A table-top farm for edible insects

Signal of change / A table-top farm for edible insects

By Benjamin Irvine / 12 Dec 2015

A start-up has developed a plug-in kitchen appliance for raising mealworms as a sustainable and healthy alternative source of protein. It continually produces 200-500g of mealworms per week – enough to supplant meat in around four meals – and the system is fed on oats and vegetable scraps.

Insects are part of the diets of two billion people around the world and are commonly eaten in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In western industrialized countries eating insects is still broadly seen as niche and undesirable, but there is growing interest from chef’s, food sustainability experts and those pursuing optimal nutrition through diets like the ‘paleo’ diet.

Insects are cold-blooded which makes them very efficient at converting feed to body mass: on average, 2kg of feed is required to produce 1kg of insects, to produce 1kg of beef it takes 8-10kg of feed.

Nutritionally insects have equivalent protein content to meat and fish and are high in micro-nutrients and fatty acids.

LIVIN farms, hope to create a food revolution by promoting edible insects worldwide through their countertop mealworm farm: the ‘Hive’.

The project has raised the $100,000 goal of it’s Kickstarter campaign with just under a month to go. Around 150 pre-orders have been placed; in November 2016 the units will be shipped to bug-munching early adopters in multiple countries and will then retail for an estimated $699.

The Hive uses fans to maintain the optimum microclimate and reduce odours. ‘Output’ from the mealworms collected in the dirt trays can be used to feed houseplants. It’s designed to make the growing and harvesting of the mealworms as clean, easy and aesthetically pleasing as possible.

Designer Katharina Unger previously developed an award winning insect farm for raising black soldier fly larvae and worked on insect breeding in Africa and Hawaii before co-founding LIVIN farms and developing the ‘Hive’. The mealworm was chosen as an ideal ‘gateway insect’ for first timers due to its ‘neutral’, ‘nutty’ taste, the ability to grow a large amount in a small space and the fact it’s already eaten in multiple places in the world.

The ‘Hive’ is presented as both a sustainability solution and healthy; it’s creators emphasize the nutritional benefits of mealworms as a ‘superfood’ but also control for consumers over what they’re eating.

Unger says she wants to empower people to grow their own food at home and become more independent of the food system; pointing to the land footprint of animal agriculture as well as anti-biotics use and pathogens associated with intensive livestock farming.

The project is being backed by the HAX hardware accelerator, the Autodesk Cleantech Partner program and CrossThePacific. Unger has presented the concept at a TedxVienna event

Image credit: LIVIN Farms

So what?

Insects are a highly efficient source of protein. Currently a third of available cropland is used for feeding livestock, a significant direct source of GHG emissions as well as a driver of deforestation. If cattle and other meat were substituted for insects it could significantly reduce pressures on land and mitigate global warming, perhaps allowing enough food to be grown for the close to 10 billion people expected in 2050 with no net increase in cropland.

The biggest barrier to more human consumption of insects is the ‘yuk’ factor expressed by some consumers including in western industrialised countries, where insects might be associated colloquially with uncleanliness (although in fact they pose a lower risk of transmitting diseases to humans than cattle and poultry). In parts of the world where eating insects is common there’s a chance it will be shunned in favour of meat as incomes rise, and western diets are emulated.

The Hive is a bold product intervention that’s attempting to shift this, normalizing the growing of insects in people’s homes and applying design and technology to make it both hygienic and aesthetically pleasing. Whilst uptake initially may be limited to enthusiasts, nutrition junkies and those in existing insect consuming regions it has a potential for scale and influence, paving the way for consumer acceptance of insect derived proteins in other food products and supplements. A comparable sustainable protein alternative which went from niche to mainstream in western countries is Tofu.

The Hive is conversant with a broadly felt market trend in clean eating as well as consumer distrust over the content of foods following high profile scandals and a desire to regain control through more localized production and self-provision.

Unger believes the little vertical insect farm will re-connect people to their food in urban areas, allowing them to grow food themselves in an increasingly urbanized and dense world.

Could urban insect farming help close the loop on the 300kg of food waste produced per person in Europe and North America?

Could cities start producing more of the food they consume either at the home or municipal level, converting food waste into insect protein for human consumption or feed for fish and livestock?

Sources

LIVIN Farms, Kickstarter Campaign

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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