Eat a Cricket, Save the World

National Journal
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
April 27, 2014, 6:41 a.m.

Wor­ried your din­ner is hurt­ing the en­vir­on­ment? It might be time to set aside the steak and reach for a crick­et.

Pound-for-pound, crick­ets pack more pro­tein than cows, chick­ens, pigs, and the rest of the mam­mals and birds we’ve come to as­so­ci­ate with barn­yards. And their smal­ler foot­print — both lit­er­ally and en­vir­on­ment­ally — makes them a can­did­ate for a more sus­tain­able food source.

Put down 100 grams worth of pure crick­et and you’ve just in­ges­ted 69 grams of pro­tein. That’s com­pared with 43 grams of pro­tein in dried beef pro­tein or 31 grams of pro­tein in identic­al servings of chick­en. The in­sects also con­tain es­sen­tial amino acids and are high in iron, cal­ci­um, B vit­am­ins, and fiber.

Those squeam­ish about eat­ing the hop­pers whole may prefer pan­cakes — or any oth­er baked goods — made from crick­et flour. And last month, Brook­lyn-based star­tup Exo (as in exo­skel­et­on) star­ted mar­ket­ing crick­et-flour pro­tein bars to the mara­thon­er-body build­er demo­graph­ic. They run $36 for a 12-pack, or just $32 for a monthly sub­scrip­tion.

Crick­et food products are be­ing mar­keted mainly for their nu­tri­tion­al value, but their pur­vey­ors are also of­fer­ing them up as a po­ten­tial rem­edy for cli­mate change.

World­wide, ag­ri­cul­ture con­trib­utes one-third of green­house-gas emis­sions — most of which comes from graz­ing live­stock. And while feed­ing cows re­quires acres of pas­ture or farm­land, crick­ets are be­ing served up as a pos­sible fix.

Ac­cord­ing to Exo, crick­ets are 20 times as ef­fi­cient as a source of pro­tein than cattle, largely be­cause they take far less land and food. To pro­duce the same amount of pro­tein, the bugs take six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs.

There’s already an in­dustry of crick­et farms, which largely pro­duce food for pet and zoo rep­tiles — but now count com­pan­ies like Exo among their cli­ents.

“In­tro­du­cing in­sects in­to our food sys­tem is go­ing to be a great way to cre­ate a sus­tain­able source of pro­tein,” said Megan Miller, founder of the crick­et-flour pur­vey­or Bitty Foods, which also serves the bugs in the form of chocol­ate-chip and chocol­ate-car­damom cook­ies. “West­ern cul­ture is really the last hol­d­out. We want to in­tro­duce in­sects to west­ern cul­ture by put­ting them in foods that are fa­mil­i­ar.”

The flour’s pur­vey­ors prom­ise there’s no danger of pick­ing out a stray leg or an­tenna (the crick­ets are first de­hyd­rated and crushed), but in­sect-cuisine serv­ers and sup­port­ers are bank­ing on sus­tain­ab­il­ity as a hook to grow en­to­mo­phagy (that’s the prac­tice of eat­ing in­sects).

In­sects’ biggest en­vir­on­ment­al ad­vant­age may lie in their emis­sions of meth­ane. Ag­ri­cul­ture ac­counts for 36 per­cent of U.S. an­thro­po­gen­ic emis­sions of meth­ane, the po­tent green­house gas that’s as much as 20 to 30 times more power­ful than car­bon di­ox­ide. A White House meth­ane re­duc­tion plan re­leased in March spe­cific­ally looks to slash the dairy in­dustry’s emis­sions by 25 per­cent by 2020 — a plan some­times dis­missed as reg­u­lat­ing cow flat­u­lence.

Crick­ets, by com­par­is­on, are es­tim­ated to re­lease 80 times less meth­ane than cows.

A 2013 United Na­tions Food and Ag­ri­cul­ture Or­gan­iz­a­tion re­port titled “Ed­ible In­sects” even en­dorsed in­sects as a new food source, des­pite the “de­gree of dis­taste for their con­sump­tion” in some cul­tures. And a re­cent study in the journ­al Cli­mat­ic Change pinned di­et­ary changes as a key solu­tion to glob­al warm­ing.

All of this is why Exo founders Gabi Lewis and Greg Se­witz — who first star­ted ex­per­i­ment­ing with crick­et pro­tein bars as seni­ors last year at Brown Uni­versity — think they can in­tro­duce more in­sects to the Amer­ic­an palette.

Lewis said there’s un­doubtedly the “psy­cho­lo­gic­al threshold” to over­come, but said the health be­ne­fits have at­trac­ted cus­tom­ers, es­pe­cially be­cause they’re at­tempt­ing to make the bars tasty.

Bitty’s Miller jokes that crick­ets are a “gate­way bug” to the world’s more than 1,800 ed­ible in­sects. In­sects are more com­mon­place in oth­er cul­tures and even some high-end res­taur­ants are start­ing to em­brace them as cut­ting-edge dishes. Copen­ha­gen’s Noma, for ex­ample, serves up live ants and even D.C.’s Oy­amel of­fers a grasshop­per taco.

Ul­ti­mately, however, crick­et diners may not be the en­vir­on­ment­al her­oes they claim.

“Ac­tu­ally, for pro­tein, dung beetles are the best,” said Lewis. “But ob­vi­ously that’s kind of a hard sell.”

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