Insects are popular delicacies and cheap sources of protein around the world, but in New Zealand and much of the Western world the idea has not yet found its legs

Edible insects sprung onto New Zealand’s food scene circa 2016. Cricket powder protein bars, insect lollipops and chocolate coated tarantulas made for the perfect prank gift for the office Secret Santa. Even mainstream food chains like Hell Pizza got on board, putting bugs on their pizza. 

Players in the edible insect industry hoped the cricket flour would be as common as all-purpose wheat flour in pantries.

But the industry hasn’t quite ended up where it hoped. 

Christopher Wilson was an early adopter of the insect trend. He launched Live Longer, which was selling protein powder muesli bars at the Go Green food show in 2016. 

But after some hype, the enterprise fizzled out. 

Founder Christopher Wilson told Newsroom the business struggled to sell product in volume and it was no longer viable because of the costs associated with importing it.

Eating insects is not a new phenomenon. In fact bugs have been consumed by humans for centuries for medicinal and nutritional benefits, University of Otago senior lecturer Dr Dominic Agyei says.

His research into enzyme bioprocessing led him to studying the world of insects. 

While the medicinal benefits of insects consumed in many cultures in African countries is scant, Agyei says there is extensive evidence on the nutritional benefits of eating certain bugs. 

Insects are better at converting feed to biomass relative to their size than larger animals like cows, creating much richer sources of nutrition. 

“The bulk of the market is still people buying it for the novelty.”
– Louise Burnie, Eat Crawlers

They are also more environmentally sustainable to rear as they can be fed food scraps, require little water and produce little greenhouse gases.

But Agyei says the perception of insects dominates any of the nutritional or sustainable functions of eating bugs. 

“It’s going to be niche for a while and will be considered an alternative food. The science is clear that insects are nutritional and more sustainable to produce. The main issue is convincing people to eat it, especially Westerners.

“We associate insects with decaying matter, because we see maggots when things are decaying. 

“In other parts of the world, insects have been consumed out of necessity or because it’s a cheap source of protein. If all of a sudden meat is banned in New Zealand, then people will look at alternatives out of necessity. But when there is meat available, it’s hard to try something new with certain mental images associated with it.”

There are other concerns too. Agyei says the high protein content gives rise to the possibility of it triggering allergies and that they may harbour microorganisms, although he says that is the case for most other meat too. 

“As long as you clean it and cook it properly it should be fine.”

While bugs are cheap sources of nutrition in other parts of the world, they are a very expensive source of protein in New Zealand. 

Louise Burnie bought Eat Crawlers in 2020 because she too saw the value in the industry. 

Burnie says insect food has made for popular Christmas gifts.

“The bulk of the market is still people buying it for the novelty.”

There are some 1900 edible insects in the world. 

Malcolm Diack is the country’s largest locust grower for commercial use. Photo: Supplied

But like most importers, Eat Crawler has also faced supply chain troubles this year as rising costs of freight have made it more expensive to ship bugs from Southeast Asia and China. 

“One order we placed the day we bought the business took more than a year to arrive, which is just unbelievable.

“I’ve never come across that in my other business. And so it’s been a bit of a challenge with the suppliers working alongside them just trying to get bugs into New Zealand …” 

While importing the insects has worked out cheaper, the rising costs and slow uptake of insect consumption by New Zealanders has Burnie concerned about the survival of her business.

The secret life of locusts

Malcolm Diack is the country’s largest locust grower for commercial use.

He began growing locusts “for fun” to sell to owners of pet lizards and frogs in 2009. But after reading a news article about humans consuming insects in Israel as a sustainable alternative to farmed mammals and poultry he decided to set up a business for humans in 2016.

While he supplies to restaurants like Volt 21 in Dunedin, which uses his locusts in specialty dishes, his largest customers are Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington zoos for animal feed.

Diack says although his operation isn’t as efficient as it could be, the locusts’ short life cycle allows him to grow between 10,000 and 16,000 every month. They take 30 days to mature and lay eggs. He sells the locusts for $1 each.

“A 750ml Pump bottle would be all I’d use in a week to water them. Because I go out and cut wild grass. We don’t irrigate any of that either. So this is really low water consumption.”

As the locusts are native to New Zealand he hasn’t had any trouble with MPI or the Department of Conservation.

Locusts are killed by refrigeration, but Diack won’t reveal any more about the farming process. 

“I’m very reserved about what information I give out. I’ll try and help people, but only to the point of what they could find on Google anyway. I don’t tell anyone my secrets.”

Diack admits it’s a “weird industry” but he says that’s just how it is. 

“We’re all very secretive worldwide. There’s this sort of competition worldwide and no one talks about exactly what they do. Which is just quite funny.”

Diack has always had a keen interest in insects and says the slow demand for human consumption isn’t stopping him. 

“I’m never going to stop. I’ve always been obsessed with insects. And because I’ve got an alternative income [selling to zoos], I’m determined to make the whole thing work and enthusiastic about it.

“It’s definitely an industry ahead of its time. If not me then someone else will do it.”

* An earlier version of this story said insects were High and Increased Regulatory Interest foods under MPI guidelines. This is not the case.

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