Ready or not, they’re coming: thanks to the new and simplified Novel Food Regulation, insects are now one step closer to becoming an alternative source of protein for humans. From this year, selling insect-based ingredients in the EU will be much less complicated for producers and suppliers.
And while the idea of eating the whole bug is still too much to take for our squeamish Western palates, flour is a different story. Using meal made from insects in snack bars, pasta and so on, may well be the first, easiest step to convince us to eat bugs without being repelled.
The interest in insect farming is not a capital-fuelled fad. In fact, there’s a very serious issue behind it: finding alternative and more sustainable protein sources, while the world population keeps growing and natural resources are dwindling.
Cricket One is a start-up that is making that happen: they’re based in Vietnam, where they farm crickets and transform them into meal for humans and pets. Currently, they’re part of Startupbootcamp’s accelerator in Rome, and they’ll take part to the Demo Day this January with the rest of the start-ups in the program.
Here’s my interview with Cricket One’s co-founder Bicky Nguyen.
How exactly do you grow your crickets?
We use breeding units that we packed into self-contained 40ft containers. These units yield the same amount of crickets as a typical a 100m² farm. The farming process is almost completely automated. The units get opened for 5 to 10 minutes per day, when crickets are fed through feeding trays. During the rest of the time, the units run by themselves. We have a climate control system that creates the ideal conditions for the crickets to grow, like temperature, pressure and moisture. The system also manages the very little amount of greenhouse gas that crickets generate. All the parameters are monitored by sensors and our management software activates the climate control system, once the conditions go below or beyond the optimal level.
It’s a smart system that imitates how crickets grow in nature, so there’s very little human involvement. This way, we reduce labour costs and eliminate most of the risk coming from human error and alien insects.
It sounds like IoT also plays an important role there.
Yes, it does. Indeed, together with my business partner Nam Dang and four more technical partners, we founded an IoT start-up in 2014, called Mimosatek. We were the first ones in Vietnam to do IoT for agriculture back then. So, naturally, we adapted the same methodologies and technologies from one start-up to the other.
What do your crickets eat and who’s in charge of feeding them?
Most of the other players in the market use commercial animal feed made with soy, cornmeal or fishmeal to feed crickets. We mainly use cassava instead. Its leftovers, leaves in particular, contain up to 20-22% of proteins and they’re also rich in mineral fibres and copper. However, they also contain cyanide a very toxic substance for humans and animals. Because we have the technology to eliminate that toxic element, we can condense the leftovers and create a higher-quality feed. Our process doesn’t require a lot of energy, only a bit of labour, which is where we use the help of local farmers,
How is this collaboration beneficial to them?
It allows them to earn an additional income from a resource that would otherwise be wasted. Vietnam is one of the largest exporters of cassava worldwide and cassava is one of the most important crops grown in the country. There are thousands of farmers growing cassava. During harvest season in October and November, they typically burn the leaves and branches on the field.
So we provide them the breeding units at no upfront cost, teach them how to transform cassava leftovers into feed, and how to feed the crickets. Thanks to our IoT technology, we’re able to track the batch of crickets it’s coming from, the breeding unit and which farmer is in charge of it. Also, we give them the option to keep a farming journal, where they log all the activity. The final harvest is done by us. Also, there are thousands of farmers growing cassava, which makes our model easily scalable.
Do all those processes take place locally or at your facility?
We divided each farming area into small hamlets of 20-25 farmers, and that’s where we concentrate the breeding units. It’s the best logistic compromise between centralizing everything at our facility – not practical for farmers – and delivering a breeding unit to each farmer’s yard – highly problematic for us.
Your start-up’s name clearly says you focus on crickets only. What about other insects, like grasshoppers, mealworms or black soldier flies? Any plans to start working with those as well?
Honestly, we believe you can’t be an expert if you try to do too many things at the same time, and farming crickets alone is already a lot of work.
Before we decided to go for crickets, we did a feasibility study for many different insects. We looked at factors like weather, nutritional profile, performance, production and also the two most important things: regulations and environmental impact.
Let’s take grasshoppers for example. They have a bigger biomass compared to crickets, but if we look at the type of finished product we want to have, grasshoppers have more fat than proteins. Also, they need more time to grow, compared to crickets.
