Farming Edible Insects (Hello, Zero-footprint Protein)

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Protein can be a wee point of contention sometimes. Talk to most about food production and our environment and you are likely to come across the discussion of meat.

As you no doubt know, much of the animal protein we eat produced in Australia is responsible for the use of exorbitant amounts of water, and not-so-great levels of methane emissions.

And then there’s a very big humane argument to be had… 

Dried mealworms - 65% protein and potentially 0% footprint.

Dried mealworms – 65% protein and potentially 0% footprint.

While there are a few solutions rearing their head slowly for this, from plant proteins to small farms raising animals ethically, another is bugs.

With their low space and input requirements, and a few well-known chefs including Kylie Kwong adding the like of crickets and mealworms to their menus, eating insects has become more publicly open for discussion.

One producer who is leading the charge is Skye Blackburn, also known as The Bug Girl.

Skye and Goliath

Skye and Goliath

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Skye's edible scorpion line

Skye’s edible scorpion line

On her property on the outskirts of Sydney, she’s been running a bug farm for seven years, growing the likes of crickets, mealworms, and scorpions among others for human consumption. We got in touch for a chat…

What inspired you to start farming bugs?

I’ve always been interested in creepy crawly things ever since I was little, so when I went to university I studied entomology (bug science). We started our insect farm in 2007, breeding butterflies and making life cycle kits for schools.

But as the business grew we were looking at different kinds of things to do and thought of edible insects.

We just did them for a special event, but because they were so popular we basically had to keep doing them. The business just grew and grew from there, and we’ve been farming edible insects since 2007.

What does the process of bug farming involve?

It involves, as with any kind of animals, a lot of husbandry work, a lot of cleaning – the majority of our work goes into cleaning and feeding – and because I have a degree in food science as well we use that to make up new products that contain edible insects and make sure they comply with the Australian food standards.

What insects do you raise?

We breed crickets, and mealworms, which are the larvae of a darkling beetle. We also breed wood cockroaches, ants, grasshoppers, giant water bugs, scorpions and silkworms.

What inputs are required?

The main things that we feed them are different kinds of organic vegetable and fruit.

We do give them a little bit of grain depending on the insect – mealworms require grain but crickets don’t require any, they can go the whole way on fruits and vegetables.

We normally don’t need to give them any additional water, they get most of what they need from the food that they’re eating.

“In comparison to beef where you need about 4000 L of water to make 200 g of beef, you’d need about 1 mL of water to make the same amount of crickets.”

What are the nutritional benefits of insects?

Roasted crickets are about 60-65 percent protein and if you’re looking at a steak it’s about between 20-28 percent protein so it’s nearly triple the amount.

If you’re looking at a fresh cricket, those are about 13 percent protein so it’s still comparable.

Because the roasted crickets don’t have any moisture left in their body it increases the percentage. So we make insect flour, which doesn’t have all the water in it, and that brings the protein up to 65 percent.

In addition to that they’ve got a lot of micronutrients in them including iron, calcium, a lot of omega 3 and essential fatty acids that help with brain development.

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Skye’s crickets and mealworms on the menu at Billy Kwong in Sydney. Image via Broadsheet

What’s involved in preparing the animals for consumption?

When they get to the appropriate size – we do them in different sizes depending what they’re being used for – we collect them out of the pens they’re in, we purge them for two days and that removes all the food from their stomach, then we freeze them which is the most humane way of killing them before we process them further.

Who buys your product?

We supply to a lot of restaurants around Australia, including Billy Kwong and Stanley St Merchants in Sydney, a few restaurants in Western Australia, and Public in Brisbane.

A lot of places are using insects not as a novelty ingredient but as an actual ingredient in the food, which is fantastic.

We sell a lot through our online shop as well. People from the general public buy a lot of our retail products just so that they can use them in their everyday lives.

We’ve got a few customers that purchase a 500 pack of crickets every week and use that as two meals.

Could insects be raised in an urban environment?

We have a farm so we don’t farm them in an urban setting – we’re in Western Sydney so we have a few acres here.

But you can quite easily farm them in an urban environment – the insect enclosures can be stacked on top of each other.

You can farm hundreds of thousands of them in very limited space.

Is there a humane element in terms of space?

In most of the insects that we farm they don’t actually require a lot of space to complete their life cycles, and in nature they would actually be in quite close quarters to each other so it doesn’t actually affect them in any way.

Of course there are limits and you have to set them yourself to make sure everything is done in the most ethical way possible, and we treat our bugs fantastically throughout their whole lives, and that gives us the best product that you can possibly get because the bugs are happy when they’re alive.

Crickets are a great species to start out if you're looking to grow bugs. Unless you don't like the sound of crickets, that is.

Crickets are a great species to start out if you’re looking to grow edible bugs. Unless you don’t like the sound of crickets, that is.

Are some species easier to raise than others?

Crickets and mealworms would be the best – if you don’t like a lot of noise definitely go for the mealworms.

The crickets as you can imagine are a little bit noisy especially in the warmer weather. The mealworms can’t climb either so they’ll stay in the enclosure you’ve got for them.

And they reproduce quite quickly, and become a harvestable size between four and six weeks so you’re getting a good turnover as well.

Some insects can take a bit longer – with the scorpions it’ll be two or three years before you get a good size with those, while silkworms are about ten weeks.

