There’s been a buzz about the nutritional benefits of insects for years, but 2022 is the year creepy-crawlies are finally tipped to make it onto mainstream supermarket shelves.
Eighty per cent of the world’s population already eat insects as a part of their everyday diet.
Food scientist and entomologist Skye Blackburn found herself asking why Australians were not among them after trying insects for the first time in Thailand in 2007.
“I sent away some crickets and mealworms for nutritional testing and when I got the results back I was actually shocked that no-one was eating them as a source of food here in Australia,” she says.
“They were just so nutrient-dense, they had everything that your body could possibly need.”
How do you ‘farm’ insects?
Unlike cattle properties and broadacre cropping, insects do not need much space.
Because of this, insect farms are common in cities. One could be next to your house!
Ms Blackburn now has her own insect farm ‘The Edible Bug Shop’ in Western Sydney.
“We convert unused warehouse spaces into insect protein farms,” she says.
“We have these specially designed enclosures that stack from the floor all the way up to the roof.
“It means that we’re really efficient on space.”
While a typical farmer might have 400 head of cattle, Ms Blackburn says she does not know how many crickets she has but knows they are in the millions.
“We currently have about 30 tonnes of crickets before they are processed in our warehouse,” she says.
To ensure her business is future-proofed, Ms Blackburn has invented technology for her farm.
“We’ve developed robotic technologies and artificial intelligence that helps us feed and clean and monitor the crickets so that they have a really happy and healthy life,” she says.
Ms Blackburn was one of the first in the western world to farm insects for human consumption.
Insect farming is now becoming more and more popular with farms popping up all over Australia.
Stirling Tavener has just started an insect farm in Cairns and says they are the next big superfood.
“They have twice the protein of beef, more calcium than milk, they have three times more iron than spinach, and have all nine amino acids,” he says.
Channy Sandhu, founder of edible insect product business Hoppa Foods, agrees.
“[Insect protein] is clean protein, which is good for your gut. It’s easily digestible and backed with sustainability and environmental factors,” Mr Sandhu says.
“It becomes a no-brainer for people to try it.”
Gold star for sustainability
By 2050, another 2 billion people will be on our planet and that means 60–70 per cent more food will be needed for the growing population.
So how does insect farming help us get there?
“Insects can be reared on food that would otherwise be lost in production systems, so we can recover some of that food waste or food loss and rear insects on those,” Professor Michelle Colgrave leader of CSIRO future protein mission explains.
This ‘circular’ concept of farming is what Ms Blackburn loves about her farm.
“We’re taking waste products and creating a completely new source of food,” she says.
“If you replace just one meat-based meal a week with a meal that uses crickets as your source of protein you actually save over 100,000 litres of drinking water a year.
“We’re not taking up farmland to farm them.
“They create 1/100th of the amount of greenhouse gases when you compare them to traditional livestock as well.”
Why don’t Aussies eat more crickets?
Unlike eastern food markets where consuming whole insects is common, Professor Colgrave says Australian consumers do not like to go outside their comfort zone.
“One of the major concerns I think we have here in Australia is the ‘ick’ or ‘yuck’ factor,” she says.
“It’s not something that we are accustomed to eating and often we consider insects as pests.”
To overcome this, Ms Blackburn says consumers just need to think of insects as an additional protein source.
“You don’t have to have all the legs and wings and antennas in there to be getting all the benefits of edible insects,” she says.
“So we take familiar foods that you would eat every day, like corn chips, pasta, or granola, and we enrich it using invisible insect proteins. You wouldn’t even know that it’s there.”
Mr Sandhu started his business, Hoppa Foods, in 2018.
He says uptake is growing thanks to years of education about nutritional benefits.
“We wanted to bridge that gap between insects and something that consumers were already used to in terms of how the product looked, felt and tasted,” he says.
“The nutritional benefits outweigh the fear factor that most people have.
“Once they try it once they realise that there was nothing to fear and there is no whole insect in sight.”
2022 the year of the cricket
The Australian insect industry is tipped to reach a $10 million per annum target over the next five years according to Agrifutres Australia.
So is 2022 the year more Aussies will pop some mealworms into their mouths?
“I definitely think that 2022 is the year of the edible insects. You’ll be noticing that they’re hopping onto shelves around Australia right now,” Ms Blackburn says.
“So they will definitely be more accessible; you’ll be able to purchase them with your regular shopping.”
Mr Sandhu says if sales are any indication to go by, 2022 will be his best year yet.
“Over the past three years, we’ve just seen our sales go up, which clearly is a reflection that the market is there, and year on year it is growing,” he says.
“We have probably seen an increase of about 20 per cent in our sales compared to last year.
“I’ve got no doubt in my mind, this is the future of our food.”
abc.net.au, 7 February 2022