Driven by conflict and climate change, global hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people in 2016, or 11 per cent of the population, according to a United Nations report on world food security and nutrition released in September. And this is in spite of the fact that our seas are being overfished and 70 per cent of agricultural land is being used to raise livestock, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Forget car exhaust emissions for a moment – as real as problems such as pollution, climate change and overpopulation are, food security is the biggest issue that we are presently facing.
Mohammed Ashour, the co-founder of a business called Aspire Food Group, which could accurately be described as “disruptive”, has what he believes is the only viable answer: if humans are set on getting their protein from animals, just change the type that’s farmed. Ashour wants the eating of insects to go mainstream.
Before you dismiss this as a proposal conjured up by a madman, hear him out. Because here's another fact: the United Nations says that two billion people in more than 80 per cent of the countries around the world already regularly eat insects, some because it's part of their culture, some because they're viewed as prized delicacies. Scorpions, tarantulas, termites, worms, weevils, caterpillars, crickets – there are more than 2,000 species of insects that humans can safely eat, and they're packed with protein.
The global food crisis
Ashour was in Dubai to give a talk – Are Insects the New Sushi? – at the Global Restaurant Investment Forum this month. And he is on a mission to overturn our aversion to eating bugs. "I was born to Egyptian parents, was raised in Canada and live in the United States," he says with a laugh. "So, apart from an identity crisis, I also grew up with the steadfast belief that I could be anything I wanted to be, so long as it was a doctor. And what I learnt on my very first day at medical school was that traditional medicine and treatments are only effective for 10 per cent of ailments. The vast majority of health issues are caused by what we consume in our diets."
In October 2012, he received an email that literally changed his life. "It was regarding the Hult Prize," he says, "which is considered by many to be the Nobel Prize for business. Every year, [former US president] Bill Clinton selects a global challenge and encourages entrepreneurs from around the world to come up with a business to address it. And only one team wins the million-dollar prize to start that business." In 2013, what Clinton selected may be the single biggest challenge of our future: food sustainability and security.
Ashour rattles off yet another alarming statistic, saying that when it comes to worldwide malnutrition, "nine years from now, we're going to have a 214-trillion calorie deficit. To put that in perspective, it's the equivalent of feeding every person in the world breakfast for an entire year. That's the global food deficit we will see within the next decade."
The culprit, he and his small team of fellow students discovered, was our reliance on livestock for protein. “A cow requires about 20 kilos of feed just to give you a single kilo of edible beef. With chickens, the ratio is about 5:1. This is incredibly inefficient. We’ve destroyed more than 90 per cent of the Amazon to grow soy and palm, in order to feed cattle. More than 80 per cent of antibiotics globally are used on animals, not human beings – we are on a catastrophic collision course. So we came to realise that, in order to meet the world’s protein needs, we needed to radically rethink the protein network.”
'Least destructive source of animal protein in existence'
And that turned out to be insects – only Ashour doesn’t refer to the by-product in such off-putting biological terms. “Nobody says that they eat cow,” he reasons. “They say beef instead. Psychologically it helps people get over the fact that they are, in fact, eating an animal and, more importantly it helps reinforce that they’re not eating the entire thing, but rather a very specific part that is considered desirable and nutritious.”
What Aspire farms is protein powder, known as Aketta, made from crickets. He says that, just as you get honey from bees, you get Aketta from insects, and that it's twice as protein-packed as beef and contains more vitamin B12 than milk. More than that, he enthuses, the environmental case for it is just too strong to ignore. The crickets require just 1.1kg of feed to produce a kilo of Aketta. It's the cleanest, least destructive source of animal protein in existence. Clinton was impressed enough to award Ashour and his team that million-dollar cheque, because they'd proposed a way to farm insects all year round, in completely clean conditions, forming a new supply chain that would turn insects into a cheap and nutritious food source for the masses.
Aspire developed the world's first fully automated, year-round cricket farm using robotics and processes that can be implemented anywhere in the world, to harvest rich yields that are reliable and sanitary. After all, one of the reasons most of us are repulsed by the thought of eating insects is where these things normally live – dark, damp, dirty and decaying environments that we only experience when we absolutely have to. The insects grown and harvested by Aspire have never been anywhere near a drain or rotting tree stump, and haven't been contaminated by chemicals.
Turning insects into food
The company operates two plants: one in Austin, Texas, where crickets are farmed, and the other in Ghana, Africa, where the focus is on palm weevil larva. Once they're sufficiently developed, the crickets are killed by lowering the ambient temperature (which apparently involves no suffering), roasted to "bring out their natural nutty, earthy flavours" and processed into flour or protein powder that is used in other foodstuffs. The Ghana facility was set up to provide the local population with a rich source of iron, in a region where nearly a fifth of maternal deaths are caused by iron-deficiency anaemia, according to the country's Demographic Health Survey.
Ashour's enthusiasm is contagious and, on the face of it, what he says makes complete sense. We're mostly happy to eat marine life that, if it were land-based, would probably remain off most people's plates. Is there really a difference between eating a king prawn and a bug? What would you call a sea-dwelling spider? A crab, right? It's our perceptions that affect our appetites, and introducing insect protein in the form of powders or flours is simply a step in achieving mass acceptance.
“In the mid-1800s,” Ashour points out, “in most places in America, lobsters were considered to be garbage food, to the extent that when fishermen caught them in their nets, they would ground them up and spread them on their fields like fertiliser. They were considered so revolting that they were only fed to servants, prisoners and slaves. And even they didn’t want them. Today, there remains a law in Maine, Massachusetts, that states it is ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ to feed lobster to a prisoner more than three times a week. Clearly lobsters have come a long way since.”
He adds that just 20 years ago, the idea of eating raw fish was, to most people, preposterous. Yet now you can’t go anywhere without seeing restaurants that serve sushi. If you think that Ashour and his team can’t lobsterise or sushify crickets, then maybe you should hold that thought. These are rapidly changing times and what was ludicrous just a few years ago, becomes mainstream before we know it.
To conclude, perhaps just one more fact to consider: if you go to an Atlanta Hawks basketball match at the team’s stadium, you’ll find tacos and hot dogs at the food stalls. Sprinkled on top you won’t find soggy, stringy strips of onions – instead you’ll find roasted crickets. The revolution, it would appear, is already under way.