Our planet's population is expected to reach nearly 11 billion by the end of this century, which will create a major global challenge: How will we feed so many people?
Current agricultural practices, whether producing animals or crops, require too much land, water, feed or fertilizer to be sustainable at such a scale.
But Carleton University PhD student Matt Muzzatti believes a small creature could play a big role in the solution to our global food crisis. His research can help provide important protein and nutrients and, at the same time, shows what's possible when we address significant problems in innovative ways.
Muzzatti, a budding biologist, is exploring the mass rearing of crickets as an alternative food source. "The edible insect industry likes to describe them as a sustainable superfood," he says.
"Not only are they healthy for you, but they also require a lot fewer resources to farm than a comparable amount of protein from conventional sources of meat like beef, pork or poultry."
Cattle, for example, need 21 times more land, 13 times more water and 8.5 times more feed than what's required to produce the same amount of cricket protein. The insect also provides ten times more vitamin B12 than salmon, twice as much iron as spinach and twice as much calcium as milk, which is not only good for our bones and teeth but also beneficial for those who are lactose intolerant. And much more is consumable: only 40 per cent of a cow is edible, compared to 80 per cent of a cricket, whose wings and legs are typically removed during processing.
Although the "ick factor" may stop some people from thinking about insects as food, two billion people around the world currently eat more than 1,600 different species of insects. The vast majority are harvested in the wild, explains Muzzatti, and only five species are farmed in any significant way: the Gryllodes sigillatus that he studies, two other types of cricket, the black soldier fly and mealworms.
Muzzatti, who developed an interest in crickets at a campus bug day event while working toward his master's degree, collaborates with Entomo Farms near Peterborough, Ont. Entomo raises free-range crickets inside three football field-sized barns, where they live between cardboard dividers and have access to troughs of feed and water.
The company—a big part of Ontario's claim to be the cricket capital of Canada—harvests about eight million insects every week and sells products such as cricket powder at mainstream supermarkets, as well as whole roasted crickets and snacks like energy bars and cheese puffs made with cricket flour.
Versatile cricket protein powder can be added to pasta sauce, smoothies or just about anything you're cooking, while the roasted crickets are described as having a nutty, sunflower-like taste. Both are an option for vegetarians looking for alternative sources of protein.
The Science of Cricket Protein
Through his research, Muzzatti is attempting to optimize the diet of farmed crickets, to minimize the inputs and maximize the yield. In his lab at Carleton University, he raises hundreds of the insects inside individual plastic cups, which are arrayed on cafeteria trays and kept inside an incubator where the temperature and light can be precisely controlled.
"We make their food in-house—a mixture of proteins, carbs and vitamins—and regulate every ingredient," says Muzzatti.
"We do things like change the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio and see how that impacts body size, lifespan and time to adulthood. It's basically analytical baking."
By paying attention to what and how much a cricket eats, and by weighing it frequently, he hopes to create a "Canada's Food Guide" for crickets that can help farmers achieve optimal yields by making small tweaks to their diet.
"When we domesticated farm animals, we practiced artificial selection to encourage desirable traits such as larger body size to make farming more efficient," says Muzzatti. "There's tons of science around artificial selection, but nobody has really connected the science to edible insects.
"There's a lot of room for this industry to grow," he adds. "It has so much potential."
Muzzatti, who hopes to establish the first dedicated edible insect research lab in Canada someday, is also involved in a side project. He's supporting fourth-year Carleton student Sophie Kasdorf, who is using by-products from a brewery, spent grain and yeast, as a source of protein and carbohydrates in cricket feed—recycling waste to make the production of cricket protein even more sustainable.
"Science takes a long time to produce results, but it helps that there's a bigger picture we're working toward," says Muzzatti.
"A project like this makes me feel that I have some control over bigger challenges like climate change. That helps ground me and makes it feel like I'm making a difference."