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If you've heard all the hype around cricket protein, you may still have a lingering question. If crickets require fewer resources than less sustainable sources of protein, why aren’t they cheap? It's an excellent question, with two key reasons.
Guest Post: To discuss the cost of cricket farming, we brought in expertise from Aspire — the company that farms all the crickets we use. Abir Syed is their former VP of Finance and is currently a consultant for startups and small businesses.
By now you’ve probably heard a lot of the marketing hype about crickets.
“20x less resources than beef.”
“Maximum nutrition, minimum resources.”
“High in micronutrients!”
If you count yourself among those concerned with the increasingly alarming reports on the point of no return for climate change, then you’re likely interested in every potential solution. Electric cars, sustainable clothing, renewable energy, insect protein…They all try to achieve a lower environmental footprint with no reduction in quality.
In some cases, that means using more expensive materials and processes. But if it’s better for the environment, it’s worth it to many.
With cricket protein, the benefit comes from requiring fewer resources to begin with. That’s amazing! If you can get great-tasting products with excellent nutrition and a smaller environmental input, it’s a win-win-win.
But the more inquisitive among you may be rightfully curious: if crickets require fewer resources, why aren’t they cheap?
It’s an excellent question. There are two key reasons why that’s not yet the case. I’ll boil them down into research & development (R&D) and scale.
The two major players farming crickets for human consumption in North America started around 2013. That includes us, Aspire Food Group.
Before that, there were certainly farming operations for feeder crickets and pet food. But the quality and process required to farm for human consumption meant having to reimagine that process significantly.
And in our case, where we plan on solving that problem using modern tools like automation, it meant essentially starting from scratch.
So what sorts of things require so much research and development?
To start, there’s the feed.
If we want to feed crickets to humans, we need to make sure that they’re eating high-quality feed that’s clean and nutritious. We don’t want to feed them waste as if they were just being used for fish bait.
Not only that, but it’s important that the crickets be organic and non-GMO. That needs to be taken into consideration regarding their feed as well.
As you can imagine, because these issues weren’t a concern to anyone before, there wasn’t exactly a perfectly optimized Cricket Chow we could pick up at Costco.
We had to start with something a bit more standard, like a chicken feed. From there, we had to optimize.
Doing so requires feed scientists, lots of different feed components that can be tested in different proportions, and tons of data.
That difficult process would enable us to design feed that is perfectly tuned to the cricket’s needs. It’ll include what it needs to give them a healthy nutritional profile. And it’ll exclude wasted components of the feed that they don’t really need to grow, but which drive up cost.
That means more nutritious crickets, and less expensive feed wasted.
Crickets are nocturnal and like to group with other crickets in tight, confined spaces.
We may have generally known that, but we didn’t know much about what sort of conditions are “perfect” for a cricket.
That meant answering a lot of questions. How much do they need to eat, and when? How much water do they drink? What sort of materials can their habitat be made of to ensure they’re happy and healthy, but not escaping? What sort of temperature and humidity do they prefer?
Perfecting all these conditions means our crickets will mature faster and be healthier. Which in turn means that we can turn out a lot more crickets in a given amount of time and space. And that of course, reduces cost.
But figuring all that out requires a lot of trial and error. And it also requires a lot of expensive sensors. Our facility has to be filled with sensors that measure the feed given to the crickets, the heat they generate, the humidity of the facility, etc.
And we also need people to process the tons of data generated.
In most industries, automation has played a significant role in bringing down costs.
But at the moment, farming crickets is still a very labor-intensive process.
There’s a very delicate process to hatching new crickets. They need to be fed several times a day. They need to be harvested and cleaned. And all these steps typically required a lot of manual labor.
But if we wanted to scale up our farming, and be competitive with technically-advanced chicken and beef farms, we had to do some automation of our own.
We couldn’t just go to Best Buy to get the latest Cricket Feed Robots.
That meant we needed a team of engineers to try and figure out how to take the most labor-intensive steps in the farming process and automate them.
For example, when harvesting we only want to extract live crickets from a habitat, while ignoring all the waste and uneaten feed — which we can sell as a byproduct to farmers.
Doing that was a very tedious manual process. Until our engineers built an amazing machine that harvested and sorted everything automatically.
Each incremental step towards automation makes us more competitive. But, of course, testing out each of these different iterations of feed robots and harvesters requires, again, tons of data.
Which brings me to my last point.
The recurring theme here is that to do R&D, we require tons of data. And tons of data means you need a lot of crickets, for a lot of time.
We need that in order to optimize continuously and catch up as quickly as possible to all the other farming industries that are way ahead of us.
This, however, left us with a dilemma.
When we had to design our current farming facility, we could have done so to optimize for production. That meant packing habitats tightly, and using as much of the available space for farming as possible.
The problem with that approach is that it would make it difficult for people to access bins, take data measurements, and for us to test out iterations of our robots.
So we took a different approach.
We designed our facility “inefficiently” on purpose. That meant that while it wasn’t going to output quite as many crickets, it was going to allow us to gather as much data as possible.
One way that manifests is that we divided our farming area into several smaller rooms. This means a lot of wasted space.
But it also means that we can test several different temperature and humidity combinations at the same time, while keeping everything else the same.
If everything was optimized for production and using just one large space, we’d learn at a much slower pace.
Remember, the idea is that we want to optimize things as quickly as possible. Doing so means that our farming will become much more efficient, and therefore much cheaper. But to do that, we have to invest upfront in the R&D. And unfortunately that means we can’t be quite as cheap as we’d like just yet.
All that feed, habitat, and robot optimization is necessary to compete with the more mature livestock industries. But they have one other advantage, scale.
It’s pretty well understood that the more you buy of something, the cheaper it is. And in business it’s also generally true that the bigger an operation is, the more efficient it can be.
While there’s a lot of nuance to the numbers, an illustrative example may help. One of the larger cattle farms in the world is Anna Creek in Australia, which is over 6 million acres. Our facility in Austin, Texas, is less than 1 acre. So, yeah.
The point isn't that comparing the amount of land used between industries is the fairest metric for cost or complexity. It absolutely isn’t. It's to show just how huge the gap in resources is between our entire industry and just one really large farm. But I think you get the point.
The traditional livestock industry is an absolute behemoth.
Not only that, but cattle farming has been going on for centuries, and in some form or another for millennia. And like I mentioned, we’ve been at this since 2013.
When an industry is incredibly mature and absolutely massive, they benefit from significant economies of scale. That means they can buy stuff especially cheap, and do things especially efficiently.
Our need for R&D and our tiny scale means cricket farming costs more than we’d like at the moment. But things are getting better. We know that crickets biologically require far fewer resources than our competitors, so there’s a point at which we’ll beat them.
Just like Tesla needed to sell the luxurious Model S to allow for R&D and get better at making cars until they could release the mass-market Model 3, we’re doing our best to use this time to improve our farming practices as much as possible, as quickly as possible.
We’re also hard at work planning for our next facility, which will be significantly larger than our current one. And this one will be optimized for production — meaning huge output at the lowest possible cost.
But until then, it means that whenever you support cricket protein, you’re helping us work towards that future where cricket protein can deliver on everything it promised.