Insect Farming Is Agriculture as Dystopian Future as American Manufacturing

The promise of the insect industry is high-volume protein, made quietly next door.

The arguments for eating bugs have been swarming midge-like around our heads for the better part of a decade. Yes, if you bake a mealworm and dust it in mesquite seasoning it’s got the taste of barbecued ribs and the mouthfeel of a Rice Krispie. Yes, the West’s entomophagic hang-ups can be traced back to a low supply of cold-weather bugs and high demand for cold-weather calories. Yes, the global population needs to find a new protein source that doesn’t cause devastating methane emissions or leech off corn subsidies. But, no, it’s not simply about choosing the buggy path. Crickets aren’t a food system’’s panacea. What they are, in a way, is a mascot for the bug husbandry industry, the emblem for insect producers looking to add to the the world’s chitinous biomass — for every 10 pounds of human flesh, the planet holds one ton of bugs — on the way to profit.

Bug husbandry is an ancient practice, but remains largely in its larval stage. Only a few of its disciplines — silk cultivation and beekeeping — are performed on industrial scales. In a 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations outlining the future of insect eating, experts described insect production as a sector in its infancy. You can find cricket flour, perhaps the fastest-growing insect product, in protein bars at cutting-edge Whole Foods. But in the U.S. writ large, the bug industry is so young the Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet defined specific insect-growing standards. Though the department can tell you all about mink livestock production, the only evidence you’ll find of insects in its statistical vault pertains to beeswax and honey. Everything else is just buzz.

What’s clear is that neither techniques used by not-for-human-consumption farming, which constitutes the bulk of the current insect cultivation industry, nor traditional for-consumption husbandry are capable of sustaining this expanding market. Bugs aren’t sold as single-product crop, and they can’t be sold as filets or prime cuts. They will be, over time, produced as something that we haven’t really seen before: Consumable animal biomass. Just as there is a market for homegrown heirloom tomatoes, there will continue to be a boutique bug consumption business, but the real promise of bug husbandry is protein manufacturing.

Bugs are animals, but thinking of them solely in livestock terms does them a disservice. From a producer’s perspective, bugs are something closer to a life force — naturalist E.O. Wilson’s “little things that run the world”. This truth complicates things, but — as it turns out — complication is the future of the field. Gratwicke

When it opened in 2014 in Youngstown, Ohio, Big Cricket Farms became the first industrial cricket operation exclusively aimed at the human food market. The goal was to bring size to a previously boutique business. It scaled quickly because it had to. Most bug husbandry operations deal in astronomic numbers: You can fit 10 thousand newly-hatched crickets, called pinheads — though they look just like little crickets — in a 7-milliliter tube. Every generational cycle, Big Cricket Farms produces about 3,000 pounds of food, equivalent to 4 million bugs. Over multiple generations, farmed crickets also acquire unique heritable traits. Only 50 years of domesticity constitutes 1,000 generations of crickets, which indicates how possible it is to quickly grow an operation.

Big Cricket Farms founder Kevin Bachhuber says raising crickets can best be described as a combination of raising tomatoes ($1,313,914,000 in just fresh fruits sold in 2009) and chickens ($37,200,000,000 in “broiler chickens” sold in 2014). His schedule looks like any other farmer’s. “You do some seeding, you do some watering,” he says, “and then you do a hell of a lot of cleaning.” But, rather notably, his farm is chirpy, indoors, and “fucking hot.” Bachhuber compares walking into the 5,000-square foot facility to walking into a tropical rainforest. He is not prone to exaggeration.

Bachhuber started Big Cricket Farms out of a desire to kill food more humanely. That means offing bugs in large batches of cold air, the way mother nature intended (though not on her schedule). This is why he describes his terrariums as a “magical space that transforms living animals to food ingredients.” This isn’t alchemy so much as death, but Bachhuber does have a point about cruelty. A coma-like sleep occurs as cold slows an insect’s exothermic metabolism to a lethal limit. It’s unclear how painful this is for crickets, but one can fairly say it’s more humane than pressing a bolt through a bovine skull. (It also helps that crickets aren’t mammals.)

Bachhuber’s hired killers are focused on alleviating pain so he can sell a cruelty-free product. His nurturers, on the other hand, have two goals: decreasing attrition and increasing flavor.

