Bugs on the BBQ

Local experts say replacing animal agriculture with farmed insects can contribute to a more sustainable diet

(Kristen Frier)

The Victoria Bug Zoo is one of the few places in the country that folks can readily find edible insects. Some of their products are from Entomo Farms, and others are from the United States. Currently, they have crickets, ants, and suckers containing mealworms, with the insect encased in a transparent square piece of candy with artificial dye.

Jaymie Chudiak, the zoo’s general manager, says that insect larva can make for a great snack, and they come in flavours like cheddar cheese, barbeque, and sour cream and onion.

“And then they also do a couple of cricket ones as well. Sour cream and onion, who doesn’t love sour cream and onion? Salt and vinegar [are] also very popular,” says Chudiak.

It is estimated that at least two billion people consume insects worldwide, and more than 1,900 species have been used as food sources. A few gourmet dishes made with insects from around the world include queen ant egg tostadas from Mexico, bug tapas or fried insects from Cambodia, and even insect ramen from Japan.

Others include Mod daeng, which are eggs from weaver ants in Thailand, and the Hormiga culona, fried fat-bottomed ants from Colombia.

Eating insects can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, by lowering the amount of water and land needed for agriculture. However, it’s still a matter of Canadians getting used to its crunchy and nutty texture.

Some of the most eaten insects around the world are beetles, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers, locusts ,crickets, true bugs, termites, dragonflies, flies, and others.

Even though insects have small bodies, they are packed with nutritious benefits. They have protein, mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids, B-vitamins, and minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and selenium. However, some insects are closely related to crustaceans, which means that people allergic to crustaceans should be careful.

One of the reasons Canadians don’t consume insects as part of their regular diet is because most big insects are found further south where the environment is hotter.

“If you look at the diets of Indigenous peoples in this part of the world, the diets were very diverse, largely based around products that were harvested from the ocean, plus roots and berries and various land products. But not a lot of insects are in the Indigenous diet here,” says Dr. Michael Bomford, a Kwantlen Polytechnic University instructor and chair of the department of sustainable agriculture and food systems.

However, there are some ways for Canadians to consume insects and contribute to their environmental benefits even in colder climates.

Entomo Farms is an Ontario-based farm that grows and sells different forms of edible crickets. Currently, they sell flavoured crickets, cricket powder, whole roasted crickets, and snacks made with crickets.

Jarrod Goldin, the co-founder of Entomo Farms, says individuals can make cookies, muffins, and banana bread with cricket powder.

“You can put it in chili, you can put it in a smoothie. People have made pasta, crackers, bread, or almost anything that you can use with flour … [add] a couple of spoons of cricket powder, and make some pancakes on a Sunday morning,” Goldin says.

The cricket farming process is more sustainable than animal agriculture, as they require less water, energy, space, and they don’t release any methane gas. In addition, the entire insect can be eaten, so no parts are being wasted, Goldin says.

“So there is literally no waste, even cricket poop, which is called frass, is an amazing fertilizer, and we use it as a fertilizer,” says Goldin.

Producing edible insects has a high land-use efficiency when compared to traditional protein sources, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“In fact, it takes two to ten times less agricultural land to produce one kg of edible insect protein compared to one kg of protein from pigs or cattle,” reads a report released by the organization.

Farmers will also need less feed to get meat out of the animal by the end of its life, says Bomford.

“I guess another advantage to insects is that we can eat more of them. So if you produce a kilogram of insect, about 80 per cent of that would be edible. Whereas for chicken or pork, you’re looking at maybe 55 per cent of that carcass actually providing edible meat. Or for beef, that’s closer to about 40 per cent of the carcass being edible,” he says.

“So not only do we make more efficient use of the feed, but more of that produces edible protein, edible meat down the line.”

Aside from humans, animals are also consuming insects. Enetrra is a Candian organization that has its facilities in Calgary, Alberta, and specializes in growing black soldier flies that are native to North America. Some of their products include whole dried larvae, protein meal, and oil all made from the fly larvae.

The growing process of the fly can take 30 to 35 days, says Bruce Jowett, Enterra’s director of marketing.

The black soldier fly eggs hatch into neonates, and from there they grow into the larval stage.

