‘There’s a bug in my food …’
Edible insects are poised to be the next big thing in sustainable agriculture and Kevin Bachhuber, of Madison-based Bachhuber Consulting, is helping insect farmers get in at the larval stage.
Kevin Bachhuber says he’s fed bugs to people for the first time well over a thousand times at this point in his career, and he’s on a mission to grow the edible insect industry.
Don’t be shocked that those three words — edible insect industry — appear together. People eat a lot of weird things — escargot, caviar, haggis — so eating insects shouldn’t be a stretch.
In fact, whether you realize it or not, you already eat insects regularly, and you have been for most of your life. The FDA’s Defect Levels Handbook details how much parasites, bugs, and other contamination is allowed in your food, which occurs naturally through harvesting, processing, storing, and transporting food.
Maybe that thought makes you shudder, but the FDA sets the limits at levels that pose no threat to your health, according to the handbook. So, enjoy the average of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips (a minute, black-winged insect) and/or mites per 100 grams of broccoli you eat; or average of 225 insect fragments or more per 225 grams of pasta noodles; or average of 30 or more insect fragments per 100 grams of peanut butter; or average of 10 or more fly eggs per 500 grams or five or more fly eggs and one or more maggots per 500 grams or two or more maggots per 500 grams of canned tomatoes. Bon appétit!
What Bachhuber is doing is much more deliberate though than an incidental grasshopper leg in your peanut butter sandwich, and it could have much broader implications in the sustainable food movement.
Bachhuber was first exposed to insects as a food source while traveling to Thailand in 2006.
“In Thailand, I saw bugs in the markets and some of the bars,” says Bachhuber. “Instead of people having peanuts or whatever at the bar, they’d have crickets. I probably tried a dozen different varieties of insects while I was there, everything from crickets to bamboo worms, which are very common, to these giant water beetles that have kind of a melony flavor, to the obligatory scorpion in a suspicious bottle of whiskey. I ate them and they were good, and I felt like it was something we should do in the U.S. However, at the time there was not a lot of agreement on that.”
Bachhuber put the idea on the backburner until 2013, when the United Nations released a detailed, 200-plus-page report on edible insects. A Green Bay native and UW–Stevens Point grad, Bachhuber moved to Youngstown, Ohio and founded what became the U.S.’s first FDA-inspected insect farm, Big Cricket Farms.
Unfortunately, says Bachhuber, when happened to the water supply in Flint, Michigan also happened in Youngstown, and in 2015 he was forced to close down the operation after all of his crickets died. Undeterred, Bachhuber started his consulting operation back in Wisconsin later that same year.
Small(er) scale farming
Bachhuber Consulting works with clients in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — and starting next winter in sub-Saharan Africa — to enable farmers to participate in pioneering the development of insects as a high-efficiency livestock.
Insects can be used to reduce food and feed waste at each step of the supply chain, supplement or replace less efficient animal and plant proteins, provide stable incomes for marginalized and isolated populations, and dramatically reduce the human footprint on our planet, notes the company’s website.
“A cricket farm is going to be smaller in scale [than a traditional livestock farm] because we can raise them in a much higher density,” notes Bachhuber. It’s much more of an indoor process, and facilities can resemble chicken farms — large barns or other converted facilities like abandoned grocery stores that are well ventilated.
“Back in the day everybody started with plastic containers you could buy at home improvement stores, which is just atrocious,” says Bachhuber. “Over time we’ve scaled into bigger and better operational practices. One of my partners in Canada makes a 40-foot shipping container that can grow up to about 660 pounds of crickets a month.”
That alone is more than enough to earn a sustainable income if the farmer sells the crickets for $2 per container, says Bachhuber.
According to Bachhuber, the largest cricket farms in the U.S. are about 75 years old and they’re in the six- to eight-acre range, or about 240,000 square feet of main space. In terms of yield, these farmers can harvest anywhere between two-thirds of a pound of crickets per square foot to eight pounds per square foot.
While he’s a bit skeptical of sustainability claims until the wider edible insect industry has had 20 years to see what kind of unexpected damage emerges from larger, organized operations, Bachhuber says the short-term results are remarkable.
