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Gateway bug: How crickets could hook America on eating insects

There are about 40 crickets ground into each of Exo’s energy bars. (Exo)

When you’re on the frontier of food — a land full of experimentation — sometimes you have to sleep with the lights on.

Jakub Dzamba, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill’s architecture school, was experimenting with farming crickets in his Montreal apartment about a year and a half ago. He’d glued together plastic bottles into a contraption capable of storing the insects.

One day Dzamba and his wife returned from a weekend trip to find a heat lamp had melted a hole in the mechanism. Crickets were everywhere.

“I ran in there, I didn’t have anything else, so I just took my shoe and killed as many of them as I could,” Dzamba recalled. “My wife almost beat the crap out of me.”

She wanted to spend the night at a hotel, but he convinced her to stay. For a few days the couple slept with the lights on in the 230 square foot apartment.

“Then I really upped my game in terms of containing them,” said Dzamba, the founder of Third Millennium Farming, which is devoted to sustainable farming of insects, algae and grass.

Next week, Dzamba will introduce the Circle Chirp, a household device the size of a suitcase that can hold 500 or 600 crickets for someone daring enough to farm their own crickets.

The insects, which are sustainable and nutritious, have emerged in the past year as something of a food fad. Some say they taste like sunflowers. Other say almonds, or whatever the crickets have been fed. If the cost of farming them drops, they appear likely to become a regular part of American diets given their many merits.

The industry leapt forward following a 2013 United Nations report warning that with nine billion people on Earth in 2050, current food production will have to double. Between a lack of space and climate change concerns, we’ll need more sustainable solutions. Crickets happen to be a great option.

Insects, being cold-blooded, are much more efficient at converting feed into protein. A cricket needs 12 times less feed than cattle to produce the same amount of protein. Insects require significantly less land and water than cattle.

Currently, agriculture accounts for 8.1 percent of greenhouse gases in the United States. Trading cows, chickens and pigs for crickets and other insects would cut that number down. For environmental reasons, the allure of crickets is obvious.

The irony of cricket farming is its current high costs. A pound of ground up crickets costs between $20 and $40, depending on the source and season. For comparison sake, a bag of wheat flour generally costs about a dollar per pound. Those in the cricket industry blame the high price on lack of scale and inefficient farming methods.

“There’s a huge amount of what we consider low-hanging fruit in the farming methods. It’s never been worth anyone’s time to improve it,” said Andrew Brentano of Tiny Farms, which advises cricket farmers.

Cricket farms have existed in the United States for over a century, providing fishing bait and later food for pet reptiles. But the industry is still small.

“Essentially we’re trying to sell beef jerky when there are like three cattle ranches in the U.S.,” said Gabi Lewis, co-founder of Exo, which sells cricket-based energy bars. Exo sold out its first production run — 50,000 bars — within a few weeks earlier this year and Lewis says the business has grown from there. But they aren’t yet profitable.

“If this whole thing is not going to collapse on itself the price has to come down,” Dzamba said.

One man looking to drop the price of cricket “flour,” the general term used for dead crickets ground into a granular substance, is Kevin Bachhuber.

He opened Big Cricket Farms in April of this year in Youngstown, Ohio. Bachhuber has used 3D printers for making systems that automatically deliver water to the one million crickets he’s currently raising. Bachhuber hopes to automate food delivery services as well.

Bachhuber still has seven employees on site. He’ll need to find a way to scale up production while minimizing human labor.

The most efficient farms are nearly devoid of human life. For example, a cotton farm in Mississippi needs only 13 people to produce enough cotton in a year for 9.4 million T-shirts.

Bachhuber plans to be farming six or seven million crickets this fall, which works out to 6,000 or 7,000 pounds of crickets that can be sold. It may sound like a lot, but about 75 percent of the weight is lost as the crickets are made into flour, due to the insects’ water weight.

He charges from $5 to $12 for 1,000 crickets, and says he will be profitable within a year and a half.

Aside from the cost concerns, cricket entrepreneurs will have to convince the American public that eating insects isn’t gross. They point out that at least two billion people worldwide include insects in their diets, and there are 1,900 edible species of insects. The Western diet left behind a worthy practice.

“It’s a remnant of the European style of agricultural. In higher latitudes there are fewer insects and they weren’t recognized as a form of food,” said founder Pat Crowley of Chapul, which sells cricket energy bars. He envisions crickets used in breakfast cereals, pretzels and chips to increase protein content and decrease carbohydrates.

“There are many, many foods that were once viewed as disgusting in this country and are now viewed as either normal or delicacies — lobster, kombucha, sushi, Greek yogurt,” Lewis said.

If crickets become the next hot food, other insects are almost certain to follow. Keep an eye on meal worms, fly larvae, caterpillars, black soldier flies and wax worms.

“When you bite it, it tastes a lot like bacon,” said Dzamba of wax worms.