Insects are not regular fare on Western menus, but a surprising number of people worldwide—perhaps as many as 2.5 billion—eat them happily on a regular basis. High in protein, low in fat, and rich in iron and omega-3, bugs like grasshoppers and cicadas are vital staples—a crunchier, and more sustainable, alternative to beef, pork, and lamb.
Now, a group of students at McGill University, in Montreal, has a plan to produce edible insects on an industrial scale. The idea is to distribute cricket-producing kits to the world’s slums as a way of improving diets, and giving people more income. Families would eat what they needed, while selling the rest for processing into flour, and other products.
"We’re proposing a factory to grind cricket-flour with corn, wheat, or rice, whatever is local, and then creating very normal looking food that has an additional boost to it," says Zev Thompson, one the students. "The flour is where we see most of our profitability." The cricket-enriched flour could help people lacking protein and iron.
The McGill team is one of five finalists for the 2013 Hult Prize, a global student startup contest that’s focusing on urban food security this year. The winning entry, which is announced this September, will get $1 million in funding.
The initial kit design looks like an Ikea laundry basket—a light and cheap collapsible cylinder. The team says it could be capable of producing 11 pounds of crickets every two months. "We will probably charge for the kits, because that creates accountability," says Shobhita Soor, another of the students. "We envision we would weigh the crickets, and swap the kits in and out."
Between now and September, the students need to do more prototyping, and go on a research trip to gather information from potential users. They also want to spend time in the kitchen, working on recipes for tortillas and flatbreads using cricket-flour.
Thompson says crickets are not as gross as they first appear. He compares them to shrimp or popcorn, and speculates that there might also be opportunities closer to home (something that other startups are also looking into, as we wrote about here).
"Having now eaten them, it seems normal," he says. "I wonder if crickets today are what sushi was 20 or 30 years ago—a weird exotic thing that breaks into the mainstream. Some people are vegetarian for ecological reasons, but they are not opposed to eating insects. So, we might find an interesting niche here as well."