“Insects eat a little bit of everything and they are eaten by just about everything,” explains Bachhuber. “They’re highly digestible and good at digesting. Crickets are generalist, opportunist omnivores like chickens are, which is why they have very similar feed requirements.”
In short, crickets — and other insects raised for food — could be the answer to providing large amounts of sustainable, inexpensive protein to help solve world hunger problems.
That’s not to say, of course, that insects are easier to raise, or that all insects are created equal.
“Crickets are super hard to raise,” notes Bachhuber. “There is way easier stuff, like mealworms. Anything that lives in the substrate is way easier than something than jumps. That being said, something that jumps is easier than something that flies.”
Insects like crickets can also get viruses. There was a particularly serious one that ravaged the American cricket supply from 2009 to 2011 called the cricket paralysis virus, says Bachhuber. “For the stewards of these little buggers, seeing them die of sterilization is not a great way to spend your life. In addition to the huge economic toll that that virus took, it was the emotional toll on a lot of the older farmers that made many of them retire in the early part of this decade.”
Edible insect farming may not yet be mainstream in North America, but there’s ample room for the industry to explode.
“A lot of the reason it hasn’t caught on in America is that there’s no operational capacity for food production,” explains Bachhuber. “In Thailand, for example, it’s a common food and represents a very substantial tonnage every year. There are also 20,000 farms and Thailand is tiny compared to sub-Saharan Africa or the U.S. I’d like to see 10,000 cricket farms [here]. Those kinds of numbers along with supply aggregation could offer the ability to feed people in southern Africa. It’s one of those things that would have been nice if we could have gotten started on in the 1970s instead of now, where it’s like we’re doing kind of a rush job to catch up.”
Bachhuber says the hurdles to starting more edible insect farms in the U.S. have a lot more to do with perception and nerves than having to overcome regulatory obstacles.
“People can start edible insect farms right now,” Bachhuber notes. “It’s all regulatorily cleared. It’s actually been substantially unregulated for a century in the U.S. A lot of time, people are just nervous about first contact with regulators. There are a couple tips and tricks to do it and that’s where our consulting comes in — because people feel nervous about starting something like this on their own, or they’re already mired in a mess and they need somebody to come help.”
So far in Wisconsin, the trend has yet to catch on.
“There are a couple backwoods, 40-year-old single customer-type operations that are really hard to find,” Bachhuber says of Badger State insect farms. “There are a lot of hidden cricket farms nestled through America that supply bait shops, reptile feeders, zoos, things like a sugar glider association. Some of these farms can make $400,000 on the gross every year but you never hear of them because they’re barely registered and there’s not a formalized designation code with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service for cricket farms.”
Still, the edible insect industry is taking off. Consumers can purchase a wide variety of edible insects from websites like the aptly named EdibleInsects.com. There one can peruse a selection ranging from chapulines (Mexican grasshoppers) to Manchurian scorpions to black ants, as well as find things like cricket jerky, toffee coconut mealworms, tequila worm suckers, and a selection of insect powders.
While some of the insect selections have flavors added, often they don’t need any because they bring heir own unique flavor profile.
“Crickets tend more toward a pumpkin or cashew type of flavor,” says Bachhuber. “Corn worms taste like fried green tomatoes, tarantulas apparently taste like soft-shell crab, and then there are a bunch of others that taste like lobster, or honey, or lemon. Chapulines, the traditional Mexican grasshoppers, are even available at Seattle Mariners baseball games.”
Bachhuber notes powder is the easiest way to process insects like crickets. However, he has friends who are currently working on textured insect proteins that are more like meats and he think that’s where the more long-term money on the consumer side of the industry is. “It’s like tofu but made with bugs.
“I’ve fed bugs to people for the first time a thousand times at this point,” Bachhuber continues. “We just haven’t seen it widely in the U.S. yet because presentation matters a lot and so does peer group. You always have the brave person who tries it first and is like, ‘Oh, these are good,’ and then they invite all their friends over to make them try it. It’s fascinating. There’s this strange idea that you’re eating bugs, but then people think about it for a second and they’re like, ‘Sustainability?’ Yeah. ‘Protein?’ Yeah. So, people are a lot more amenable to the idea than they were 10 years ago.”
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