the world ready to embrace worm sausage and taco meat?
“I would say with very little discussion, education and the right presentation (like a prepared product made with insect powder), a majority of Americans are at least open to the idea, if not supportive and see the benefits. Again, I am not talking whole insect or novelty ‘Fear Factor-y’ stuff. Presentation is important.”
Still, Dossey is hedging his bets. After all, there’s more to food sourcing than just the actual food. “We also plan to offer insect feed formulations, consulting and automated insect farming and harvesting/freezing equipment and solutions.”
One Closing Chirp: The Future is Here to Stay
Dossey is optimistic about the acceptance of insect-based food. There’s too much science behind all the reasons why. Say’s Dossey, “I predict that a majority of Americans will have seen at least one insect-based food product in their local environment (grocery, restaurant, gas station, GNC or other health product store, etc.) within the next five years, and within 10 years most major grocery chains will carry a least one insect-based product.”
He adds: “I believe this insect-based food product is here to stay. In 20 years, I believe insects will be a more common food ingredient than quinoa is now and probably on par with whey or soy.”