I Farm Crickets, The Future Of Human Food: 7 Insane Truths
If you're reading this from the civilized world, most of your insect encounters boil down to emotionally scarring spider cameos and annoying flies. But in roughly 80 percent of the countries on Earth, people eat insects. Cracked sat down with one man who has made it his life's work to get Americans to eat more bugs; Kevin Bachhuber, cricket farmer, told us ...
We're Going To Need To Eat Bugs Eventually
Kevin first ate bugs in Thailand. "In 1998, as part of comprehensive food security stuff ... the King of Thailand put together a pretty robust cricket-growing program."
Why would Thailand invest in crickets? Because crickets are an incredible source of protein: 100 grams of crickets has 21 grams of protein, compared to beef's 26 grams. Crickets need one-twelfth the feed of beef, require vastly less water, and don't need to be pumped full of antibiotics in order to raise en masse. Plus, baby crickets are considerably less cute than baby cows.
Plus they're too tiny for puppy-dog eyes to work.
In 2013, the U.N. released a report politely suggesting that people consider using insects to replace some of their animal proteins, because they generate 10 to 100 times less greenhouse gases than, say, pork, and Mother Nature's taking enough hits for us as it is. Kevin took that U.N. report as a call to action. He decided to become a cricket farmer:
"You can get Thai crickets and cricket standards, but, y'know ... they have different food standards. You need to have all your T's dotted and I's crossed when you're selling bugs in the U.S. We actually ended up moving to Ohio for a .27-cent-per-square-foot warehouse. ... We broke ground in April of 2014."
Kevin's is one of the 25-ish new startups in the "convincing people to eat bugs" industry. The edible industry is valued at $20 million a year and growing quickly. Kevin's "farm" consists of many different boxes, each housing 40,000*-ish crickets:
*39,999: Rupert, of Box 3, died shortly before this story was published.
"I am constantly shocked by how full the warehouse will be at times. We have a bunch of climate-controlled rooms on the farm. We now have built-in, separated-out rooms. Everything's pressure-washable. We have a harvest room that's certified and inspected as a frozen-food processing facility, and that's what our inspectors are most concerned with. We maximize the space where we actually raise the crickets."
Kevin's farm is the first and only human food-grade cricket farm in the U.S. And in order to earn that title ...
They Had To Force The FDA To Inspect Them
People have been raising crickets in the U.S. for generations, mostly to use as feed for the pets of your friendly neighborhood weirdo. Kevin says that the advice of those growers was indispensable, but, because the government only barely cares what we feed our most conventionally adorable pets, they couldn't help him cut through the regulatory red tape necessary to make people-food-grade crickets. Kevin's farm had to get certified by a state-level food agency and inspected by the FDA. Yes, "inspected," not approved. "They hate the word 'approved.' We are 'inspected' by the FDA, and that's the most they're willing to say."
Getting the FDA to inspect them was an uphill battle. "It took a lot of work and a lot of educating. My first call with food safety guy: 'Crickets, those are a lot like cockroaches, right?'" A year later, he figured out the comeback: "They're kind of like roaches in the way that rats are like elephants."
Splinter, left; Dumbo, right.
It turns out there are three rules you have to abide by to sell food to people: "Don't take bugs that are wild-harvested and put them in people food. Don't take animal food bugs and put them in people food. And the third is ... to use GMPs: good manufacturing practices."
GMPs aren't very well defined when it comes to farming bugs. So Kevin's farm had to give the FDA something they understood how to inspect: They built a frozen-food processing facility inside their farm, just to force an FDA inspection:
"Insects are neither plants nor, like, cows. So there's no rules, really. With the FDA in particular, you don't get their approval for something. You go and do it, and if you get it wrong, they sue you. In the E.U. you get permission, in the U.S. you seek forgiveness."
USA! USA! USA!