In 2000, a Dutch company named Kreca, which sold roughly 10,000 crates of Acheta domesticus weekly, lost 50 percent of its crickets in the span of 12 hours. Kreca had taken a monoculture approach and a disease, presumably a densovirus, had gotten into the proverbial henhouse. Big Cricket Farms raises A. domesticus and G. sigillatus, a hardier species. He’s begun to experiment in diets rich in aromatic oils. Like the monarch butterfly, which eats milkweed to acquire a nasty taste, crickets collect flavonoids. Bachhuber feeds his animals basil and mint. As the crickets chow down on the herbs, they accumulate the taste.

“It’s kind of the reverse of what nature intended, because it makes the crickets more delicious,” Bachhuber says. “They’re the best bugs in the animal kingdom.”

Ana Rodriguez doesn’t say that about the mosquitoes.

Academic insect-rearing is fundamentally different from farming in that it’s not motivated by profit. The malarial mosquitoes are sold at-cost, meant to further research into a disease that claims over 400,000 lives a year. Above Rodriguez’s desk sits a child’s painting of a New York City street splashed out in psychedelic hues; it is a mirror in vibrant intensity to a slide printout that sits on her desk, outlining the biological pathway that leads to cerebral malaria. To study malaria, you need the parasite that causes it, which means a process involving mosquitoes, mice, and dental dams. “I wish it were easier or less time-consuming,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez, a New York University microbiologist works in the home of the finest stock of Anopheles mosquitoes in the United States — if you’re researching malaria, anyway — which is a nondescript brick building on the east side of Manhattan. If there’s a hint of pride in the lab, it’s justified by the fact that when the Centers for Disease Control runs out of mosquitoes, it turns to Rodriguez and her colleagues for resupply.

The mosquitoes are born and raised in a room a little bigger than a walk-in closet. The room is so muggy that glasses fog over immediately. Stacked along the edge are large, flat pans of water brimming with eggs; in the back, rows of cardboard buckets house hundreds of buzzing mosquitoes each.

If NYU’s Anopheles are of the highest quality, then lab technician Jean Nonon is, in all likelihood, the best mosquito breeder in the world. He has a resourcefulness that reflects the bootstrap ethos of bug farming, making containers out of ice cream buckets and strategically placing dental dams along the side; when poked through with the end of a pipette, Nonon can aspirate out the hatched eggs and discarded skins. To separate the males from the females, he cups the side of the bucket. The blood-hungry females (male mosquitoes are satisfied with cotton balls soaked in sugar water) sense his warmth and trace his fingers with their bodies. He’ll collect the female mosquitoes, which will then feed on a mouse infected with a type of murine malaria; in turn, the malarial parasite will grow in the bugs’ salivary glands. The NYU mosquitoes are then shipped across the U.S. for study.

Jean Nonon holds a bucket of mosquitoes.

Ben Guarino

Like cricket farming, breeding mosquitoes has remained an unchanged practice since the ‘60s; and like cricket farming, there have been no big innovations in 50 years. Demand, however, is up — where the insectary once produced 15 crates of mosquitoes a week, NYU is now up to 22. The insectary facility isn’t a good place to learn about innovation, but it demonstrates the hardiness of bugs and the scrappiness of those who tend to them. Moreover, it’s a testament to cramped efficiency. The secret to insects’ world dominance is that it’s one we don’t see, or is simply easy to ignore. If you didn’t know how to look for it, you’d miss the 560-mile-long megacolony of ants that stretches up the California coast. If you didn’t know where to look for NYU’s mosquitoes — and, frankly, why would you? — you’d never know they were there.

As the NYU researchers try to save humanity by raising roomfuls of mosquitoes, Glen Courtright wants to do the same with buildings full of flies. In his case, if salvation comes with profit that’s just the rewards of entrepreneurship. His operation, Enviroflight, sits 200 miles to the southwest of Big Cricket Farms. From the outside, it’s as unremarkable as any repurposed hundred-year-old seed factory can be. Except Enviroflight specializes in larvae. (Don’t call them maggots, says Courtright. Actually, he doesn’t even say that. “We don’t use the m-word.”)

Where Bachhuber looks to insects as an ethical alternative to food, and Rodriguez to mosquitoes for scientific answers, Courtright’s six-legged approach is one hatched out of efficiency. His first larval inclination wasn’t food but fuel. After leaving the a career in Naval intelligence and aerospace systems career in Naval intelligence and aerospace systems consulting, while looking for an entrepreneurial venture, Courtright began investigating alternative biologic energy sources. “Over beers, a friend suggested that bugs are full of oil,” he says.

