Buzzing: Five things I learnt at IFW
How are you all? I am sorry this newsletter comes a little late but I didn’t have a minute to spare last week. Insects to Feed the World (IFW) in Québec City was intense: nearly 600 delegates from 58 countries (although sadly many people from Asia and Africa couldn’t make it because of Covid restrictions and visa issues) and a programme packed with inspiring keynotes and cool science (some of which I must confess went over my head). Oh and plenty of bugs to eat too (see Test Corner). Without further ado, let’s dive in.
This week in Buzzing:
Five things I learnt at IFW
In Other News: IFW IS the news!
Test Corner: Goodies from IFW
I believe that insect protein is part of the answer to more sustainable food systems; this is why this newsletter is free to read. It is not free to produce however so if you’ve enjoyed reading it, please support me on ko-fi.
I have learnt so much over the past week; it is hard to boil it down but as things decant, let me start with five initial thoughts.
There is growing interest from developing countries
The first insect projects I ever visited were in Madagascar (Sakondry and Valala Farms); this is where I learnt about the greater insect movement and the emerging industry in the western world. It was the quirky nature of the sector that piqued my curiosity – we don’t eat bugs in the west and yet here are actual insect farms! – but it is thrilling to see that developing countries are jumping on the bandwagon. Although edible insects are part of the diets of many cultures, insects are usually foraged and seasonal. Farming offers the potential to make insects available year-round and to do so more sustainably. So it was really exciting to see presentations from Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Guinea and South Africa.
It takes all sorts
I have already written quite a lot about what insects taste like and why it’s OK to not like all insects. This week really cemented these ideas but also the need to communicate it to make it more approachable for people. A straw poll at dinner one evening revealed that everyone had a different favourite insect and that most people had tasted something they had not liked at the conference. There were also many animated discussions about whether pushing visible whole insects in food risked alienating less adventurous eaters.
There is room for both, but market developments will have to be market-specific. I attended a couple of presentations that showed clear differences in consumer preferences between European countries and another one that talked about taste preferences of Australian consumers. It also seems obvious to me that consumers in markets where insects are already widely consumed will have different expectations from western bug novices (I remember David Allan of Spectrum once telling me that consumers in Myanmar found farmed crickets puny compared to the ones that were harvested locally).
We need more data
This was Sergiy Smetana’s call to arms. Sergiy, who works at the German Institute of Food Technologies, presented a brilliant keynote on the environmental impact of insect production for food and feed, which highlighted just how complex the debate on sustainability is (and also the risks of greenwashing it brings with it). Although there is an increasing number of companies carrying out Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of their operations, Sergiy said that we needed many more to be able to measure accurately the sector’s impact – and also its progress. If you’re interested, he’s developed an LCA and cost calculation tool as part of his work with Susinchain; you can play with it here.
Everyone needs to chill about IP
This was a key message from Aspire’s CEO Mohammed Ashour’s keynote presentation. His argument is that for all the IP, patents and secrecy, what gives a company its USP is in fact quite a small set of attributes and that the sector would benefit significantly from more open collaboration. I felt the room stiffen at the prospect of not protecting the proprietary systems they’d spent the last five years developing.
At the same time, I heard many lambast privately the European Novel Food system, which has put so much emphasis on onerous dossiers and embedded the notion that insect products and technologies should somehow be protected. Given how much the dossiers cost (around €80,000 per application – although I have heard figures as high as €1 million), I sympathise, but it has created an unhelpful precedent. I really do believe the rising tide will lift all boats: the market needs thousands, not dozens, of insect producers, and the quicker the better.
Everyone thinks their way is the RIGHT way
One thing that made me smile is that every person I spoke to is convinced they’ve found the best system for insect farming: large-scale or decentralised/modular facilities, vertical or horizontal, using commercial animal feed or pre-consumer waste, producing food or feed, they’re right and just you wait until their competitors realise the numbers don’t add up, they run out of low-value substrate, they are hit by a virus or consumers show their true colours. Honestly, I have heard anything and everything. I admire their conviction but see point above: we’ll need it all.
In Other News
The highlight of the conference was without a doubt meeting so many of you Buzzing subscribers, but also to meet many of the people I have interviewed on Zoom for the past 2.5 years. Québec City itself was another highlight – Francophone, beautiful and vibrant, a winning combination 😊
Test Corner: IFW insect food
Well, as expected, there were a lot of insect dishes to try. I enjoyed most of them, especially anything with ants (the tomato and mozzarella amuse-bouche was amazing, as were the macaroons), although I have concluded that I don’t like chapulínes (Mexican grasshoppers). Too green/grassy for my liking.
Most cricket things were fine, although some of the crickets I tried were more crickety than others and my philosophy with crickets is that less is more. The cricket beer was fascinating: I am not much of a beer drinker but I could definitely taste the crickets and I can’t wait to hear what my husband makes of it (as well as a being a good craft beer, Brasserie La Korrigane has also packaged it in a beautiful bottle, which made for a nice present).
I liked pretty much everything with mealworms and tried superworms for the first time (basically a super-sized, and super-tasty, mealworm). Sal de gusano was used as a spice on many things including guacamole, salads and more, all of which I liked.
On the finished product front, there were mealworm biscuits and croutons, cricket bread, cricket cheese puffs, flavoured whole mealworms/crickets/chapulínes.
It was really fun sampling so many different products; it shows just how versatile insects can be. I can’t wait to get cooking again and draw inspiration from what I tried.