Crickets Die At The Drop Of A Hat
It turns out, captive-bred crickets aren't quite as hardy as their cousins who coat every inch of the American South five months out of the year. "We had this problem for a while ... our water was not drinking-water quality; it had too much chlorine. ... The water levels would spike and a couple hundred thousand or a million bugs would die. We'd installed water filters, but some of the stuff is really pernicious." Acceptable numbers of dead livestock in the cricket-farming world rival the casualty counts from battles on the Eastern Front. Thankfully, they're just friggin' crickets.
You know your death doesn't matter when mourners dry-roast your mass grave.
"There's so much fucking at little bits of it: getting the humidity to hold. We had a slime mold once. The females oviposit. ... They have this plunger-like thing; they penetrate the ground and lay eggs into it. We use peat moss as the substrate. It holds water well, lets them incubate. In nature they do it in dirt, but dirt has E. coli."
It's what gives free-range crickets that tangy flavor.
The good thing about insect farming is that diseases don't seem to pass from crickets to people or vice-versa. There's no mad cricket disease. But there is a vast ecology out in the world that feeds off nature's plentiful crickets, and that means constant vigilance must be the cricket farmer's watchword: "We got a slime mold once: these weird, colonial organisms ... like a fungus, but it moves. One time we got these cordyceps ... the zombie things. There's one for crickets. We got one! It was cool. It was super cool. ... It makes them crawl up on these things and shoots these tiny spears out through the gaps in the chitin. If you don't catch it right away, it releases spores."
And just like that, four new places for Jiminy to hang his top hat.
Thankfully, one of Kevin's employees had done a master's thesis on this exact species of fungus. "He was doing his rounds; he saw one clinging to the top. It was a zombie-mind-control thing on OUR CRICKETS." And like all good Cracked readers, Kevin was familiar enough with the dreaded mind-controlling cordyceps to be duly elated: "I was so excited, after all those years of Discovery Channel documentaries ... so we kept it, y'know? We put it aside and took it home, but it just died."
We asked him how it got in: "Ahhhhh, shit happens. The micro-ecology stuff ... the gaps in filters are so much bigger than a spore. What's most likely ... either a housefly got in there or a coffin fly ... had a spore clinging to its body."
And that's how the cricket apocalypse begins ...
You Start To Sympathize With The Crickets
Spending hundreds of hours in close proximity to millions of crickets has given Kevin some insight into the little guys: "They're like people. ... As they get older, they want to be away from each other. It's crazy what staring at big-ass masses of gregarious animals do to their perception of humanity. You knock on one side and the crickets closest to the wall panic, then the ones next to them ... and then you're in New York City, and a car backfires, and people freak out and the people next to them freak out. There's like a wave."
Though a cricket farm isn't exactly like New York City, because there's less trash.
"They're not like ants: Crickets are gregarious. They get along. They're not, like, hive-minded. They have four ways they communicate: They have pheromones, they obviously chirp, they have kind of a dancing thing that they do. They do antennae fencing -- that's so much fun to watch. They sword fight with their antennae; the cricket that loses will go sulk in a corner for 12 hours. Because their self-esteem is hurt."
Crickets have enough personality that Kevin can tell which ones are assholes: "Say you have 40k crickets in a bin. Eight to 12 of them might decide to be bullies, and they will block the other crickets from getting to the food tray. I don't know, man -- I just watch it sometimes and I'm like, 'What are you doing?'"
Nothing worse than a conscience gone rogue.
As mentioned, one of the big benefits of eating insects is that they're a source of high-quality animal protein that isn't as resource-intensive as a factory farm full of cows. Plus, people care more about the feelings of cows than of crickets. But all this cricket watching has made Kevin way more sympathetic than he ever was before:
"I have tremendous sympathy for the bugs, and I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility. ... We're their sole caretakers. If they need food or water, they are completely dependent on us. A lot of my floor staff can't eat the crickets anymore -- they're like, 'I've put so much work into them.'"
At Least You Can Kill Them Kindly
Kevin's sympathy for the plight of his millions of cricket-children has led him to make the "butchering" process as painless as possible:
"I'm super Jewish, and the crickets are not kosher, but a lot of kosher law involves humanity to your animals. You're not supposed to eat carnivore meat because they cause suffering to other animals. There's still debate ... but crickets have a state. When it gets cold outside, they go into suspended animation."