“The larval stage is about 17 to 20 days. They will then mature in the larval stage turned into a pupa, which is a hard, almost black-like stage where they then transform and come out as the adult.”

Their facilities are the size of three football fields under one roof. And at any given time, they can have three billion insects in the facility, in different stages of growth.

In order to keep the flies from escaping the facility, Jowett says that they keep them in rooms within rooms within the building.

“Even if it were [to escape], it is native to North America. So we aren’t introducing anything that isn’t here already,” Jowett says.

One of the ways Enterra practices sustainability is by decreasing its land-use by vertical farming, which is the process of stacking the insects in chambers as they grow. The company also uses pre-consumer food from grocery stores or startup businesses that have unsellable products to feed their insects.

“So this is not food that is coming out of somebody’s house or out of a restaurant. We have relationships with food manufacturers who are producing food, and … there may be product that doesn’t look right, or with grocery stores, there’s food that is past date. What we are able to do is take those different feeds or pre-consumer food, and we’re able to then pull together the right blend for the bugs to eat,” says Jowett.

A government of Canada news release from 2020 revealed that “more than half of Canada’s food supply is wasted annually and $49.5 billion of that wasted food is avoidable. Food is wasted from farm to plate, through production, processing, distribution, retail, food-service and at home.”

Eight per cent of greenhouse gases emission worldwide are a result of food waste, the statement added.

There are some indirect environmental impacts when it comes to farming edible insects. Insect farms in Canada need a source of heat in order to keep insects warm and toasty.

“Are there fossil fuels being burned in order to heat that structure and create our artificial environment? And also, what resources are required for crop production?” asks Jowett.

At the same time, he says that comparing insect farms to livestock farms, livestock also needs a constant heating system.

In a study published in 2017, insect agriculture researchers in the Netherlands concluded that livestock production contributes to climate change through processes like deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, loss of plant biodiversity, and water pollution. Also, the demand for meat products is expected to increase by more than 75 per cent in 2050 due to population growth.

“I think that perhaps one of the advantages to rearing insects is that it’s a labour efficient process, as in it doesn’t require a lot of people to produce a lot of food,” says Bomford. “I think particularly because insects aren’t widely accepted in the diet here.”

Similarly, Jowett says that their company’s biggest challenge is that in North America, eating insects isn’t a regular part of the diet compared to places like Asia or South America.

“The protein that we derive from the insects is very high-quality protein. But still, there are people who are concerned about feeding their dog or feeding their cat products that are derived from insects, and they don’t quite understand it. So it’s an education for us,” he says.

Disgust is the first reaction from most of the folks who try edible insects in the Victoria Bug Zoo, says Chudiak.

“Most people, their initial reaction is ‘Ew gross.’ It’s just in Western culture it is not very common to eat insects. And so most people when they first see it, especially adults, are just like, ‘Ew gross. That’s disgusting. Why would I ever want to do that?’ The kids are like, ‘Can I get it? This is great, I could eat a bug. How fun is that?’”

Most kids do it as a joke to gross out their parents, she says.

“But sometimes they, unfortunately, listen to their parents and they mimic their parents. And they go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s gross.’ So, sometimes it takes a little bit of work on our part to get people to come around to the idea of eating bugs, telling people that 80 per cent of countries in the world [eat bugs].”

She says that it’s strange that Canadians don’t eat bugs, because they are very tasty.

“They’re very easy to digest, they’re good for you. Great proteins, they’ve got great iron, they’ve got great vitamins in them. They’re just really good for you.”

Some of the animals that shouldn’t be farmed for consumption are tarantulas, says Chudiak, because they could be in danger of extinction if commonly consumed.

Asides from tarantulas, Chudiak warns that caterpillars and some millipedes are poisonous, and would not be suitable for eating purposes. They produce chemicals like ammonia, iodine, and cyanide in their body that are not good for digestion.

On the upside, growing insects is something that folks can try to do on their own in a basement if they have a little bit of space as it doesn’t take many resources, says Bomford.

“It’s nice to find something that really doesn’t require much land, and insects would be an example of that, and it’s really low-tech farming,” he says.

“It’s something you could try to do yourself as a hobbyist, and maybe, start to try to develop that market a little bit. Try to convince your friends that this is something they might want to try.”