The second problem was, grasshoppers travel, and they’ll eat anything as long as it’s leafy. So just imagine the consequences on the environment if you had an outbreak in a grasshopper farm. Crickets on the other hand, don’t travel that much and don’t eat just anything.
The black soldier fly was another candidate. They’re amazing insects really, but honestly, I wouldn’t have liked to work with them. And if I can’t see myself visiting my own farm, then there’s no point. Besides, the soldier fly larva is not native of Vietnam. However, they definitely are they future of animal feed.
Mealworms are a different story. Crickets, the moment they hatch they are already formed, while mealworms go through different stages: from beetles to eggs, then to larvae and then pupates. Maybe, in the next five or ten years we’ll have an automatic farming system that takes care of all of those stages, but at the moment we wouldn’t be able to do it.
For humans, crickets have the best taste, shape, smell and nutritional value. They also make great feed for pets like dogs and cats. There’s a lot of research about the performance of cricket feed on pets. Indeed, pet food companies are another segment for us. They’re using our cricket powder for product development.
Your business is based in Vietnam, but you’re currently part of Startupbootcamp’s accelerator in Rome. What are the differences between the start-up scene in Europe and in your home country?
The start-up ecosystem in Vietnam has boomed in the last 4-5 years. If we’re talking about start-ups, entrepreneurship and so on, there’s a lot of attention from media, government, the academic world and private investors.
The problem however, is lack of mentorship. Almost all of the focus right now is on apps. But if you’re involved in production of actual, visible products, it’s going to be very difficult for you.
Another problem in Vietnam is lack of specific knowledge. When we had to find an entomologist for example, we couldn’t find anyone locally, so we hired one from the Netherlands. There are entomologists in Vietnam, but they’re all expert in pest control, not in farming.
In Europe we’re finding the connections and the mentorship we need. At the same time however, I believe there are more opportunities for me and my business partner in Vietnam. It’s very easy to start a business there.
How do you view the potential of the European market?
Right now, the Netherlands is the leading country in Europe, Belgium is quite open about the idea, UK is booming faster, while Switzerland and Finland are very active and open-minded.
If you look at the market five years ago, there were like 10 or 12 companies dealing with insects, now there are hundreds. There’s a lot of interest and support from governments, universities and public institutions around the idea of eating insects. There are a lot of campaigns, programs, and tasting events to let people know that insects don’t taste that bad after all.
Speaking of taste, how long do you think it will take for Western consumers to get used to the idea of eating insects? What can start-ups in the industry do to facilitate this process?
It’s not going to happen tomorrow or in a year. It will take some time, but the process has started and it’s not stopping. I’m an ingredient supplier, so I don’t deal with consumers directly, but I can see how my clients are using our ingredients to create food that just looks so inviting and tasty. Maybe, if you give them whole insects they’ll still reject them, but if you present them a super fancy cricket burger they would try it.
What do you think of the recent changes in the Novel Food Regulation?
The changes were very positive. At least now there’s a common procedure and a central authority in charge of approving. Before, each country had its own way of doing things, and it was very difficult for us to have standardized procedures to do our job.
Applying for a Novel Food authorization still takes money, time and effort, though. Luckily for us, we work with some big distributors that have the financial capability to apply for it. However, we’re planning to raise funds to get our own authorization. That’s the reason why we have another office in the Netherlands.
What about big food companies? Are they interested in the insect protein market?
Our direct income comes from food producers, but we’re also trying to build partnerships with the big players because we have to look at the bigger picture.
Large organizations like Unilever, Barilla, Pepsi and Nestlé are definitely looking at the insect protein market right now, but the thing is, they need a long time to launch a product and make a buying decision. Also, they are waiting to see how the market will change and how the other players are doing before jumping into it. So for us it’s more of a long term thing, but even for large food companies I think it’s only a matter of time.
I’m not trying to be overly optimistic, but Pepsi, for example, did a lot of research on cricket protein in snack bars, and European consumers are already getting used to eating pasta that is made with alternative ingredients like quinoa, chickpeas or lentils, so one day they’ll be ready for cricket pasta too.