The insects market is poised to take off. It seems quite possible that insect grub will metamorphose in the next ten to twenty years and emerge as a common sight on the UK’s supermarket shelves. It’s probably only a matter of time before lots of us are eagerly mixing battered crickets into our stir-fries and adding powdered bugs to our risottos.
I’ve been putting out some feelers: according to a new syndicated study by Arcluster, the market for edible insects (such as the fried grasshoppers pictured below) is already quite substantial in many parts of the world and is expected to pick up momentum over the next five years. And, as we will see, things are hotting up in the UK, too.
The value of the worldwide edible insects market is set to reach $1.53 billion in 2021 from an estimated $105.7 million in 2016, says the Arcluster report, in new research into entomophagy (the consumption by humans of insects as food). The highest growth will come from sales of coated edible insects, whilst revenue from packaged, processed and powdered edible insects is set to grow by 3,000% between 2015 and 2021.
For Brits, knowingly eating insects is something typically practised only by more adventurous types, most often when on holiday in the Far East. But in reality, as outlined in this piece in Scientific American, we’re already (often unknowingly) eating substantial amounts of insect protein, notably in food colourings such as cochineal.
Although many people are happy to cook and eat a variety of crustaceans for lunch or dinner, there’s a general consensus that the eating of insects would be a creepy-crawly step too far. And not everyone is happy to eat lobsters, crabs, scampi, prawns and other seafood, of course, either for ethical reasons – see this infographic by PETA, the organisation that campaigns for the ethical treatment of animals – or because they’re squeamish or fearful about health risks. And there’ll be many who will have similar concerns about insects and arthropods.
But a number of sound reasons are put forth for supporting the development of insect food products. Insects can provide a low cost food supply for people in parts of the world where producing or maintaining adequate quantities of protein is difficult or expensive; many are nutritious (though admittedly this is a subject of debate); the farming of insects can offer employment and low cost business opportunities in Third World countries; if we buy such products from these countries, we are making a contribution to assisting in their economic development; and, assuming cultural barriers can be broken down and we swallow our initial revulsion, a whole new and exciting world of culinary adventure awaits …
Of course, this is all very well, but what about the practicalities? In 2013, the $1m Hult Prize, part of the Clinton Global Initiative, was awarded to the Aspire team of entrepreneurial MBA student scientists from McGill University in Canada.
According to this report in the Telegraph, their scheme, recognising that a billion people around the world already eat high-protein grubs, grasshoppers and weevils as part of their daily diet, even convinced arch-vegan Bill Clinton to consider sampling their lime cricket chips. Amongst many practical proposals, Aspire argued that ‘micro-livestock growing kits” should be distributed to poor communities and slum areas.
In that same year, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations published a very detailed report entitled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security“. As well as insects, the publication also examined other arthropod species eaten by Man, including spiders and scorpions, which, taxonomically speaking, are not insects. The report makes a very convincing case for the promotion of entomophagy, based on reasons concerning Health (insects are highly nutritious and already form part of many regional and national diets); the Environment (the farming of insects needs very little land, they give off hardly any greenhouse gases and ammonia, unlike many farm animals – and can be fed on waste); and Livelihoods (mini-farms that raise insects for human consumption could be set up easily, even by the poorest people in the world).
Is there a future for insect foods in Britain? The environmental argument falls down somewhat if insects have to be imported, of course, with all the issues around air travel and fossil fuels. But that’s partly why insect farms are being set up in the UK …
Entovista Insect Farms, based at Thringill in Cumbria, is leading the way in the production of what they refer to as “sustainable protein”, with a mission “To set the standards across Europe for cricket farming for human consumption”. The company utilises grain and vegetables which would not meet the quality controls imposed by supermarkets for direct human consumption, to produce a product range which includes cricket powder, dried crickets, frozen crickets, mealworm powder, dried mealworm and frozen mealworm. Entovista’s website lays out a convincing case. Aside from hailing their products’ attractions in terms of taste, they claim, for instance, that a family of four eating food made with insect protein on one day a week for one year would save the earth 650,000 litres of fresh water per year.
As the climate heats up, new insect species are finding a home in the UK. This is a factor which is being watched with interest by those following the development of the sector.
Other farms are also being developed and the incipient UK industry now has its own association – Woven Network CIC: The UK Network for Insects as Food & Feed – with a growing list of member companies. Similar developments are taking place in the US – see Big Cricket Farms.
Clearly if insect food is to become an accepted constituent of the British diet, a mini- cultural revolution will need to take place. The mass marketing of these products would be quite a challenge. But as a marketeer myself I have great faith in the power of advertising to transform entrenched attitudes and get bug burgers and grasshopper goulash on the nation’s dinner plates.
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Miya’s Crickleberry Brie sushi features farmed crickets rather than seafood or livestock that is farmed in an ecologically destructive manner.
Information: top 50 edible insects – see http://www.ediblebugfarm.com/blog/edible-insects-list/
Fried grasshoppers – by Erinamukuta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Crickleberry sushi – by Robert Bomgardner (Robert Bomgardner) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons