Kevin Bachhuber was enjoying some beers in Phuket, Thailand, in 2007 when he got his first taste. "It was one of those situations where you're in a beautiful beachfront bungalow bar sipping on Chang Beer and watching the craziest soap operas you have ever seen," he recalled during his 2015 TEDxYoungstown talk. "The bartender puts a bowl of munchies down in front of you and without thinking about it you pop one in your mouth — and freeze. What did I just eat?" The answer, of course, was deep fried crickets.
The culinary experience was entirely new to Bachhuber, as it was to most American travelers at the time. But the California resident was intrigued, and more than a little disappointed when he returned home to the United States and realized he couldn't just pick up a bag of roasted insects at his local supermarket. Back in Thailand, eating crickets had been commonplace since at least 1998 when the king established a comprehensive growing program. Small-scale cricket farms were even introduced at primary schools to educate students on the sustainable growing process and to provide additional protein for school lunches [source: Hanboonsong].
But Thailand isn't the only place where insects are routinely found on the menu. Japanese cuisine has integrated insects for centuries, and restaurants today often feature dishes like inago (fried grasshopper) or sangi (fried silk moth pupae). Chinese gourmands might order a plate of boiled water bugs soaked in vinegar, and Brazilian diners might snack on fried ants. Ghanaians often rely on termites as a nutrient-rich snack that can be fried, roasted or ground into baking flour [source: Weiner].
The fact is, about 80 percent of the world's population regularly consumes insects, but the practice has been slow to catch on in the United States. Bachhuber, along with a small number of other entrepreneurs have aimed to change that. And their focus is on crickets [source: Michels].
Why Cricket Farming?
While the practice of eating insects, otherwise known as entomophagy, is a commonplace convention throughout most of the world, Americans are only just beginning to dabble in bug diets. The major shift came in 2013 when the United Nations released a report titled "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security," which made the case for entomophagy's biggest benefits: nutrient density, and environmental, economic and social sustainability [source: Van Huis].
"That really seemed like the right time, right place and right environmental crisis for this particular solution," cricket farmer Bachhuber says. "It started blowing up pretty quickly after that." According to his TEDxYoungstown talk, the U.N. report was downloaded more than a million times in the first 24 hours it was up, making it the most popular document the U.N. has ever produced.
The report made some compelling arguments. Rich in protein, healthy fats, calcium, iron and zinc, many insects are nutritious alternatives to typical sources of animal protein like chicken, beef, fish and pork. The winged invertebrates (the most diverse group of animals on the planet) aren't just healthy for humans; promoted as food, they're healthy for the environment, too. They emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than livestock like cattle, and because they're cold-blooded, they're super-efficient at converting feed into protein. Crickets specifically require 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as chickens and pigs to produce the same amount of protein [source: Van Huis].
"Chickens are the most efficient type of animal protein we raise currently," Bachhuber says, pointing to an April 2017 report published in the Journal of Cleaner Production from Ph.D. student Afton Halloran from the University of Copenhagen. "But even stacked up against broiler chickens, crickets come out ahead, and those aren't even necessarily the most efficient of bugs, so we're doing all right."
According to the U.N. report, harvesting and rearing insects can also boost urban economies, providing low-capital and low-tech investment options for rural communities.
Who Is Leading the Charge?
Bachhuber is one of about 25 cricket farming startup founders in a bug-eating industry that's valued at $20 million [source: Evans]. Seven years after his initial insect-eating adventure in Thailand, he founded Bachhuber Consulting Group, a Youngstown, Ohio company that teaches farmers "successful methods for sustainable cricket farming" [source: BachuberConsulting.com]. Cricket farming isn't an entirely new industry in the U.S.; the insects have been raised for animal feed for almost a century, but Bachhuber Consulting Group is the first insect farm in America to receive Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state licensure for food-grade insects [source: McCausland].
Bachhuber doesn't just believe crickets offer a more energy-efficient alternative to animal and plant proteins; he believes farming the insects provides income for marginalized and isolated populations and reduces the detrimental impact humans have on the planet.
Bachhuber is something of an anomaly in the U.S., according to Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, the co-founder and chief executive officer of another cricket-based startup, Oakland, California's Tiny Farms. "The entire U.S. farmed output of crickets is still fairly small," Imrie-Situnayake said in an interview with the website Future Food 2050. "In order to have a cricket bar next to the checkout of every Safeway in the country, you need a lot more scale and a lot more productivity."
Entrepreneurs Rose Wang and Laura D'Asaro, who work with multiple cricket farms in North America, helped increase mainstream American awareness of cricket consumption when they appeared on the reality TV show "Shark Tank" in early 2017. The duo scored a $100,000 deal with investor Mark Cuban to rev up production of their cricket-based snack product, Chirps [source: Abbott].