So they're not likely to notice when you sprinkle them with salt and dip them in soy sauce.
Hence the frozen-food processing facility: That's how you kill them kindly. "We chill them, so they aren't feeling pain. And then we freeze them. During one of our R&D batches ... so they could prototype recipes, we didn't freeze them deep enough, so got out her metal bowl, poured the crickets, turned around, and started hearing this ... sound. She turned around and the crickets had woken up and were, like, scrambling ... so we added a deep-freeze step after that."
And in order to spice them up, he says, "We only really give them fresh fruit and veg for the last few days. ... It gives them a little bit more flavor."
Crickets are too small for the chefs to stuff, so why not let them do it to themselves?
Industrial scale cricket farming is still largely uncharted territory, but the whole "farming" aspect of it gets more efficient each year: "On average, for 40 pounds of crickets, we'll use between 70 and 80 pounds of feed. It's basically a 2-to-1 utilization ratio. There's a lot of room for improvement, even on that number. We're learning more about cricket nutrition. We can probably get it down to 1.5 or so. When I talk to old cricket farmers in the U.S., it was 2.5 pounds per 1 pound 20 years ago."
At this point, we're sure a lot of you are still thinking "Yeah, but who wants to eat a BUG?! #Gross #Noway #Blessed, etc." Kevin is familiar with that response ...
A Lot Of The Job Is Fighting Disgust
Bugs are gross. So a big part of Kevin's job is doing tours of his facilities, visiting trade shows, and generally doing whatever he can to get people to try crickets for the first time:
"There's this revulsion-arousal cycle ... you see that in kinky sex. People start, like, 'Ohmygod I'd never do that.' ... It causes this root, pit-of-the-stomach anxiety revulsion feeling. And then when they eat the bug, they screw up their courage, think happy thoughts, put it in their mouth ... and then they start chewing. Then, 'This isn't bad at all. This is like food!' Before they eat the bug, they have no conception of what it'll taste like. When it's so much more mild ... it satisfies some root part of your brain, and all of a sudden you're shoveling them in your mouth."
Don't lie. You would absolutely inhale this.
"Once someone's overcome that ... they go out, haul in their friends and family, and they're like, 'Well, I did it, so you can do it.' ... Old white guys try the bugs first ... usually a mountain man. He pronounces it good, and they rush the crickets. ... There's this whole tribal thing." Kevin compares it to how crickets themselves eat. "A lot of it seems rooted in primitive responses," he says.
And whether or not you feel at all compelled to try eating bugs now, you'd better get ready for edible insects to start showing up anyway ...
Processed Bug Foods Are Coming
You can currently find crickets at a variety of fancy restaurants, particularly serving Vietnamese and Thai food. You can also buy them freeze-dried and ready to cook from Kevin's farm:
"Our crickets are very popular with the Burmese population in Pittsburgh and Latino people ... whether from Ecuador, Guatemala ... these are millions-strong demographics who come from cultures that already eat bugs. People will be like, 'I've lived here for 19 years and when I get homesick I miss my mom's crickets, and you've made me feel at home.'"
Squeamish Americans with money to burn are welcome to buy cricket protein powder:
And cricket protein bars:
Gym, molt, laundry.
The powder ranges from $20 to $40 a pound right now, because there's just not enough cricket farmers to meet the demand. The future involves companies like Nestle and Nabisco:
"Those massive food companies are totally interested in this stuff. ... You can't buy mac and crickets at the store, because they have long product development cycles. So we're working with some of those companies for a couple years. ... It'll be a few years until those hit market."
Personally, we're holding out for Totino's Cricket Pizza Rolls.
Post note: Sadly, Kevin's company is currently out of production while they relocate due to water issues similar to Flint, Michigan's. If people want to help, they can support these guys. According to Kevin, "I'm in the process of moving myself, my crickets, and my staff to safety, but a lot of people don't have the option to leave the Rust Belt so easily, and we need to know what the effects of our poisoned water are going to be."
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