I spoke to the designer who has created a sleek setup to help you grow, harvest, and cook your first meal of worms from the comfort of your home.
The idea of eating bugs is polarizing. Your best friend might hate it. The United Nations wants you to do it. Those in between are at the least interested enough to watch someone attempt it. Katharina Unger and her business partners think you should make the leap, and designed a sleek setup to help you grow, harvest, and cook your first meal of worms. I met up with her in Hong Kong to discuss how she found herself in that role, and what entomophagy means for the future of food.
MUNCHIES: Let's start with your personal background. How did you get interested in farming bugs at home? Katharina Unger: I'm an industrial engineer who studied in Austria and then in the States for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. I worked in London and now Hong Kong. When I first arrived here, I was totally impressed by the variety of food, all the weird stuff that you can find, but almost nobody knows where it comes from or how it's grown. I became interested in that because I grew up on a farm in a very rural part of Austria on the border with Hungary, so for every piece of meat I ate, I knew the cow it came from.
When I did my master's, I framed my project around the idea of "future food integrity," which looked at how we're going to deal with animal products in the future. I looked into the industrial-scale production of meat, and I faced a crisis: how can I, as a designer, impact the way we produce meat? I looked into alternatives, and I started to research microalgae and lab-grown meat, and then I came across insects. I wasn't sold on the idea straight away, but it seemed to have so many benefits, and so many people around the world already eat them. So I went to a pet store and I got all these different insects and I prepared a huge table at home. I just tried to process them and eat them, just to see how it feels for me and if I could stand behind the idea. And it tasted good!
You went from doing this on your own to convincing people to back a full-fledged insect farm on Kickstarter. What's the big idea behind it? The idea was: if insects could be grown in small spaces—in your home, basically—and you could experience the process of growing them and eating them, then maybe your perception of meat and animal products could be influenced and changed.
What about people who can't get over the "eww, bugs" factor? When I raised them and saw how they grew, I saw how hygienic it was, because I could compare it directly to the farm at home. My perception and thinking about food changed once I started growing insects on my own. So I built a prototype and published the idea in 2013, and was immediately contacted by hundreds of people who were either already growing insects as well, or were somehow interested in the topic. At the same time, the UN report [encouraging people to adopt insects as a food source] came out, so it seemed like a good moment. The interest was there.
Globally, how do you think people perceive edible insects? The US edible insect scene is a bit ahead of Europe. We have the Novel Food Regulation, so anything that has not been eaten substantially before 1997 is considered a "novel food" and requires specific regulations and testing before it can become a regulated food. In the US, things are a bit more relaxed so many people have already experimented and made things like chips out of insects.
Developing your countertop insect farm, the Hive, took you to other places too. What was going on? I did some consulting work in Hawaii related to edible insects, and I went to Africa to build a low-tech prototype there. A partner in Uganda used materials available to them to build a version of my farm. Then I moved back to Hong Kong and received an email from a group of Malaysian researchers who work for Crops for the Future. They look at underutilized crops, like anything but corn or soy and wanted to do something with black soldier fly larvae, so they said, "We need your units, so we can grow these flies and test them." That gave me the opportunity to go to China to manufacture a small series of the hives. It ended up with me staying overnight at the factory and being super hands-on.
What does the developing world think about the western perspective of cultivating edible insects? The trend in SE Asia and Africa in recent years was a rapid rise in meat consumption because the west was eating so much meat. It became fashionable and luxurious to eat more meat. So the idea was: if we start eating more insects, then these cultures could potentially regain their pride in it.
Has there been much commercial interest in your take on insect farming? It's mainly individuals. It's about empowering people to grow it in their homes, influence this movement, and direct its growth. Most of our buyers are individuals: young fathers who want to teach their kids how to grow food, health conscious consumers, a few professors, and some community leaders.
You have a recipe book for entomophagists. Do you have a favorite recipe? We like quinoa dumplings. Roast the mealworms with some garlic and onions, chop them up, put some fresh cilantro or coriander in, and then mix them with quinoa and either breadcrumbs or white beans in equal portions. Sprinkle some sesame on top and serve it with lemon.
Have you received any notable feedback? Usually, when I give a talk in Europe, the sustainability message is number one for everybody. People buy things because it's sustainable, because they think about the environment. In China, my first slides were about sustainability, and no one listened. But then as soon as I started to talk about the health benefits, they were all there. People in the US and Europe are very open to tasting it after my talks, but in China, there was even less of a hurdle. Even though you don't see insect-eating in everyday life, people still immediately tried it and were super excited about it. One woman came up to me and said it reminded her of her childhood, when she gathered insects with her mother in her village.
That's interesting, because if we're talking about a few decades ago, people ate anything they could get their hands on because of the cultural revolution, or even as it tapered off. But the woman you mentioned was reminiscing. When we bring the concept to, say, China with a western perspective and western twist to it, they feel different about it, maybe because it comes in such a different context. Now the interest is here to revive this food and to make it something that has more value than what was perceived before.
So the Hive is being manufactured and your backers will be farming mealworms in their kitchens soon. What's next? For the next year or two, we're working intensely to develop an online platform where people can share their recipes and experiences with the Hive, with growing mealworms as a food, with what they cooked, what they think about it. We'll hopefully have some ambassadors—some chefs, or some people in the culinary and can share that with the community.
Thanks for speaking to me.