Buzzing: Insects cost a packet
Hello friends, how are you? I’m delighted to report that Eat Crawlers, a New Zealand-based edible insect company and Buzzing subscriber, have adopted my mango cricket smoothie recipe from last edition. Have you made one?
This week in Buzzing:
How much for a kilo of crickets? (Answer: too much)
The Q&A: Amy Franklin, Farms for Orphans
Test Corner: Green ant marmalade
There is no sugar-coating it: insects are expensive. This became quickly obvious to me when I started buying insect products. One kilogram of cricket powder costs around £50 in the UK and $80 in North America. You could get a couple of organic chickens and some fancy seafood for that money and still have change to spare. (I’m not even talking about the pulses – just think of all the chickpeas!)
Interestingly, this is also true in the animal feed segment. In its latest insect protein report, Rabobank, a Dutch bank specialising in agribusiness, found that the price of insect protein currently ranges from €3,500 to €5,500 per metric ton, which is significantly higher than fishmeal or soy (the proteins it seeks to replace in animal feed). Fishmeal costs $1,200-2,000 per ton, soy much less than that.
The reasons for this are simple: limited scale and high costs. There just aren’t that many insect farms yet, period. Just to put it in perspective, insect protein production is around 10,000 tons per year; meat production is 340 million tons, animal feed 1.2 billion tons. Small batch production is more expensive than large industrial scale. Rabobank does expect the price of insect protein to come down by 2030 however, once the market has scaled up and matured.
Regulatory constraints also incur high costs: the list of authorised substrates (the feed for the insects) is currently very restricted, which means many insect farms resort to commercial animal feed. Expanding the list of substrates to include lower value feedstocks such as consumer waste could bring costs down substantially.
Rabobank noted that the nutritional benefits of insect protein for fish are now well-documented, but that this benefit alone wouldn’t be enough to justify the price premium. Luckily, new functional properties are coming to the fore, such as insects’ palatability to fish (which increases their appetite) and their positive impact on gut health.
To me, this doesn’t bode well for the food segment. If the multi-billion dollar aquafeed sector balks at the price of a product with proven benefits, what hope is there for a market where most people’s reaction is: “you’d have to pay me to eat insects”?
I am convinced we will eventually get over the yuck factor, especially with the development of powders and insect ingredients. As for how we deal with the price premium, the way I look at it is the same way I look at meat: something I only buy occasionally and can therefore afford to spend a little more on to get higher welfare.
I have no doubt the price will come down eventually. I’m also intrigued to see how much I’ll be able to get from my own mealworm-growing kit, which is genuinely low-cost. I am very excited to report that I have plenty of larvae, although everything is taking a lot longer than I thought because our kitchen is cold. With a few tweaks and a little more experience under my belt however, I could definitely increase productivity. So here’s to economies of scale and experience.
The Q&A: Amy Franklin, founder and CEO of Farms for Orphans
Amy Franklin says that adoption was always part of her life plan. After a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to work on mountain gorilla conservation, Amy, who is a vet, decided to adopt two children from DRC. When they arrived in the US, her children, who were 2.5 years old and 13 months at the time, were so small for their age that they didn’t make it on American growth charts (happily they are now both in the 90th percentile). Amy said that it got her thinking about how she could address malnutrition in orphanages. As a vet, her focus was on raising protein: chickens, goats, the usual backyard livestock. But orphanages in the capital city Kinshasa don’t have any land where they can rear animals. Then someone mentioned edible insects in DRC... Four years on, Farms for Orphans now trains orphanages to farm palm weevils, which they can consume themselves and/or sell for income.
How did you make the jump from the idea of farming chickens and goats to farming insects?
It’s funny because when I went to vet school, insect medicine wasn’t on my radar at all. I didn’t know anything about insects as food. But it felt like a really good way for orphanages to grow their own food. It is culturally acceptable, we are not introducing a brand new food. It is suitable for dense urban areas because we’re using vertical farming systems [crates stacked up in shelving units]. What I also really appreciated is that they are nutrient dense, and they have a high market value: they’re more expensive than other types of protein so orphanages could sell them and buy a lot of other food.
Also, all insects available in the markets in DRC are wild harvested and that’s not sustainable. There is very little regulation and over-harvesting is a problem, farming insects therefore makes a lot of sense.
How has it gone on the ground?
When we first raised the idea of farming insects, people at the orphanages thought we were crazy. They were so used to the fact that you just harvested them in the wild that they had never thought about farming as a concept. They were like: “What? You can farm them?!” But they were willing to try it; we’ve never had to talk anybody into it.
We have trained five orphanages and we have a research farm too. Our main challenge has been to get the orphanages’ insect farms to a point where they keep a breeding stock of weevils so that they are self-sufficient. We provide the initial stock of larvae, which they must then feed and allow to pupate into adults, but in many cases, they eat all the larvae before they get to that stage.
What’s next for Farms for Orphans?
With the pandemic, we haven’t been able to train any new orphanages, so we hope we can resume that in 2021. But we’d also like to focus on young people: 70% of young people in DRC are unemployed, so we’d like to train them to become insect farmers and set up cooperatives. I really see insect farming taking off in Africa.
Test Corner: Green Ant Marmalade
Test corner this month is a really special one because it was brought to me by a friend and early Buzzing subscriber Sarah Johnstone. Sarah is based in Australia where green ants are having a moment, thanks in part to the launch of Green Ant Gin. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a bottle of the stuff but the pandemic and Brexit means procuring alcohol in the antipodes is near impossible at the moment. In the mean time however, Sarah managed to tackle both Covid19 and Brexit customs chaos to send me two jars of Australian Native Food Company’s Green Ant Marmalade. I can’t tell you how excited I was to receive them.
Ants contain formic acid, which make them delightfully zingy; depending on the species, their flavour can range from kaffir lime to lemongrass, lemon sherbet or lime. Marmalade therefore seems like a natural fit for ants. I was concerned that the lemons in the recipe would overwhelm their flavour but when I tried the marmalade on its own, I definitely detected bitter limey notes, which would be the ants rather than the lemons. That made me think it would be perfectly paired with olive oil on my morning toast. You can see the result above – it was amazing. I also had one with butter but the olive oil + green ant marmalade was hands down the best combo. Thank you Sarah for such a Buzzing discovery. 💚
Hi, I’m Emilie Filou, a freelance journalist. I specialise in business and sustainability issues and have a long-standing interest in Africa. If you liked Buzzing, please share with friends and colleagues, or buy me a coffee. The artwork in Buzzing was designed by Sheila Lukeni.