Mohammed Ashour has an idea he is certain will help the world’s millions of impoverished, ill-nourished slum dwellers. It’s simple: Feed them bugs.
No, that’s not the punch line of a South Park skit. It’s a surprisingly plausible idea. Turns out many insects are full of protein and other nutrients and are perfectly safe to eat. Billions of people all over the world, especially in poor countries, already eat crawling critters, from beetles to caterpillars, on a regular basis.
In recent years, those facts have caught the attention of researchers, activists, and policy makers concerned about how the world will feed a population that’s projected to hit 9 billion by 2050. A major United Nations study released last year called for promoting the consumption of insects. The first academic conference on the subject was held in May.
Ashour and his partners in Aspire, a two-year-old social enterprise based in Toronto, are looking to make insects into the next big agribusiness. They aim to breed crickets and other arthropods on factory farms (try getting your head around that, PETA) and distributing them on a massive scale in developing nations. The project got a major boost last year when it won the $1 million Hult Prize, an award given in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative to support start-up companies aimed at fixing major social problems.
Ashour, an MBA student at McGill University, first heard about the notion of bugs as a food source a few years ago. “I thought it was disgusting and insulting,” he says. “Feed poor people insects? But then I did some research and saw that all my assumptions were wrong.”
According to the study, produced by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 1,900 species of insects are eaten at least occasionally by some 2 billion people each year. Beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants are the most popular; termites and flies also make the list.
“In addition to being high in protein, many edible insect species are also high in essential fatty acids, particularly omega-3s,” enthuses entomophagous (bug-eating, that is) blogger Daniella Martin in her recently published book, Edible: An Adventure Into the World of Eating Insects and the Last Great Hope to Save the Planet. “Many insects, such as crickets, grasshoppers, ants, and certain caterpillars, are exceedingly high in calcium. Soldier fly larvae, used for processing compost, are off the charts in this nutrient.” Raising bugs is also much easier on the environment than rearing other kinds of livestock. Insects typically convert food into protein more efficiently than cows or pigs and require far less land and water.
Rather than trying to get Americans excited about chowing down on a bowl of caterpillars, Aspire is targeting places where bugs are already a standard snack. Grasshoppers, for instance, are popular in many parts of Mexico, where Aspire is setting up a pilot project. But they’re only available seasonally, for a few months each year, which makes them relatively expensive. “We’re aiming at people making between three and five dollars a day,” says Ashour. “Those people typically spend half their income on food. They tend to eat a lot of carbs and fats because that’s all they can afford. Insects have lots of protein and other micronutrients those people need. And it’s a source they already enjoy.”
Ashour says the company has secured a 5,000-square-foot industrial facility in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which it expects to bring online in the coming months. It will produce hundreds of kilograms of grasshoppers every month, year-round, and also process them into powder that can be used to fortify flour or other foods. Eventually Aspire aims to sell refrigerator-size grasshopper breeding units to farmers looking for an extra source of income. The company is also launching a project in Ghana, using small bucket-like incubators to breed palm weevils, a local delicacy. A few insect-breeding operations exist in Thailand, Laos, and other countries, but nothing on a major scale. As Ashour points out, there’s little competition for the slum-dweller market.
With some marketing work to “remove the ‘ick’ factor,” as Ashour puts it, he hopes to get Americans eating arthropods as well. A bit of an insect-eating fad is already taking hold here. Typhoon, an upscale restaurant in Santa Monica, Calif., is one of at least a handful of chic establishments serving bug-based dishes, including fried water beetles and scorpions on shrimp toast. A just-launched Ohio-based outfit, Big Cricket Farms, is teaming with a start-up in Boston, Six Foods, to market chips made from rice, beans, and pulverized crickets. Meanwhile, a California nutritionist is pushing BugMuscle, a protein powder made of ground-up insects.
“We think it’s going to be massive,” says Ashour. (His personal favorite: roasted chile-and-lime-flavored grasshoppers.)
The history of do-gooder projects, however, is full of ideas that sound great but crash and burn once they hit the confusing, complicated ground of developing countries. Aspire has had to rejigger its business plan already; it initially aimed to sell insect-enriched flour but found there just weren’t enough insects on the market. So it switched its focus to producing the bugs themselves. Even so, there are no guarantees that Aspire’s farmed insects won’t turn out to be too expensive for the low-income market it’s targeting, or that its potential customers will decide they only like bugs as seasonal treats.
But who knows? It might fly.