How would you describe the taste?

The bugs themselves have a really mild flavour to them, so people that are a bit concerned about eating them can try them ground up in insect flour to make cookies, brownies, or banana bread. – so people can still get the nutritional benefits of eating the bug without having to look at the bug.

Then you can build up the courage to try a few whole insects and get the texture aspect of it as well.

Some people can get past it quite easily and for some it’s too far ingrained in their brains that it’s something they shouldn’t be eating and they can’t get past it.

Slowly changing people’s minds is part of our jobs and that’s what we’re doing, we’re slowly educating people and hoping that everyone can learn about edible insects and why they’re so good for the environment.

Favourite bug recipe?

I really like making a muesli. I use honey, some brown sugar and mix them with oats, some mealworms and different kinds of nuts and berries. It’s my favourite and I have it with yoghurt every morning.

Thanks Skye! For more info on Skye’s edible insects visit her at www.bugshop.com.au and to try her products visit www.ediblebugshop.com.au

Have you had a culinary insect experience, or maybe even raised insects at home for food, either for you or your animals? How did you go? We’d love to hear…

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Skye’s mealworm growing operation. Image via Munchies

Interview by Emma Bowen – grower of good things including GreenUpTop + Slowpoke Journal

14 Comments

  1. Posted June 12, 2014 at 6:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m raising meal worms for my chickens to eat, it’s taking a lot longer six weeks to get them to harvestable size, but I’m a newbie and maybe not giving them optimal conditions. I’m a bit squeamish about the thought of eating them myself, but perhaps as a muesli…

  2. Posted June 12, 2014 at 6:15 am | Permalink | Reply

    By the way, the links to Skye’s sites don’t seem to be working

  3. Fay
    Posted June 12, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve tried raising crickets but had the lot die over night. I’ve considered meal worms but I’m severely allergic to all grains. I’ve raised silkworms and, after freezing, we cooked and ate the pupae. They tasted like cashews.
    Could meal worms be raised completely on tubers like sweet potato? (I can’t even breathe a bit of grain dust)
    There’s a permaculture group on the Gold Coast hinterland somewhere who raise guinea pigs and doves for eating.

  4. Posted June 12, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink | Reply

    I was looking at a stall in Beijing (China) and I swear they had a lot of these bugs on a skewer and they were for sale. People were eating them too.
    Leslie

  5. Posted June 12, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on DuRite Aquaponics.

  6. Posted June 15, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on freshfieldgrove and commented:
    I found this post on edible insects fascinating. I am very tempted to get some insect flour as I’m pretty curious to see what it’d be like. But I’m not sure I could handle mealworms in my muesli! FFx

  7. Jess
    Posted June 15, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Just a quick thought for anyone considering this as a humane alternative to more traditional animal-based protein sources – the huge disadvantage with eating insects in terms of reducing animal cruelty is their size. Whereas for beef you may have to kill one cow to produce 1000 portions of meat (not exact, but it’s in that range), as Skye said, these insects might be 250+ a serving.

    As far as we know scientifically, an ability to move away from things that are hurting them indicates the presence of a pain response (I.e. There’s a good chance lobsters feel pain, but oysters and other molluscs don’t). What this means is even if the insects’ short lives are excellent and pain-free, we are effectively taking 250 lives per serving, as opposed to the (theoretical) 1/1000th of a life with say, steak. I’m not trying to dismiss the potential environmental benefits of insects as a food source, and obviously conventional agriculture does potentially kill huge numbers of insects in the production of grains, vegetables etc, but this is something to think about from an ethical perspective. I just can’t, unfortunately, see this as a more ‘humane’ alternative to meat from much larger animals.

    • Posted June 16, 2014 at 5:38 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Jess, good point – to clarify, we meant humane in the context of raising animals humanely… so if there’s a way to raise healthy, happy insects with the requisite great life and one bad day, then that would be a humane food source. Also speaking from a energy footprint point of view, which is important and has perhaps more bearing on what constitutes a humane food supply than anything else.

      If we’re talking humane as is in all killing is inhumane we could argue all the way down to cellular level (fermented veggies are inhumane), or soil food web level (all vegetable production is inhumane)…

  8. The Bee Line
    Posted June 17, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks so much for this post! I love the idea in principal, but am going to have to read a whole lot more articles and see lots more pictures to get over how squeamish it makes me feel. Keep them coming!

  9. Posted June 17, 2014 at 11:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I grew up eating locusts/grasshoppers in Zambia but stopped when I grew up. For some reason, adults do not eat these in my home town. I also ate flying ants and caterpillars which are a delicacy. I stopped eating flying ants at some point but still eat caterpillars, especially the small type. I even used to ask friends and family to bring me caterpillars after I moved overseas.

    Unfortunately, back home people are eating less of these dishes.

  10. Posted June 19, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink | Reply

    This is a very interesting topic. i have been exploring food sustainability options for a while and have some current projects in the works. I’m sort of squeamish when it comes to thinking of eating bugs but I’m the type to never rule anything out without giving it a shot. I think I’ll start with the insect flour though instead of whole insects. Thanks for a great post.

  11. Posted August 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security” is a really well-researched, thorough discussion on entomophagy: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e.pdf

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