"They eat insects all over the world; more people eat insects than speak English," says D'Asaro, who first discovered the practice in college when majoring in African Studies. "I first ate a caterpillar from a street vendor in Tanzania and I was surprised when my first thought was, 'This tastes like lobster.'" She began researching the health and sustainability benefits of entomophagy when she returned to the States, and joined forces with Wang to launch Chirps.
"We work with multiple farms in North America who grow crickets specifically for human consumption," D'Asaro says. "Our cricket farmers are our suppliers and friends in this small industry." Entomo Farms and Aspire Food Group are two of the bigger suppliers D'Asaro and Wang work with, and both companies dispense a considerable amount of entomophagy knowledge on their websites, along with product links for prospective cricket-eating customers. Both produce their own lines of protein powders and roasted snacks averaging about $10 to $15 per quarter pound (113 grams).
The Cricket Farming Process
Bachhuber told his TEDx audience that the crickets reside in three different environments over the course of their seven-week life cycles. "They spend most of their time hanging out on egg cartons we call 'cricket high rises,' he says. "It's kind of a live/eat/work communal space." He says the insects consume a steady diet of organic grain-based feed and assorted fruits and veggies, and the lucky ones reach the breeding stage. "Each mother cricket will lay between 1,000 and 3,000 eggs in her lifetime," he says in his TEDx Talk. "We could be drowning in crickets in short order and that's not a situation I want to be in. And with seven weeks from hatch to harvest, we have to think about this pretty often."
The ideal conditions for cricket farming involve heat, humidity and a good amount of space, since the crickets like to spread out as they mature. "Eighty-five to 95 degrees (29 to 35 degrees Celsius) is a pretty standard temperature range and about 40 percent relative humidity," he says, noting that the process can take about 56 days, but can range according to the conditions. "It's temperature-dependent; so lower temperatures, they'll live longer, higher temperatures they burn hot and die young. They take a good long time to get up to maturity, but once they hit adulthood, the end is nigh and when they start breeding a lot, they maybe have two weeks to go."
When it comes to harvesting the crickets, Bachhuber is adamant that their executions are performed humanely. "You cool them and freeze them," he says. "They have this thing where they just slow down as their temperatures go down and they go into something called diapause, which is like hibernation, but more complete. They don't like to be cold, but it's not stressful." He says he wishes all livestock could be slaughtered in such a humane manner.
What's It Like to Eat Crickets?
In his TEDx talk, Bachhuber says he thinks crickets taste like a mix of cashews and sweet corn, and some people say they're pistachio-like. But a handful of insect adventurers have gone out of their way to take the flavor options up a notch.
"The first time I ate crickets, I had ordered them live from a pet food company," says Daniella Martin, author and host of the insect cooking and travel show, "Girl Meets Bug". "Luckily, these days you can order them from companies who raise them specifically for human consumption, but that wasn't the case several years ago."
Martin is passionate about educating entomophagy newbies on the benefits of bug eating. Her fascination with insect cuisine took root after an anthropological fieldwork trip in Yucatan, Mexico, where she learned about the Mayan inclusion of insects as dietary supplements. To date, she's tried everything from bees and grasshoppers to scorpions and stink bugs. Her first taste of crickets was particularly pleasant. "I sautéed them with butter, salt and onions — my go-to as I'm not all that accomplished a cook," she says. "I was surprised at how mild they were; kind of like nutty shrimp, with the shells and legs left on. I've served them this way to hundreds of people since, all of whom are similarly pleasantly surprised."
While Martin's original recipe has won rave reviews, she's experimented with her cricket creations over the years and says the insect's versatility makes it a great candidate for more adventurous culinary endeavors. "They're good sautéed like shrimp, crisped in the oven, fried or ground up into powder," she says. "I tend to encourage people to try roasting them in the oven. Drizzle them with a little oil and toss them with garlic salt and/or any other spices you like, then spread them on a baking sheet. Bake them at 250 degrees (121 Celsius) for about 15 minutes, watching them closely so they don't burn; they are pretty small, after all. Once crispy, take them out and let them cool. Sprinkle them on salsa, over a salad or simply eat them plain."
Martin actually purchased her first order from a pet food company and has since moved on to more human-focused enterprises. She says anyone can take on the role of part-time farmer. "People can absolutely raise their own crickets," she says. "There are kits you can buy, or you can start with basically just a plastic bin and some egg cartons. Crickets don't require too much work, but they do require attention at certain times of their life/breeding cycle, and there can be occasional troubleshooting. It can be a learning process, just like raising any livestock."
