Insects: an answer to the global meat crisis (Interview with George Mander)

George Mander is a 6th year Otago University student with a passion for science.

Recently he took home top prize at the Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka! Awards, earning himself $10,000 for his presentation “The Case for Crickets”.

This week I sat down with George to discuss the inception of his insect-food project, how it’s developing, and where he sees it going in the future.

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Here are some facts about meat that might make you sweat:

1) If meat consumption continues to grow at the current rate, by 2050, meat production will have increased by 75% from 2009 levels

2) By that time, 70% of all global greenhouse gas emissions will come from agriculture due to the high emissions cost of producing meat.

3) That cost, put into context, works out as such: every one kilogram of beef produced creates the equivalent GHG emissions of driving fourteen kilometers in a standard petrol car. Every one kilogram of poultry or pork produced creates the equivalent of driving three kilometers.

4) The land space required to produce one kilogram of meat is over 100 m2. This has seen an area the size of New Zealand’s South Island deforested every ten years in Africa for agriculture alone.

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George Mander presented these troubling statistics to a captivated audience at this years Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka! Awards. (Watch the presentation here)

Then, he offered them a solution: crickets.

Crickets are far from most people’s minds when they’re hungry. However, George believes that could be about to change.

For the past six months, he and a group of like-minded peers, comprising future-food collective Ento, have been breeding crickets (well, they started with crickets, but have now progressed to locusts) out of their Dunedin flat, grinding them into a powder, and cooking them into nutritious, ready-to-eat meat patties.

Now, before you say they’re absolutely mad, allow me to explain why:

1) They taste good. Yep, believe it or not, locusts have a reputation as the tastiest creepy crawlies on the planet. George’s patties, which have so far entered several competitions and been sampled by a number of adventurous university students, have received an overwhelmingly positive response, with some even saying they struggled to distinguish them from those found in your average beef burger!

2) They’re nutritious: in equivalent portions, locusts have been found to contain more calcium than milk, more protein than beef, more iron than spinach and more potassium than bananas

3) Finally, and most importantly, these patties are far more environmentally friendly than their meaty counterparts, requiring a fraction of the water, land and feed, and, most importantly, emitting just 0.25% of the greenhouse gasses.

Today I had the welcome opportunity to interview George on his love for locusts, how he devised his project for converting them into food, and how soon we can expect to see them lining our local supermarket shelves.

 The alluring ‘locust-patty’, fresh off the grill.

The alluring ‘locust-patty’, fresh off the grill.

Where did this concept of using crickets/locusts as an alternative protein source come from?

Earlier this year, one of my flatmates took a paper which involved creating a concept for a social enterprise that fulfilled the sustainable development goals set by the U.N. One morning he was talking to me about it and asked what I thought would make a good project. I remembered back to a TED x convention I attended in Christchurch a couple of years back where I’d tried locusts and the person giving them out had talked about how sustainable they are as a food source.  We started talking about that and doing some research on it, and, once we’d seen the science behind it, decided it was a pretty good idea - at which point I joined the paper (just for that specific project, not the whole paper).

From there we got stuck into research, and, as we looked into the concept more, came to really believe in it and feel it had the power to change things for the better. Once the paper was over we decided we wanted to make the idea happen and since then we’ve been working to do so – mainly through involvement in a bunch of different projects and events, including Eureka!

So your goal is to start up a company?

Yep, that’s right, we (Ento) are planning to incorporate a company within the next couple of weeks.

 It’s a two-pronged project really; there’s the business side of it, and then there’s the environmental sustainability side. The Eureka! presentation was about the environmental side, whereas most of the other projects we’ve been involved in have centered around the business.

At this point we are convinced of the science and how it can benefit the climate and so forth. Now, the next step for us is figuring out how we can make it commercially viable, so it can actually get to that level, and we’re pretty confident we can do that. The big thing is making sure we can convince other people of its commercial viability.  

That’s obviously a key concern for you guys; a lot of people have an automatic aversion to eating insects. How do you break through that and normalise the idea?

