To start with the most exciting discovery – caterpillar burgers are really good! At the time of our harvest, most of the batch had spun cocoons (more about them later), but we had a couple hundred large silkworms (5th instar) left. Although our primary experiment was to prepare the cocooned pupae in more traditional methods of Vietnam and Korea, the idea was struck upon to make burger patties with the remaining caterpillars. The preparation was simple, the caterpillars were frozen, then blanched and food processed with onion, cilantro and breadcrumbs. The resulting mixture was easily formed into patties and browned nicely when fried. Best of all, when it came time to taste them, they were really delicious. Our conclusion was that they were “better than most veggie patties” – not bad for the first attempt! And they passed another important test: they went great with ketchup – a key litmus test of the North American palate.
On the heels of this smashing success however we concluded that silkworms are not a viable candidate for food source cultivation in North America. There are many pros to raising them: they are already domesticated and their lifecycles are well understood; they cannot survive in the wild so they are not at risk of becoming an agricultural pest; they grow and reproduce very quickly. Indeed at first glance they appear to be highly suited for use as a food source. Nevertheless, the cons simply outweigh the pros. Firstly, the fact that they only eat mulberry is extremely inconvenient. It renders year-round production nearly impossible because mulberry is a deciduous tree. That any silkworm farm also requires a mulberry farm results in a much larger footprint for any operation growing silkworms, whereas other species can subsist on non-specialized, opportunistically available diets and even on the waste streams of other agricultures (for example mealworms can live in just about any form of grain chaff and crickets will eat any past-its-prime vegetable you throw their way). The other major downside to the silkworms is that at their largest size (optimal harvest time), up to 25% of their body mass is composed of their silk glands. Although technically ‘edible’ or at least digestively inert, we are not aware of any particular nutritional value from consuming silk – and the glands harden and become tough and gristly when cooked.
Ok, so silkworm burgers were good, but it’s not worth raising them for that purpose you say – what about the pupae, the initial purpose of the experiment? How were they, and are they worth raising? The silkworm pupae were perfectly edible. One taster had a personal aversion to their taste, but the rest of us felt they were good enough, though nowhere near as tasty as the caterpillar burgers. However it absolutely does not makes sense to raise silkworms to pupae for consumption unless they are themselves a byproduct of a silk production operation. In addition to the issues in the previous paragraph with raising silkworms – the pupae have encased themselves in an incredibly tough protective case that needs to be removed without damaging the pupa inside. Cutting the pupae out of the cocoons and discarding the silk makes little economic sense when silk is so valuable, but processing silk itself is probably too labor intensive an operation to succeed in North America when the same product can be produced at lower cost in Asia.
Co-Founder, Tiny Farms
There is a very big question that we at Tiny Farms get asked and that we have to ask ourselves:
Why build a business around edible insects?
The answer is straightforward – we believe that insects offer a highly economical, sustainable solution to both existing and looming issues with the production and distribution of high quality protein to help meet growing demand as the world population grows and increases its protein consumption.
There are many considerations supporting this statement and it is important for those who do not understand all this bug business to be aware of them and to understand how the development of such businesses stand to benefit them. It is also a good exercise for those of us developing businesses in the field to take the time to think about what we are doing in its greater context in order to fully take advantage of the natural proclivities of our 6 legged livestock. Here is something to consider.
There are many alternative sources to protein besides traditional livestock. The most popular by far are vegetable based solutions – primarily soy. However, even ignoring the possible health implications of consuming too much tofu, the current trends in mass production of soy are not sustainable. The plant is massively mono-cultured – a practice that disrupts, indeed destroys by displacing, the natural ecosystems of millions of acres each year in the US alone (72 million acres of soy planted each year in the US according to http://www.wishh.org). Although soy can be grown sustainably in a polycultured situation, current standard practices in agriculture and the pressure to produce such high volumes of the crop largely preclude such an approach. This particular example highlights one of the most amazing benefits of farming insects – growing them on a large scale can be done based on their natural places in a normal healthy ecosystem, rather than creating forced unnatural ecosystems that require huge energy to maintain.
Insects are both pollinators and decomposers. They often have symbiotic relations with the life cycles of plants and animals, including those we use as food crops. This creates the opportunity for parallel and mutually beneficial farming, whereby the insects and other crops can support each other and provide a surplus of each to the farmer. The classic example of this in action is the cultivation of honey bees who pollinate a farmer’s fields allowing the fruit to develop while simultaneously producing surplus honey. Another example is found in vermiculture (worm composting). Organic waste from plant harvest and processing can feed large populations of worms who turn that waste stream into high quality fertilizer that can nourish the next generation of plants minimizing waste and reducing the required resources introduced into the system – while also providing themselves as a high quality source of protein that could be utilized either directly for human consumption, or indirectly as a food source for other livestock such as chickens or fish.
So this brings us back to our earlier statement, but now turned into a question:
How can our insect production operations take advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the role(s) of insects in the ecosystem?
There are many possible answers to this question and each approach will differ in its sustainability and profitability. Careful thought about this question should inform every business plan and roadmap for commercial development of insect farming. And this is not a simple question. To take this thought process just a small step further, let’s consider just the “ecosystem” in the question above.
In raising insects (in raising anything in fact), one is creating or manipulating an ecosystem. In doing so, one has two primary options, and both have pros and cons. Either one can create an artificial ecosystem with all the moving parts of a natural system (source of nutrients, water, energy, a climate, etc.) usually based on the most convenient or inexpensive land and material available, or one can more meticulously base production design and management on emulating a natural ecosystem.
At face value the first option seems like an obvious choice because it seems to make the best use of the resources at hand, and indeed most modern agriculture is developed and managed in this fashion (a prime example of the “forced ecosystem” is the mass importation of bees each year to pollinate huge monocultured orchards in California). However this approach is often based on a poor understanding of ecosystems and results in systems on constant life support, such as cattle feedlots that provide food and water in, meat, milk and waste out, but require huge amounts of energy to remove waste and heavily medicated cattle to stay “healthy”).
On the other hand, one can let nature “do its thing” by encouraging a healthy natural ecosystem and skim off the surplus. A great example of this in action is the Veta la Palma aquaculture farm in Spain (http://www.vetalapalma.es/). However the land and natural resources available to would-be farmers are not always suited to developing the particular ecosystems one may wish to foster, and the capital and time required to get such a system’s production up to speed may be prohibitive.
With insect farming, probably more so than with nearly any other form of agriculture, it should be easy to strike the perfect middle ground – both because insects can be among the most adaptive of livestock (for example grasshoppers and worms will eat just about any organic matter), and because the huge variety of insect species occupying every possible ecological niche in nature just about guarantees a fitting species can be found to raise in whatever natural or artificial ecosystem can be provided.
Just some thoughts, but worth thinking about. Bug farming offers us an amazing opportunity. Let’s proceed thoughtfully and use this opportunity to develop a truly sustainable and economical agriculture.
Co-Founder, Tiny Farms