Buzzing: insects could solve our waste crisis
This week in Buzzing:
Organic waste: insects to the rescue
The Q&A: Christian Bärtsch, Essento
Test corner: Cricket granola
Hello everyone, how are things? With post-electoral and lockdown blues, I thought I’d cheer you up this week by talking about organic waste. The UN’s Food & Agriculture Agency (FAO) estimates that one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted every year. This figure is really disheartening because there is no waste in nature. Insects feed on decaying matter and upcycle it into delicious protein for all manner of animals. “It’s nature and it’s been going through 150 million years of R&D”, Keiran Olivares Whitaker, founder of Entocycle, recently told me.
What Entocycle and many others in the sector are trying to do is harness this marvel of natural engineering. This is one of the chief reasons I got interested in the use of insects as food and feed: imagine being able to solve the problem of food waste whilst also reducing reliance on soy, fishmeal, beef, pork and chicken. That’s what insects could do and it blew me away.
Back on Planet Earth, we’re not quite there yet. As mentioned a few weeks back in my post on whether insects are greener than meat, there are strong limitations on what insects can be fed because of the legacy of the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis. In the EU, the only waste they can be fed is pre-consumer waste, and even that can be hard to access for logistical and regulatory reasons.
The International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) ran a survey in 2018 that found that only 37.5% of insect producers used “former foodstuff” – the stuff that you or me might think of as food waste – in their substrate (insect feed). Most used fruit and vegetables and their derived products and cereal raw materials. Almost a third also used commercial feeds.
This makes no sense environmentally and economically, which is why one of IPIFF’s main objectives is to broaden the range of allowed substrates. In countries where there is little or no regulation, insect producers have pushed the boat out. AgriProtein, which is based in South Africa and is one of the most established players in the market, feeds pre- and post-consumer waste to its Black Soldier Fly larvae. Its sister company MultiCycle Technologies feeds its flies high-risk organic materials such as human faecal matter, abattoir waste and manure; the insects are then used for industrial applications. I can hear you recoil in your seat but this is what flies are meant to do.
It makes complete sense to me to use insects’ phenomenal upcycling powers, but it requires something of a reverse engineering approach to what we’re currently doing. Rather than starting with the insect and then trying to work out what to feed it, we should start with the waste, then work out which insect will thrive on that particular waste and how to use the insects afterwards: as food, animal feed, feed for animals that don’t enter the food chain (pets, zoo animals) or industrial applications (chitin is incredibly versatile and can be used in bioplastics, pharmaceuticals, medical dressing, fertilisers etc). This is how Valala Farms in Madagascar is planning its expansion and it is the whole point of the circular economy: you design out waste.
I’ll be starting my own experiment on this very soon when I start growing mealworms: I look forward to seeing my potato peelings and banana skins skip the brown bin and turn into mini protein bars.
The Q&A: Christian Bärtsch, Essento
In 2013, Christian Bärtsch picked up a copy of the FAO’s seminal report on insects as food and feed and decided that his calling would be to add insects to Swiss plates. After various experiments with home-grown kits and cookbooks, Essento finally launched insect burgers and meatballs in 2017. Their products (which now also include protein bars and flavoured insects) are available in 99 shops and 100 restaurants in Switzerland and Germany. Bärtsch and his colleagues helped draft the law to legalise insects as food in Switzerland, as well as an organic standard for edible insects: Essento run the only certified organic insect farm in the world.
Why are there so many insect snacks [protein bars, crackers, flavoured crickets etc] on the market?
When we launched, we were looking at consumer interest. We found that eating insects in the form of burgers appealed to people, which is why we started with that (even though starting off with fresh convenience food was logistically harder). We then worked our way back to snacks. Over the past 10 years, we’ve observed the “snackification” of our food intake: main meals are not having as much value as they used to have. The younger generation are saying: I can have a leafy green salad for lunch and get my protein as snacks.
Setting up a business sounds hard enough without having to write a whole new legislation. Why did you do it?
When we started out, we set up a web shop and the authorities were like: ‘no, no, no, you can eat insects at home but you’re not allowed to trade them’. So we started to engage with them: we set up guidelines and a legal process. It took 18 months but the law passed in 2017. When you’re passionate about something and you know that it’s only by working with officials that you can achieve it, then you do it.
Everyone was saying ‘you’re stupid: you will need 10 years and millions to achieve it, and then when the law passes, you won’t have products in the supermarket yet’. So everyone was really surprised that we were able to pass the law and were quickly stocked by the biggest retailer in Switzerland.
Detractors argue that if edible insects were really taking off, we should be able to find insect burgers everywhere by now, just like you can with plant-based burgers like Beyond Meat or Impossible. What do you make of these arguments?
Plant-based companies are reaping the benefits of all the work done by vegetarian and vegan pioneers over the past 30 years. People think Beyond Meat and Impossible have just appeared but that’s not true. The insect sector will go through the same process. We’re still setting up the legal system in many cases… Also, look at how much PR is behind Beyond Meat and Impossible. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it needs to be taken into account. We’re doing a lot of work on consumer education in Switzerland and Germany and that takes time. We have seen a big shift in perception: people view insects more as a food now, and not just a novelty.
Test corner: Cricket granola
This week, I made cricket granola. We’ve been making granola at home for a while, so adding insects felt like a natural extension. It worked a treat. I suppose anything smothered in maple syrup and coconut oil, then slowly baked in the oven to a perfect crunch, will taste delicious. But I’ve not always seen eye to eye with crickets, so I’m happy to report that this really brought out the best in them: they taste like sweet toasted almonds. Yum!
I used whole crickets for the recipe, which as you can see from the picture, obviously look like crickets. You may want to blitz them instead: the nutritional outcome will be the same, it just won’t look like a bunch of crickets landed in your cereals (which made me reflect on the fact that it doesn’t bother me: I have come a long way).
The recipe below is what I used but it is endelessly customisable, so do play around with it.
200g rolled oats
20g crickets (I may increase it to 30g next time)
100g flaked almonds
50g pumpking seeds
50g sunflower seeds
130g maple syrup
100g coconut oil
1 pinch of salt
Melt the coconut oil, stir in the maple syrup, then add all the dry ingredients; spread into a baking dish and bake for 20-25 min at a low temperature (150-160C). Stir half way through to ensure it cooks evenly. Store in an air-tight container.
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. My funky cricket avatar was designed by Sheila Lukeni.