Yep, marketing is essential for us because insects (at least in the Western world) are not seen as something you should be putting in your mouth. However, we have found people to be surprisingly open to the idea; we put out a survey at the start of the year and around 80% of the respondents were open to eating locusts in some form or another. The majority of those surveyed were university students and younger people though, and I think that demographic is probably more open to trying new stuff and being a bit adventurous – it may be a different story with older generations.

One of the key things for us to overcome is the knowledge gap. I mean most people are aware that arguments are taking place about the cost of meat consumption, but they aren’t sure what those arguments are, or what the science and statistics say. So, part of our mission is to show people a solution to the problems facing the environment at the moment and show them there is a sustainable way to feed the ever-expanding global population. A lot of people just switch off when you confront them with something and simply say “this is a problem”. What we want to do is say “this is a problem, and, here’s a solution to it”.

How do you go about spreading that message? Do you have a website?

Well we did have one for a while, but we are now in the process of making another one. We have a group at the polytech down here who are looking at developing one for us, which will be good.

Then, as I said, we’re putting ourselves forward for these more business-orientated competitions a the moment, sending off patties, giving people the numbers and figures. We sent some patties to a competition recently and we’re pretty confident in our data, so we were able to tell them, “if you were to have the meat equivalent of this locust patty, you would be using X amount more water and emitting X amount more greenhouse gasses and so on. I think a big part of it will be getting that micro-level data; being able to say, “this amount of locusts saved this amount of emissions” is really important and valuable.

Do you think, in the long term, getting into schools, educating kids about this stuff and introducing them to the product - letting them try it - would be an important step for you guys? Is getting the younger generation used to the idea important in facilitating a future environment where people are comfortable with it?

Yep, definitely, that’s something we want to get into. From what we’ve seen, kids and younger people in general seem to be more open to trying new things, more adventurous and willing to experiment, so the younger generation will certainly be important in getting this off the ground.

Education is something we’re really interested in, not just in schools but throughout communities. We started this for environmental reasons, so if the best way forward for the environment is sharing the knowledge and getting everyone involved then that’s the way to go. Getting into schools will be part of that and there’s some great science behind the project which I think would go down well in the classroom. You could put some of the science into traditional curriculums I think, stuff like trophic levels and digestive systems, etc. I mean we find it fascinating ourselves and I think kids would too.

How do you think farmers would react to this idea? Have you talked to many about it? I imagine some of them would struggle with the prospect of switching from sheep, chickens, and cows to insects.

That’s something we haven’t looked into a great deal yet. Our focus has mainly been on insect farmers rather than traditional farmers. There are at least two reasonably-sized insect farms in New Zealand currently, which are, at the moment, mainly farming for pets and zoos.

We would be interested in talking to farmers of traditional livestock in the future though, certainly. It would be good to gauge how they’d feel about converting from traditional livestock to insects (or mini-livestock you could say).

Also, it’s important to stress that this isn’t necessarily an all-or-nothing situation. The environmental benefits of large-scale insect farming as a meat-alternative are huge, so you could still have meat products on the side as a kind of specialty or premium item. That would address, to some degree, economic concerns (if you could sell less meat at a higher premium). At the moment it’s kind of the other way around; insects are high-priced despite how efficient and environmentally sustainable they are to produce. Meat is cheaper to buy currently, even though it uses far more resources to produce. I’m not saying, of course, that we want meat and chicken prices to be raised above the cost of buying insects. We simply want insect prices to compete with meat prices, or even out-compete them, in an ideal world.

What are the different ways it can be consumed? You talk about making it into a powder, into patties, is that how you’ll sell it mainly?

Yeah well that’s an interesting one for us. When we started doing this – for the global enterprise paper – we decided on powder basically by default because that’s what other countries are doing with insects right now. However, since that finished, we’ve evolved to using the powder to make ready-to-eat products – our rationale being that giving people a new ingredient, which is expensive and with which they struggle to cook something nutritious, isn’t a particularly appealing concept. So we’ve opted to go with a ready-to-eat product, and at the moment that’s the patty. The reason we’ve chosen the patty is that it competes directly with meat and can be substituted for meat in a meal, like people are already doing with plant-based patties for burgers.  We think insects can fill that role as a substitute for meat.

