Crickets vs. chicken? We’re missing the point.

Crickets vs. chicken? We’re missing the point.

By Greg Sewitz on May 08, 2015

[Ed. Note: Daniel is the co-founder and CEO of Tiny Farms, a company building a platform for the production of edible insects that is building out their first cricket farm as we speak.Recently, a scientific study came out comparing the feed conversion of crickets to chickens, and generated some debate about whether crickets were as sustainable as the press is claiming. We asked Daniel if he would write up a response to the study and its findings.

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[Ed. Note: Daniel is the co-founder and CEO of Tiny Farms, a company building a platform for the production of edible insects that is building out their first cricket farm as we speak. Recently, a scientific study came out comparing the feed conversion of crickets to chickens, and generated some debate about whether crickets were as sustainable as the press is claiming. We asked Daniel if he would write up a response to the study and its findings.–Greg]

Are crickets less sustainable than we think? A lot has been made of a recent study by two UC Davis researchers, published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study, based on raising crickets on various feeds, shows two things:

  • Crickets fed a given weight of poultry feed produce slightly more protein than chickens do.
  • Crickets fed a given weight of concentrated food waste produce significantly less protein than chickens fed the same weight of poultry feed.

As someone who is trying to make insect farming scale, this sounds like an amazing validation of our fledgling industry. You’re telling us we have scientific proof that crickets’ protein efficiency already beats that of chicken—which has taken 50 years and extraordinary amounts of research to attain? I’m excited for what the future holds.

The authors, though, assert that crickets will only improve the sustainability of our food system if they can be raised on high-quality waste products that are not currently being used for livestock production, the assumption being either that crickets can’t compete with poultry at a similar protein efficiency or that convincing people to eat bugs isn’t worth the hassle if they’re only as efficient as existing protein sources.

The press, hungry for stories on edible insects, picked this up and ran with it. Even Time is suggesting that “crickets aren’t so green after all.”

From our perspective, though, this entirely misses the point. As a founder of a company building tools for farming edible insects, let me shed some light on the reasons why.

Firstly, we all know that poultry production is incredibly efficient. While crickets might be better than chickens at turning feed into protein, modern chicken farms are highly sophisticated. Billions of dollars have been spent in pursuit of this optimization. However, with modern technology and a growing market, it won’t be long before cricket farms are just as automated. Once they are, they’ll be far more sustainable.

Crickets are much better suited to modern life than feathery jungle birds. For one, they need a lot less space. Crickets are happy at higher densities, and they stay healthy without antibiotics or pesticides. They love high temperatures, but since a thriving cricket colony generates substantial heat they need a lot less energy for climate control. They need clean, fresh water, but only a little; in fact, twelve times less than chickens do. This is a big deal in a time of record drought.

The original study’s authors fed crickets a range of foods, ranging from standard poultry feed to mixtures of food waste products. Unsurprisingly, crickets don’t thrive when fed the appetizing mixture of poultry manure and straw. What most journalists missed was how well the crickets did when fed a diet of processed grocery store waste. On this almost-free food source, they were nearly as productive as chickens fed high quality grains. This is obviously where some of the biggest resource savings could come into play. To quote the study directly: “In addition to avoiding the ecological costs embodied in the grain itself, the conversion of an organic side-stream to dietary protein prevents its deposition in environments with substantial nutrient loss pathways such as landfills and large-scale composting operations.”

Beyond the environmental benefits of saving energy, water, and food, cricket farms are far more flexible. A cricket farm producing tons of protein per day can be sited in a big city; there’s no noise or smell, so you wouldn’t even know it’s there. This means all the benefits of local farming: fewer food miles, fresher produce and less food waste.

Incidentally, a shed full of chickens produces huge amounts of manure. Runoff from chicken farms pollutes groundwater, rivers, and the sea. Instead of manure, crickets produce “frass”. It’s dry and clean, and it doesn’t smell. It works great as fertilizer, too.

When chickens are fully grown, they’re driven to a slaughterhouse. They’re killed, butchered and processed, then transported by refrigerated truck to wherever they’re eaten. The process is dirty, expensive, and inhumane, generating carbon dioxide and huge amounts of waste.

For crickets, harvesting is much more simple. They’re cooled until their metabolism stops, then dehydrated and ground into flour. Once dehydrated, they’re like jerky: they stay fresh at room temperature and don’t require refrigeration. Unlike chickens, the whole body is used, so there’s almost zero waste.

So, in addition to being better at eating poultry food than chickens are, crickets use far less energy and water, generate minimal pollution and can be raised and processed close to where they’re used. Beyond protein conversion efficiency, these are huge arguments for why crickets are a sustainable crop.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that crickets are merely as sustainable as chickens, one of the most efficiently-produced meats on the planet. Why would anyone eat crickets when they could eat chickens instead?

There’s a very good answer: insects are more than a replacement for meat. They’re an entirely distinct food group, new to the West but enjoyed by the rest of the world since the beginning of human history. Insects are delicious, healthy, and easy to cook. Their versatility for use as a snack, main course or additive ingredient is a pretty rare thing; I’ve never heard of a chicken protein shake.

Don’t worry about what you might have read in the press. Whichever way you look at it, culinary versatility combined with extreme sustainability means that insects as a food group are here to stay.