The Future of Cricket Farming
"We want to bring insects mainstream," says entrepreneur D'Asaro. "We call crickets the 'gateway bug' because there are over 2,000 varieties of edible insects being eaten all over the world, all with different tastes and nutritional values." And she's right. Crickets can be used in everything from a protein powder and in cocktail bitters to a meat replacement. As cricket and other insect farming grows and becomes the norm, expect to see insect protein as a regular ingredient in snacks.
For Bachhuber, cricket farming isn't just about cultivating and harvesting an underutilized food source, it's about reimagining the role humans play in the health and sustainability of the planet. "It's worth shifting the conversation around insects for human use and, more generally, biomanufacturing," Bachhuber says. "We're in need of new, non-oil-based solutions, and bugs, mushrooms and non-GMO yeast are becoming really significant. I'm obsessed with the idea of shrinking our agricultural footprint and rewilding the land; it would be great to have great plains actually in the Great Plains. I'd love to see forests where forests should be."
With the continued innovations of entrepreneurs and scientists like Bachhuber, insects and the humans who farm (and eat) them could shift the future for our planet.
Author's Note: How Cricket Farming Works
The prospect of eating crickets may still make many Americans squeamish, but the potential environmental and economic impact of integrating this practice (already hugely popular around the globe) is significant. The experts I interviewed really made it clear that cricket eating, and more broadly, entomophagy, isn't just another Instagrammable food trend; it's a practice that could help preserve our planet, provide agricultural jobs where they're needed and improve our nutritional habits. My adventurous streak isn't quite so adventurous, though. While I encourage curious eaters to go out and experiment, my plate will for now remain cricket-free.
More Great Links
- Abbott, Erica. "Shark Tank: Chirps Accepts Offer from Mark Cuban for $100,000." Business2Community. Jan. 27, 2017 (June 24, 2017). http://www.business2community.com/entertainment/shark-tank-chirps-accepts-offer-mark-cuban-100000-01765992#50wdtiorFHpivtuH.97
- Alternative Protein - Kevin Bachhuber. Video. TEDxYoungstown. Published on Feb. 9, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tq52cQ4R_20 (June 21, 2017).
- Bachhuber Consulting Group. "About Us." http://bachhuberconsulting.com/about-us/ (June 23, 2017).
- Bachhuber, Kevin. Personal interview. June 21, 2017.
- D'Asaro, Laura. Personal correspondence. June 21, 2017.
- Evans, Robert. Bachhuber, Kevin. "I Farm Crickets, The Future Of Human Food: 7 Insane Truths." Cracked. Jan. 27, 2016 (June 20, 2017). http://www.cracked.com/personal-experiences-2118-7-weird-lessons-americas-first-gourmet-cricket-farmer.html
- Gunther, Marc. "U.S. cricket farming scales up." FutureFood 2050. Feb. 18, 2015 (June 22, 2017). http://futurefood2050.com/us-cricket-farming-scales-up/
- Halloran, A, Hanboonsong, Y, Roos, N, Bruun, S. "Life cycle assessment of cricket farming in north-eastern Thailand." Journal of Cleaner Production. Volume #156, Pages 83–94. Jul. 10 2017. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652617307163
- Hanboonsong, Yupa. Jamjanya, Tasanee. Durst, Patrick B. "Six-legged livestock: Edible insect farming, collecting and marketing in Thailand." Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific Bangkok. 2013. (June 24, 2017). http://www.fao.org/docrep/017/i3246e/i3246e.pdf
- Martin, Daniella. Personal correspondence. June 19, 2017.
- Martin, Daniella. "About." Girl Meets Bug (June 25, 2017). http://www.girlmeetsbug.com/
- McCausland, Phil. "How to Breed a Tasty Cricket." The Atlantic. Sept. 24, 2015 (June 24, 2017). https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/09/americas-cricket-farmers/406843/
- Michels, Spencer. "Bugs for Dinner?" PBS NewsHour. May 7, 2012 (June 22, 2017). http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/bugs-for-dinner/
- Pandell, Lexi. "Would You Like Flies With That?" Brink. April 30, 2013 (June 23, 2017). http://brinkmag.org/2013/04/30/bugs/
- Van Huis, Arnold, Van Itterbeeck, Joost, Klunder, Harmke, Mertens, Esther, Halloran, Afton, Muir, Giulia, Vantomme, Paul. "Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security." Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Rome. 2013 (June 22, 2017). http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.pdf
- Weiner, Miriam B. "Countries That Eat Bugs." U.S. News and World Reports. Aug. 11, 2014 (June 23, 2017). http://travel.usnews.com/features/countries_that_eat_bugs