It was a hot and hazy summer afternoon when Andrew Brentano decided to hunt for grasshoppers. He and his wife, Jena, dragged their feet along the grass in her parents’ backyard to get the creatures jumping, and then began capturing them one by one in their cupped hands. In retrospect, he realized they should have waited until evening when the insects were more docile. But they caught about 20 and dropped them into a Tupperware container.
The couple had just quit their jobs in Los Angeles, his designing automated phone systems, and hers managing a small business. They had talked a lot about finding more fulfilling work, something with a positive impact on the planet. They were interested in food security, and came across the idea of eating insects. They were intrigued by the environmental arguments, but first they had to try them. So, they boiled, fried, salted and ate their grasshoppers. “They tasted like little shrimp,” he recalls. “Your first bug is the hardest. After that it’s just food.”
North Americans may find it difficult to see insects as just food, but entomophagy (the consumption of insects by humans) is widely practised in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Insects supplement the diets of approximately two billion people around the world and have always been part of human diets. The idea has gained currency in recent years because of the rising global demand, and prices of food.
Brentano and his wife recruited another partner, software engineer Daniel Imrie‑Situnayake, and began to flesh out what they wanted to do. They considered developing a food product, such as protein bars or tortilla chips made from insect flour, but they quickly realized there was a very short supply of insects approved for human consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration. “So we looked further down the supply chain and we thought, ok, we need more people farming insects. We need to develop more of an industry,” says Brentano. That’s the goal of Tiny Farms, their company, which is dedicated to finding more efficient farming methods for an affordable, sustainable supply of high‑quality insects.
It’s a problem articulated in a widely read document produced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, called Edible Insects: future prospects for food and feed security. While farming insects holds out many green promises, producing far less greenhouse gas, consuming far less fossil fuel and requiring far less water, the scale of current production can’t compete with conventional food and feed sources. One cricket farm in Ontario sells cricket flour online for $40 a pound.
To an event for app designers, Brentano brought baklava made with little caterpillars called waxworms in place of walnuts. In nature, these are parasites that live in honeycomb, and he describes the flavour as honey‑glazed bacon.
Brentano found several farms that grow insects for animal feed, but they weren’t interested in the grocery market. “Their primary markets are built on very high‑margin live insects that you buy to feed your pets. They sell for maybe a couple cents per cricket. If you’re going to be selling for food source you’re going to need to sell for a couple dollars a pound, which is thousands of crickets. So they would lose a lot of money if they undercut their primary market.”
The answer, he figured, lay in developing a large‑scale model for an insect farm with lower costs and higher food quality. They set up an insulated, climate‑controlled bug farm in their garage, raising crickets and mealworms, and also experimented with silkworms, tomato hornworms, and ivory cockroaches. They started testing different habitats, feed formulations and temperature, and are currently developing a low‑cost automation system that can monitor and provide documentation of all rearing practices for regulators. “It’s kind of like doing several master’s degrees at once: entomology, business, agriculture, economics,” says Brentano of his venture. He graduated from UBC in 2010 from the Cognitive Systems Program, a multi‑disciplinary program including courses in computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. He says that degree was invaluable in preparing him to step into new fields.
Along the way, they kept getting emails from people asking how they can grow their own bugs for their chickens or for themselves. So they designed a kit for people who want to grow mealworms, now available online. He applied an idea from software design and made it open source, releasing the schematics of the kit for free and setting up a forum for comments. The project is called Open Bug Farm, an information‑sharing hub for people interested in growing bugs. “The idea of open source is you take an idea, you put it out there and you let a community develop around it,” he says. “Everyone contributes so you get much faster growth.”
Brentano describes mealworms as the “gateway bug,” because they are relatively easy to raise and quite palatable. A dry‑roasted mealworm tastes something like a sunflower seed. To an event for app designers, Brentano brought baklava made with little caterpillars called waxworms in place of walnuts. In nature, these are parasites that live in honeycomb, and he describes the flavour as honey‑glazed bacon. The app designers approved. He’s also tried burgers made from ground silkworms, and many baked goods made from insect flours. “We’re very excited about the potential for caterpillars because they’re large and meaty, so you can use them as a whole food item on a plate.”
Tiny Farms has acted as consultant for several companies developing insect‑growing operations, and Brentano says he is almost ready to move the garage bug farm to a larger facility. “We’re hoping to have a platform available, a ready‑to‑follow model for someone to take and set up their own edible insect farm with all the knowledge about costs and structures that they need.” Insect farming is a great prospect for urban agriculture, because it can be done in small structures.
The exciting part of developing the insect‑for‑food industry, he says, is that lessons can be learned from traditional agriculture. “There’s a lot of practices that are not sustainable that we have an opportunity to avoid. For example the overuse of antibiotics has huge negative implications for human, animal, and environmental health. So that puts the impetus on us as we develop industrial techniques to make sure that disease management does not require mass use of antibiotics.” There are simple measures that can be taken, such as making sure the habitat designs minimize the stress level of insects, for example, and making them modular so that insects can be quarantined very easily in case of a disease outbreak.
Compared with how he felt about his job at the tech company where he designed automated phone systems, (“the product everyone loves to hate,”) Brentano is thrilled with his new work. “We can definitely feel that we’re in the early stages of something that is about to blow up and get huge,” he says. “When we started it was hard to tell people what we were doing without getting grimaces and laughs, but now people often say, “don’t crickets have a ton of protein in them?”
Trek heard about Tiny Farms when Andrew uploaded information about the project to yourevolution.ubc.ca, a purpose‑built website where alumni and other members of the UBC community can publicize the socially beneficial projects in which they are involved.
Eating insects is not “icky.” Get over it.
Mealworms and crickets might not be on your shopping list, but people have been eating insects since Moses. Murray Isman, professor and former dean at the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems, wrote a journal article in 1995 considering why grasshoppers and locusts are deemed kosher in the Book of Leviticus, but not other insects. “I think that people had been eating these for centuries, so the Old Testament writers basically just legitimized it,” he says. “Most of the world seems to know that insects are a really great source of protein. Just not us.”
Isman has studied insects and mass insect breeding for more than 30 years, and has a keen interest in bugs as food. He lists the benefits of producing insects over big warm‑blooded animals: their nutritional value is equal or greater; the ecological footprint per gram of protein is far smaller; and the hygiene issues are easier to address. Our resistance to bugs for dinner isn’t even logical, given what else we eat. “I try to remind people, when they say that eating insects is ‘ick,’ that we eat lobsters and crabs and they are garbage feeders on the bottom of the ocean. In fact, they are just like large insects, so get over it.”
What has helped move the debate forward, he says, is the 2013 publication of Edible Insects: future prospects for feed and food security by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (The report was co‑written by UBC alumna Afton Halloran.) The document has been much cited in the media, and has become the go‑to source of information on insects as food. Another positive development has been a growing industry of insect production for animal and fish feed.
Isman will be working with one such commercial operation: an insect farm in South Surrey called Ofbug, which produces mealworms for organic chicken feed. He hopes to secure a research grant to expand that project. “I think if they have a viable business we can help them scale up, and turn them in the direction of breeding insects for human consumption fairly easily.”
He estimates that it will be two decades before bug cuisine reaches the same ubiquity as sushi. But by then, it will be necessary. “What’s going to happen is that people will realize that the land and grain and water required to produce beef and other livestock is just not sustainable. In 20 years Angus beef will cost what Wagu beef costs today, it will be an absolute luxury like caviar. Sources of food like insects will move into the void left by beef.”
– Marcie Good