Insect protein could become a near-perfect famine relief product, says entomologist Harman Singh Johar.
The first insect Harman Singh Johar ever ate was an ant.
Today, Johar is a young entrepreneur intent on turning crickets, grasshoppers and other six-legged critters from novelty items into sustainable staples of the American diet and a solution to malnutrition worldwide. At 24 he has already founded a successful wholesale insect business (World Ento, which he launched from the closet of his college apartment at the age of 19), lectured world leaders at the 2013 G20 summit on the power of social entrepreneurship in alleviating hunger, and nabbed a position as chief innovation officer at Aspire Food Group, an edible insect supplier with projects in the United States, Ghana and Mexico.
[Insect] production practices are just too expensive. Everything from how we farm them to how we render them into a food product can be exponentially improved.”
—Harman Singh Johar
It’s a career path young Johar never envisioned as a 5-year-old adventurer in his grandmother’s London garden, where one day he picked up an ant, popped it in his mouth and experienced the first of many anti-climactic moments in his bug-eating life: It tasted like lemons.
“It’s pretty much the same for everyone who tries an insect,” says the effervescent champion of entomophagy, or insect consumption. “It’s pretty big in your mind, but once you put it in your mouth and start chewing you’re just like, this is what I was having all that anxiety over? This is nothing.”
‘Stupendously efficient meat machines’
In many parts of the world, eating insects is no big deal. Around 2 billion people regularly enjoy everything from crisp-fried locusts in Thailand to yellow-jacket larvae in Japan, according to a 2013 paper from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Entomophagy is even starting to catch on in the bug-phobic United States, where sales of scorpion sushi rolls, cricket-powder cookies and ento energy bars have taken off during the past several years.
In the United States, Africa and Latin America, however, insects typically are raised on a small scale with inefficient, outdated technology, or gathered wild from farm fields where pesticide contamination is a serious problem. The supply is too erratic to be a real solution for malnutrition in developing countries, and too marginal to make a dent in the environmental footprint of developed ones.
But Johar believes innovation driven by competition in the private sector is about to change that.
“You will see this become an extremely large industry in 10 to 12 years,” he predicts. “With big industry comes the access to the theoretical limits to insect production. That’s when you can consolidate efficiencies, that’s when it becomes really cheap.”
The environmental arguments in favor of swapping insects for conventional livestock as a protein source are impressive. Because they are coldblooded, insects don’t waste feed staying warm, but instead convert it directly into body mass. Take crickets, the main product on the U.S. market today. Ten pounds of grain yields about 5 pounds of cricket meat vs. half a pound of beef, a pound of pork or 2 pounds of chicken, according to a 2013 study in the Annual Review of Entomology. Crickets are frugal drinkers as well: Half a gallon of water produces a pound of cricket meat, Johar says, compared with at least 500 gallons of water per pound of beef. (These figures vary by species and production method.)
These “stupendously efficient meat machines” can be raised nearly anywhere, says Johar, stacked in space-efficient warehouses and then ground into mild-tasting flour to mix into a wide range of products. Insects make a near-perfect famine relief product, Johar says, because they are rich in protein and iron, the top two culprits in child malnutrition.
Bugs from the ground up
Johar’s passion for creating an equitable food system is deeply rooted in his religious faith. The son of Indian immigrants to the United States, he traveled to Amritsar, India, at the age of 8 to visit the Golden Temple, the center of the Sikh religion to which his family belongs. There he witnessed a scene that remains imprinted in his consciousness with crystal clarity: a line of nearly 10,000 people, many of them extremely emaciated, waiting for the free meals served by the temple.
“As a young Sikh, nothing was driven home more than that my purpose on the planet was to help,” he recalls.
Back home in Atlanta, Johar began helping out in the kitchen at his local temple. He was also delving deeper into a lifelong fascination with insects, and after high school decided to enroll at the University of Georgia under well-known entomologist Marianne Shockley. It was only when entomophagy evangelist David Gracer visited the university during Johar’s sophomore year, however, that he realized his two loves—bugs and food—fit together in “an amazing perfect mix of everything I wanted to do with my life and everything I find important.”
As Johar began to research the industry, he was surprised to discover that the insect supply chain for human consumption in the United States was almost nonexistent. He founded World Ento as a way to fill the gap, pioneering a powdered cricket product. In June 2014, a year after graduating college with a double major in entomology and applied biotechnology, Johar merged World Ento with Aspire, a Texas-based startup founded by a group of Canadian graduate business students.
Aspire’s goals are two-fold: spur innovation and market expansion in the United States, then use the profits to develop products and technologies for food-insecure communities worldwide. For now, its resources are focused on improving the supply of crickets in the United States, grasshoppers in Mexico, and palm weevil larvae in Ghana. (The latter two are already popular but often pricey delicacies in those countries.)
At Aspire, Johar oversees the commercial kitchen in Austin, where about 5 million dead crickets arrive weekly from the company’s 13,000-square-foot, climate-controlled indoor farm in nearby Creedmoor. Johar uses standard food-grade roasting and grinding machinery that he’s adapted to process them, mostly into powders. He’s experimenting with techniques like flash heating and slow roasting that retain more protein and result in better flavor and texture. He’s also working with chefs to develop the insect equivalent of steaks: minimally processed fresh products they can easily serve up to customers.
Meanwhile, Johar’s colleagues at Aspire are working to automate farming techniques and develop feeds that are sustainable and speed up growth. (On their current ration of organic, locally raised vegetables and grains, the crickets take about six weeks to mature before being humanely killed by freezing.) The goal is to lower the wholesale price from $30 per pound to a cost that can compete with conventional meat.
“Production practices are just too expensive. Everything from how we farm them to how we render them into a food product can be exponentially improved,” Johar says.
He’s shared some of the insights he’s gleaned so far with MIGHTi, a startup founded in 2014 by doctoral students at the University of Wisconsin to promote global insect consumption. Currently, the company is developing mealworm micro-livestock kits made from cheap, local materials that they plan to pilot with female farmers in Zimbabwe. Johar is convinced these private-sector endeavors—rather than charities or multinational organizations—are the surest way to get bugs on the plates of the poor and hungry worldwide.
“We’re the ones that are going to find ways to make this into an incredibly sustainable, cheap, delicious product. That’s the key,” he says. “It kind of sucks, but at least in America, money is a significantly greater motivator than alleviating hunger.”