If Westerners begin to eat insects alongside chicken and beef, will bug farms be held to the same standards as sustainably grown animals? I spoke to one Ohio-based cricket farmer to figure out how he's raising noisy creatures for human consumption.
I tend to go through sample trays like an open-mouthed freight train. You can imagine my delight when I was at a food conference earlier this year and there was a banquet table overflowing with food samples. I ate my way through the entire smorgasbord, but it was cookies from Bitty Foods that called me back. As I stuffed three more cookies into my face I asked, "Guys, what the hell are these? They're so damn good!" The two people behind the table responded, "Our cookies are made out of crickets." I suddenly felt nauseous.
Out of politeness, however, I feigned nonchalance and said, "Oh great!" and then scampered away to collect myself. When I went back upstairs and had a few minutes to process, I realized that I felt totally fine up until I was told that I had just consumed bugs, so—clearly—my nausea was not really a physical reaction, but a mental one.
Later that evening, I did some research to find out more about bug eating, AKA entomophagy. As it turns out, we are all unwitting entomophagists already: The Food and Drug Administration allows for a small amounts of harmless but "unavoidable defects" in processed foods that include insect parts, insect larvae, insects eggs, and insect sacs. Last year, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization issued a lengthy report on the plus side of adding critters to the Western diet, advising us to ingest more than 1,900 edible species of bugs because our population is exploding. It would be more than sustainable to consume them. To make things more complicated, the 7.2 billion human bodies on earth are expected to increase to 9.6 billion by 2050. Locust burritos, anyone?
If I want to be a good global citizen, I should be eating bugs. Since eighty percent of the world is already doing this, the west needs to get over our biased stigma towards things we try to decimate with aerosol cans of poison and bait traps. But if Western culture does eventually embrace insects as a viable/common resource for protein, how will we raise these bugs? Is there such a thing as organically raised, sustainably grown crickets? And what do they eat? Don't insects deserve a good life and humane slaughter-like, pasture-raised chickens and cattle?
To answer these questions, I got in touch with cricket farmer Kevin Bachhuber, who began eating bugs in 2006 during a trip to Thailand. "You go to a bar, you order your beer… and they give you a bowl of bamboo worms or dry roasted crickets," he tells me. "It's the perfect bar food. Plus you get a little extra protein and don't quite have so much of a hangover the next day."
Bachhuber opened Big Cricket Farms in Youngstown, Ohio in April of this year, but he's already fielding requests from clients in the US, Australia, Iceland, Mexico, and Canada. MRE (meals-ready-to-eat) manufacturers are "sniffing around" and vitamin/supplement companies are interested because "omega-3 and omega-6 in crickets are decent substitute for fish oil."
Like any other farm, Big Cricket Farms is regulated by the local Department of Agriculture. The USDA is still developing regulations for edible insect farms, but Bachhuber tries to "meet and exceed the USDA's rules on raising (and) processing any kind of food."
The insects at Big Cricket Farms are housed in large troughs, each holding about 3,000 crickets, within a 5,000-square-foot warehouse. If a trough gets too full, the crickets get grumpy. "They'll find a way to escape," says Bachhuber. "They'll bite each other, they'll eat each other. It's not super common for them to eat each other, but it does happen a little bit." Other than that, it seems like crickets have a good life: The temperature and humidity is perfectly regulated (80-90 degrees Fahrenheit, 90 percent humidity), they are free from predators, and enjoy organic OMRI feed. In the final days of their life, Bachhuber will give them fresh, organic vegetables to fatten them up (and, he admitted, to assuage his guilt). Sounds a miniature Stone Barns.
To kill them, Bachhuber puts the crickets in a coffin freezer—he is still waiting for his walk-in—and the crickets go into their natural state of diapause, which is "like hibernation, but more complete." Bachhuber then turns the temperature even lower and the crickets die painlessly. "There is no neurological pain for them in this process," he says. "They just gradually slow down and cease animation…and then we freeze them down a little deeper and then they can't wake back up."
The yields are impressive: Approximately two pounds of food and one gallon of water will produce one pound of crickets (about 1,000 crickets), and 24 square feet of space yields approximately 30 pounds of crickets about every eight weeks. Crickets require much less food, water, space, land, and time than traditional livestock, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
As I listen to Bachhuber talk about crickets, I started to wonder why most Western eaters haven't embraced entomophagy. "There is no way that insect eating was not a major part of our evolutionary development," says Bachhuber. "It's such an easily accessible protein source compared to, like, a hunting down a mammoth." He thinks that our aversion to edible insects also has to do with a "depersonalization of our food supply." When we buy beef, there is usually no visual connection to the animal it came from. With bugs however, "generally, you're going to eat all or almost all of a given insect."
As convincing as Bachhuber was, it's probably going to take me a little time before I can detach myself from my neurotic Western aversion to consuming the creatures that are the soundtrack to summer nights—or whole cricket, as it were—and cook from The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook. I did, however, get in touch with Bitty Foods and ordered some of its protein-packed cricket flour, and I'll be baking muffins with it this weekend. Baby steps.