Along Morrison Road, in west Denver, there’s a 40-foot shipping container that houses 15,000 crickets, give or take — they aren’t the easiest insects to count.
They are one of the easiest insects to eat, however. As Wendy McGill, the crickets’ farmer, says, “On the lexicon of snack foods, they aren’t bad and [are] legitimately tasty.”
McGill is raising crickets in this shipping container, alongside thousands of wax worms and mealworms, too. She’s the CEO and founder of the Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, Colorado’s only edible insect farm, which launched in 2015. “Edible insects,” she claims, “are just one of the many solutions that we need to help feed the world.”
For McGill, edible insects play a critical role in the future of worldwide sustainability. “We’re living in a time where we’re going to feed more people and we have less resources to do that,” she says. “Weather and access to water is changing, further impeding our ability to raise food.”
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), raising insects — which compares to chicken and salmon in nutritional quality — uses less resources, takes up less space and overall costs less than raising traditional Western livestock. For example, to produce one kilogram of beef, a farmer needs at least 200 square meters of arable land. Alternatively, producing a kilogram of adult crickets only takes up 15 square meters of space, inside or out. This minimal footprint translates to the potential for more food for more people.
Giving a nod to the shipping container, McGill says, “This just shows how appropriate insect farming is in urban areas.”
Insects can thrive in nearly any environment and require minimal water, so they are a good fit for an arid, dry climate. As Colorado’s Water Plan, a state-sanctioned water sustainability plan, states, “Colorado does not have enough water to meet historic and future uses in a balanced manner without a collaborative plan of action.”
What if such a plan promoted edible insects? One kilogram of crickets requires one liter of water; one kilogram of beef takes 22,000.
Since the ’90s, the agriculture industry has been a notorious greenhouse gas contributor, emitting more than automobiles, according to the FAO. A kilogram of beef can produce 2,850 grams of greenhouse gasses, whereas a kilogram of crickets will contribute just one gram.
While a transition from traditional animal proteins to more environmentally-friendly insect protein could help the move toward a more sustainable future, there’s still one problem: what McGill calls the “ick factor.”
“There’s a whole aisle in the grocery store devoted to killing what I’m trying to sell and eat,” she says. “That’s a big mental hurdle for most people.”
This aversion, though, seems only present in North America and Europe. The rest of the globe has been munching on black soldier flies, scorpions and beetles for thousands of years. Dr. Darna Dufour, a biological anthropology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has spent years studying and writing about edible insects. Her research is based mostly in the Amazon, where “insects were a fairly important part of the diet,” she says.
It’s no surprise, because the nutritional quality of insects holds its own against other foods. A kilogram of crickets has a bit less protein than chicken, as much calcium as milk, equivalent stores of iron as spinach or broccoli, and as much vitamin B12 as salmon, according to the FAO.
“[For] insects, the quality of the protein is kind of an intermediate between plant protein and animal protein,” Dufour says. Protein is made up of different amino acids, nine of which humans need in specific ratios to maintain optimal health. “The closer the ratios are to what we need, the higher the quality the food is for humans.”
Egg whites, Dufour says, are the highest quality proteins for humans. Plant proteins, while they have all the amino acids we need, tend not to have the right ratios; combining and diversifying foods in order to satisfy the magic ratio is essential. “Insects are not a good sole source of protein,” she says. “But usually you’ll combine them with other foods so it’s OK… some of them, [like earthworms,] are also good sources of iron.”
Dave Baugh, co-founder and COO of Lithic Nutrition, Colorado’s lone cricket-based protein bar and powder company, says, “Cattle are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an unsustainable way of feeding our global population. People are starting to recognize this is going to run out. Our fisheries are being depleted, greenhouse emissions are out of control.”
Since the company launched in August of last year, Lithic Nutrition has been pushing to normalize crickets as a viable source of protein. They sell protein powders and bars made from roasted crickets pulverized into a smooth, flour-like consistency. The powders are meant to be shaken up like your typical post-gym mix, and the bars rival Lara Bars in texture and taste. “The big vision we are trying to help promote in American society is [seeing] insect protein used in our food supply just like whey and soy and other mainstream protein.”
While McGill will sell her crickets, mealworms and waxworms to chefs and restaurants around the Front Range such as River and Woods in Boulder, Lithic Nutrition sells its bars and powders to doctor’s offices, bodybuilders and gyms. “We see it as an inevitable fact that insect protein will become an integral part of our food system,” Baugh says. “Sustainability and nutrition wise, insect nutrition is better for everybody.”
Similarly to McGill, Baugh finds the toughest hurdle in inviting people to try Lithic’s products is their reactions to the thought of eating bugs. But he first encountered edible insects while on Marine deployment in Southeast Asia. “I experienced them not only from a jungle survival training capacity, but also as local street food. After a while I didn’t see it as a novelty. I realized it was a way of life for people around there.”
One of Baugh’s missions is to help normalize a name for cricket “meat” or “meal,” which he believes will help make it easier for Americans to digest edible bugs on a conceptual level. We eat beef, not “cow meat,” after all.
Once this normalization catches on, Baugh believes it’s “an inevitable fact that insect protein will become an integral part of our food system. It’s old school nutrition. We’re just resurrecting it for the American diet.”