The idea of eating insects is disgusting to many people, but the environmental argument is a strong one. File picture: Wolfgang Rattay

London - Could you describe the taste of roasted crickets? Grasshoppers? Mealworms?

“They are meaty and crunchy and have a prawny, bacony flavour when roasted,” says Neil Whippey, of Grub, describing the sensation of eating cricket. “They aren’t squishy and horrible.”

Whippey is one of a handful of UK “entopreneurs”, building businesses around entomophagy - human consumption of creepy-crawlies. As an insect-farmer and distributor, he’s vying for a share of a European market predicted to be worth €65 million ($73 million) by 2020, according to analysis by New Nutrition Business, a consultancy.

Whippey and his business partner Shami Radia launched Grub in 2014 to sell a range of edible insects to British customers, focusing on flavour rather than novelty.

“We want to be the anti-I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here,” says Whippey, singling out a reality TV show that portrays eating insects as a challenge to be overcome.

“People should take them seriously as a food source that’s tasty, nutritious and sustainable.”

Having relied on bugs imported from Europe, Grub is now building an insect farm in Cumbria to create a local supply of cricket flour. The breeding, culling and processing techniques are currently being honed with around 300kg of crickets.

More mouths to feed

The environmental argument for eating insects is a powerful one.

“We’re at the limit of what the planet can sustain in terms of food production,” says Adam Routledge, founder of Edible Bug Farm, another British “entoprise” dabbling with breeding bugs – in this case mealworms – destined for the table. “We use 70 percent of agricultural land and water for livestock production.”

Routledge cites a report released by the United Nations in 2013, which urged governments and food agencies to consider insects as a way to feed the world’s growing population. “It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people [...] we need to find new ways of growing food,” said the report, highlighting insects as a high protein, sustainable food source with “huge potential”.

Insects don’t need as much space as animals, aren’t fussy eaters, emit fewer greenhouse gases and convert food much more efficiently: a single kilogram of feed yields 12 times more edible cricket protein than beef protein.

The ‘ick factor’

While Western palates have traditionally been squeamish about crunching through exoskeletons or lunching on larvae, appetites may now be adapting.

An academic study published in 2014 found that a fifth of all meat eaters claim to be ready to adopt insects as food, with men 2.17 times more likely than women to do so.

The number of unwitting consumers of insect products is much larger: honey is bee vomit, the red food-colouring cochineal is made of crushed bugs, and shellac, a glaze commonly used to cover sweets and fruit, is made from insect excretions. Despite this, acceptance takes time.

“The number one thing people have to get over is the visual aspect. Once they taste it and it’s cooked well, it’s about how good the meat is,” says Whippey.

Social psychologist Josh Tyber, from VU University Amsterdam, thinks the “disgust response” has been underestimated. “We want this cultural evolution to take place in a matter of years, when it tends to take decades or centuries,” he says.

One way of overcoming the “ick” factor is by creating powders and snack bars. It’s the model adopted by more-established startups in the US, where the regulatory environment is more permissive. Brooklyn-based Exo and Salt Lake City-based Chapul both create protein bars from milled, roasted crickets mixed with nuts, dates, chocolate and other ingredients, and both have attracted significant funding.

“How big is hard to predict, but if edible insects take a fraction of the overall market for meats, it would make it a very large industry,” says Craig Shapiro, an investor at Collaborative Fund, which took a stake in Exo.

Scaling up

Finding a steady, affordable supply of edible insects in the UK is a major challenge - business producing on a massive scale tend to be making food supply for birds and reptiles.

“We produce up to 3 tons of mealworms per week, 1.2 million crickets and 150 000 locusts,” explains Live Foods Direct Managing Director Dean Jackson.

“But we’re not breeding in the lab conditions required for human consumption,” he adds.

There hasn’t yet been enough demand to set up a dedicated supply line to the food industry, but he is open to the idea.

Purdue University entomologist Tom Turpin says making inroads into the livestock market will be a challenge, even at scale.

“We haven’t figured out how to raise insects in such a mass to make a dent. If some insects were as large as pigs or cows it would be a lot easier to incorporate large numbers of them in our diet.”

Bloomberg