Adult black soldier fly. Shahan

Courtright found his way to black solidier fly larvae, which are, by weight, up to 40 to 50 percent oil. Though flies might conjure themes of pestilence or disease, this species is non-pathogenic. The larvae aren’t picky — they’re such voracious eaters they’ll start to consume each other if there’s not enough food available — but their rapaciousness makes them environmentally chummy. Enviroflight feeds its bugs pre-consumer waste from breweries and other food manufacturers. “We pretty much run it like a kitchen,” Courtright says.

It took a year for Courtright to determine that the flies’ destiny wasn’t shrinking carbon footprints but growing food production — though you’re not going to find maggot snacks on supermarket shelves. There’s nothing technically preventing humans from eating black fly soldier larvae, but to avoid the cultural baggage of entomophagy Courtright has planned a great act of agricultural transubstantiation, in which fly flesh becomes more familiar and palatable people food.

Laundering bug-protein through the food chain is the real genius of the Enviroflight plan. The black fly soldier larvae end up not stuck in human craws but in the mouths of fish, like salmon and trout. The frass — the pellet-like clumps of waste — is sold as high-nutrient fish meal. “There’s a finite amount of sardines,” Courtright says. Sardines, along with other cheap bait species like menhaden, are normally what feed the farm-raised fish we eat. The future of these feeder fish populations isn’t clear, but what’s evident is that menhaden stocks are falling. For vast swathes of the globe, fish are a critically important source of protein — the FAO estimates that, in 2010, fish provided nearly 3 billion people with a fifth of their animal protein intake; at 3.2 percent growth, global fish production is expanding faster than the population.

As wild fish stocks shrink, more eyes are turning to aquaculture. To feed the fish that feed the people, enter Enviroflight: Compared with traditional fish meal, the amino acid profile of larval meal is very similar; depending on what the larvae eat, they might be lower in nutrients like phosphorus, but what phosphorus is available is more digestible. “If you’re using fish meal, which is basically ground up sardines and anchovies, they have skeletons so you have that bone material and anything left over, the scales, which is a lot of fiber, which results in a lot of phosphorus.” Too much phosphorous also leads to polluted water, a problem for fish farms. But what’s most important to Courtright’s bottom line? “Fish like it.”

It’s one thing to show fish like it, another problem entirely to churn out profitable numbers. Courtright’s approached it like he would any other engineering problem: Creating a dense yet stable system, one that produces minimal odor. First, however, he had to get them to breed. Black soldier flies had never mated on an industrial scale the way he wanted, and searching through academic literature was ultimately a disappointment. He patented his own system, and became the first large-scale producer in the U.S.

You can’t yet go to Costco and buy a tilapia filet made out of ingested Courtright flies. Enviroflight is still waiting on Food and Drug Administration approval, which Courtright believes will come in 2016. At present, he’s content to feed zoo animals. The feed is immensely popular with captive pangolins, rare mammals that look like armored and bewhiskered tyrannosaurs. What pangolins eat doesn’t fall under the purview of the FDA — Enviroflight may be the largest supplier of pangolin feed in America. “I never thought I‘d be in this business — I used to develop weapons systems, for crying out loud!”

When Courtright looks to six years down the future, he sees black soldier fly larvae plants going global. “We’ll have our regulatory approvals. We’ll be in a massive grow out and build out stage,” he says. “We’ll be busy, busy, busy.”

He sees the bug business as a natural compliment to the existing food industry. Take the leftovers and make biomass. Use the biomass to make more food. Efficiency and distribution are the namess of the game. The small size of bug production facilities means that they can be anywhere. The big cricket farm is the family farm of bug husbandry, a beautiful idea that feels like its time has come and gone.

The fascinating and inevitable conclusion to any conversation about bugs is that — unlike so many other products — they don’t exist in any one place along a production chain. They can be integrated into controlled ecosystems, sold as protein, or weaponized through research. Bug husbandry is an industry, sure, but it’s also a killer app for manny people who will never sell a cricket bar.

The truth is that the bug industry is growing the bugs for human-consumption. The. The industry is growing slowly, and the biomass industry is poised to boom. Are bugs animals? Yes, but that doesn’t matter to an efficient market.

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