Buzzing: A Down Under special
Dear Buzzing readers, we’re off to Australia and New Zealand this week. Both countries have a special place in my heart since I spent the best part of my gap year there in (ahem) 2003. They also happen to be doing things their own way when it comes to insects, so Buzzing had to investigate.
It’s also an opportunity for me to thank three Australian/New Zealand friends, who were early subscribers of Buzzing and have done much to publicise the newsletter, make introductions and generally bang the drum: David Allan, Conrad Heine and Sarah Johnstone, thank you.
This week in Buzzing:
Indigenous foods pave the way for future foods
The Q&A: Olympia Yarger, Goterra
Test Corner: Anzac biscuits
Despite spending nine months in Australia and New Zealand and learning a lot about Aboriginal and Maori cultures, indigenous edible insects pretty much passed me by in 2003. I did hear of Witchetty Grubs (a moth larvae) in Australia but to my shame, I thought they belonged to the world of bush tucker trials, not that of revered native food. And I somehow missed Huhu Grubs (a beetle larvae) entirely.
When I started looking at the use of insects as food and feed a couple of years ago however, they were one of the first things that came to mind. I wondered what the existence of well-established edible insect species would mean for this emerging sector in these “western” markets.
Having spoken to a few people, my tentative conclusion, reached from the other side of the globe, is that it has made a difference, but maybe not as much I thought. As Olympia Yarger, CEO of Goterra and chair of the Insect Protein Association of Australia, mentions in the Q&A below, there is a great revival in Aboriginal food at the moment, and that has included insects to a certain extent, especially green ants. The fact that they’re distilled in gin has surely helped...
By and large, insects as food remain a niche product. They’re mostly available directly from suppliers such as Circle Harvest in Australia or Eat Crawlers in New Zealand, where you’ll find whole or powdered insects as well as products such as cricket corn chips or cricket pasta.
Barriers to acceptance seem to be much the same Down Under as they are in Europe and North America, namely disgust and price. Shaun Eisler, founder of Buggy Bix, an Australian company that makes insect-based dog treats, says that 30% of the consumers he surveyed in his initial market research said they wouldn’t eat insects, and therefore wouldn’t feed them to their dogs.
Over in New Zealand, Louise Burnie of Eat Crawlers says that the relative high cost of insect products (their lightly seasoned or chocolate-covered insects cost around NZ$11.99 for 5-20g packets) makes them more suitable as gifts than mainstream protein alternatives, especially in light of competition from much cheaper products such as hemp powder. Burnie says there is an appetite to learn however: Eat Crawlers sell popular educational packs and Burnie herself has started doing school talks.
The fact that insects have been eaten in Australia and New Zealand for centuries (millennia in the case of Australia) may also have played a small part in the countries’ progressive regulatory stance on insects as food and feed. In Europe and the UK, insects are regulated as Novel Foods. The label says a lot about the authorities’ perception, and it comes with a raft of regulatory obstacles. In Australia and New Zealand, insects as food are regulated by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which has decided to assess them much like any other foods, on grounds of safety, hygiene, biosecurity etc. Yarger says that this approach generally reflects Australia’s “pragmatic” approach to regulation, but that its indigenous food heritage also played a part.
Whatever the motivations, the supportive regulatory framework will facilitate the development of the sector. A report published last year by AgriFutures noted that it had ambitions to reach an annual turnover of A$10 million within the next five years. I expect plenty of green ant goodies, insect products in supermarket shelves and widespread use of insects in animal feed next time I visit.
The Q&A: Olympia Yarger, Founder & CEO, Goterra
Olympia Yarger was a farmer (she still is at heart – there are new-born kids snoozing by her fireplace during our call). Like most farmers, she struggled with how to get the cheapest feed with the best returns for her animals. But while all farmers do their research, Yarger actually got down to business. Goterra, named after the “got” in “maggot” and “erra” from her beloved Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is her high-tech answer: Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae, or maggot as she likes to call them (“I think larvae is pretentious”), in robot-run containers that turn post-consumer food waste into animal feed and fertiliser. The system is decentralised, modular and mobile. Some of her units are currently deployed at a waste treatment plant in Canberra, another at the high-end Barangaroo development in Sydney (something I’d briefly touched on back in December).
I came across Goterra because you farm BSF but you describe yourself as a waste management structure. Why is that?
I look at insects as a means to deliver a service model and I see my protein as a commodity not a product; it is a value add, not the true value or core business of what we do. Insects are the vehicle by which we create circularity. That’s how we ended up with maggots in a box and it’s how we think about growing and scaling.
There will always be waste but it will be different from now. Insects are agnostic in their preference. They will consume what’s there. Our goal is to continue walking down the food chain and understand what waste will be available in 10 years: effluents, biosolids and really difficult stuff that everyone is scared of. That’s why we think insects are an enduring solution. And it won’t just be BSF: there are so many insects we could utilise.
Has the recent interest in insects as food and feed led to a revival of Aboriginal insect foods?
In Australia, there is an iconography that surrounds Witchetty Grub. Everybody knows what they are, although not everyone has eaten one. They are delicious. The green ants are definitely having a moment too: there is green ant gin, green ant cheese... But farming grubs can be hard and there are only a couple of places where you can forage green ants, so I think there is an issue of accessibility for these native foods.
But Australia is a foody nation; we are fairly brave when it comes to trying new things and we are interested in seeing notes of our heritage in our food. You can see it through the revival of bush ingredients such as myrtle, pepper berries etc.
How is the sector going to evolve?
The insect sector is incredibly narrow at the moment: there are basically only three species of insects (BSF, crickets and mealworms) and one type of substrate (pre-consumer waste) people will look at. It’s understandable given how new the industry is: the sector has had to learn to domesticate, rear, design technology, process and market insects into desirable food. But the industry will have to adapt: to climate change, to new business models (we can’t just replicate the model of the centralised, capital intensive farm), new insect species and new products. Dehydrated crickets should be a crime! We need to woo customers better.
Test Corner: Anzac biscuits
Green Ant Gin, Witchetty Grubs and Huhu Grubs all being out of reach for pandemic reasons, I decided to make the most Down Under recipe I could think of: Anzac biscuits. The biscuits are associated with the Australian and New Zealand corps who fought during World War I and they’re particularly popular on Anzac Day (25 April), the national Remembrance Day in Australia and New Zealand.
For the most authentic recipe, I went to the food bible that is the Australian Women’s Weekly Food. The only deviation I made was to substitute 30g of the brown sugar for 30g of my trusted cricket powder. The result was to die for: irresistibly gooey and morish, especially when dunked in coffee (don’t judge me). Everyone loved them, including a friend who didn’t think she’d ever be able to eat something made with insects. “OMG, I love eating crickets! You have converted me!” she texted. Buzzing has peaked.
Here is the recipe:
2 tbsp golden syrup
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
2 tbsp boiling water
90g rolled oats (see tips)
150g plain flour
190g firmly packed brown sugar
60g desiccated coconut
30g cricket powder
Preheat oven to 180°C. Melt butter and syrup in a pan; stir in combined soda and the water, then remaining ingredients.
Roll level tablespoons of mixture into balls; place 5cm apart on lined trays, then flatten slightly. Bake for 12 minutes or until golden.