Tell me about the process of coming up with this base powder which you then formulate into the patty product. Was there trial and error involved? How is the powder made exactly?

The process broadly involves drying out the insects; you want to get rid of the moisture content because otherwise you just form a sort of slurry. Then it’s basically a matter of grinding them up into powder form. So there isn’t a huge amount of production that goes into making the powder itself. It’s definitely easier than something like cattle where you have to butcher them and get the right cuts. You just have to get the insect to the right moisture content and then grind them up.

The most difficult part is making the product, making something that actually tastes good and is of nutritious value. You have to get the cost right as well, so there’s quite a bit that goes into that process.

Yeah that’s an interesting point. I suppose when you’re trying to compete with meat the danger is adding too much salt, sugar, etc. to match the taste. Has it been tough finding that balance?

Yea that’s something we’ve come up against, although we think we’ve got it pretty well balanced at the moment. We have a system where we basically plug in how many locusts we’re using and then work out the ratios of that compared to everything else – we’re just using excel currently. It involves a lot of trial and error for sure. 

You’ve focussed on locusts, but what about other insects? What is it about locusts specifically that got your attention?

We definitely aren’t ruling out the use of other insects in the future.

We’ve gone for locusts because they’re a good source of protein and are relatively easy to breed. Also, there are other people in New Zealand breeding them at the moment, which for us is really good because it gives us something to work with and we can experiment with other farmers to test the market. If we were to go with something like beetles or silk worm larvae, the barriers to testing it would be higher because you’ve got to ship them in. The other benefit of locusts is they’re more marketable; using things like meal worms and beetles as a food source sounds a bit icky to most people. Also, simply, they taste good. They’re considered one of the better-tasting insects out there.

Studies have spoken of the benefits of eating locusts - increased healthy gut bacteria and reduced inflammation, for example – is that something you guys would consider including in your marketing.

Yea well the two consumer groups we’ve identified at the moment are the ‘nutriphiles’ and ‘envirophiles’, as we’ve termed them. The former want to eat crickets for the health benefits, the latter, because they’re better for the environment. Our focus is more on the ‘envirophiles’ because we feel that is really the bigger picture: converting to insects as a source of nutrition to reduce the strain on the environment. However, we also realise the Importance of the nutrition side of things, and locusts do provide a lot of nutritional benefits. They contain (using equivalent portions) more calcium than milk, more protein than beef, more iron than spinach, more potassium than bananas and so on, so there are some big selling points in terms of nutrition.

I think the big factors holding us back from talking about that side of things at the moment are cost and, therefore, quantity. As I said, these health benefits involve having equivalent amounts of beef, chicken, spinach, milk, etc., and at the moment it’s too costly to buy locusts in those quantities. So, at the moment, we’re saying, “they’re as good as these other foodstuffs, in smaller quantities, and then as the price is (hopefully) driven down, we can start focussing more on the nutritional market and positing locusts as more nutritionally beneficial on an equivalence level.

Do you have a rough estimate for when your product will go to market?

By the end of next year we would like to be selling in some capacity - preferably mid-next year. The biggest obstacle for us at the moment is getting MPI approval. We need to do a lot of testing to get it to a state where they can say we have it right in terms of food safety – though we feel we do have it pretty right now. Its just about getting the certified results in to say it is actually safe.

We haven’t had any incidents in terms of food safety and there is no evidence of Salmonella in these insects that we’ve seen. We just need to get into a commercial kitchen and do the microbial count testing, so we can prove it is, empirically, safe.

Where are you cooking it right now?

Right now we’re just cooking it in our kitchen! But we aren’t selling it of course. We have given it to people to show them it tastes good and we’ve sent it in to a few competitions like the one at Otago Uni. It’s been great being able to do that. People generally come in with pretty low expectations but we’ve had all-round positive feedback so far; the judges at that competition, for instance, all said it tasted like meat, which was cool to hear!

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