What role might insects play as part of the future of food?

What role, if any, should in­sects play in the fu­ture of agri­cul­ture? In this talk from EA Global 2018: Lon­don, Ni­cole Rawl­ing of the Good Food In­sti­tute, Nick Rousseau of the Woven Net­work, and Kyle Fish of Tufts Univer­sity offer their vary­ing per­spec­tives.

A tran­script of this talk is be­low, which CEA has lightly ed­ited for clar­ity. You can also read this tran­script on effec­tivealtru­ism.org, or watch it on YouTube.

Ni­cole’s Talk

I work with the Good Food In­sti­tute, which is a non­profit that works in­ter­na­tion­ally to re­move as many an­i­mal-based prod­ucts on the mar­ket and re­place them with plant-based al­ter­na­tives. We have op­er­a­tions in the United States, In­dia, China, Brazil, Is­rael, and we’re look­ing to hire in Europe, so if you like what we do, come talk to me af­ter­wards. We’re all here for the same rea­son, right? We want to re­duce the im­pact on the world of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture. I think ev­ery­one at EA Global un­der­stands the prob­lems be­hind an­i­mal agri­cul­ture, so I’ll go through them quickly.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2

First, an­i­mal welfare. Over 56 billion farmed an­i­mals are kil­led ev­ery year for hu­man con­sump­tion, and that doesn’t even in­clude aqua­cul­ture, where we have trillions of tons of an­i­mals kil­led. The other is­sue is global poverty. An­i­mal agri­cul­ture is vastly in­effi­cient in pro­duc­ing food for hu­man con­sump­tion. You have to feed plants to an­i­mals to get the calories for hu­mans. One ex­am­ple is that it takes nine plant-based calories to make one calorie of chicken. That is a huge amount of food waste, and when we’re try­ing to feed the world pop­u­la­tion, what we care about is calories. Why feed them to a liv­ing breath­ing an­i­mal that has to grow and live be­fore eat­ing it? Let’s just take those calories and give them di­rectly to hu­mans.

The same with hu­man health. I’m sure most of you know that an­tibiotics are fed to­wards farmed an­i­mals, to ei­ther keep them from be­ing sick or to keep them grow­ing. Over 80% of an­tibiotics are fed to farmed an­i­mals. That’s caus­ing a mas­sive health crisis, that we are go­ing to have su­per­bugs that are go­ing to af­fect hu­mans, and we’re not go­ing to be able to cure them, be­cause an­tibiotics won’t work. And fi­nally, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. The UN has said that an­i­mal agri­cul­ture con­tributes to some of the world’s most press­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, in­clud­ing de­foresta­tion, in­clud­ing loss of bio­di­ver­sity, and wa­ter and air pol­lu­tion.

So at the Good Food In­sti­tute, we have a the­ory of change. All of us want to change the food sys­tem, but we aren’t do­ing it by talk­ing to con­sumers. We’re do­ing it by chang­ing the mar­ket­place. We be­lieve that if peo­ple have ac­cess to prod­ucts that taste the same or bet­ter than an­i­mal prod­ucts, are around the same price, and are con­ve­nient, that peo­ple will buy them, be­cause peo­ple re­ally want good-tast­ing, con­ve­nient food.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (1)

So, we’re work­ing with gov­ern­ments, aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, en­trepreneurs, ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies, and sci­en­tists, to try and de­velop new prod­ucts. And as you might know, the cur­rent prod­ucts on the mar­ket tend to be soy or wheat based. That’s re­ally the old tech­nol­ogy, so now com­pa­nies are look­ing into things like pea pro­tein or mung bean pro­tein. Scien­tists are ex­am­in­ing a lot of differ­ent ways that we can use plants to mimic these an­i­mal al­ter­na­tives.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (2)

We haven’t ac­tu­ally dealt much with in­sects be­fore. Cur­rently, I can tell you what we’re think­ing. We think that in or­der to solve the world prob­lems caused by an­i­mal agri­cul­ture, we think plant-based and clean meat are more di­rect, rapid solu­tions to our global food prob­lems than in­sect pro­tein. In or­der to make the most change as soon as pos­si­ble, we think we should go with plant-based and clean meat al­ter­na­tives. And hon­estly, we worry about the in­sects as well. I mean, we’re talk­ing about trillions of liv­ing be­ings. We don’t re­ally know if they’re sen­tient or not, but imag­ine if they are. We would be caus­ing mas­sive, mas­sive amounts of suffer­ing that go far be­yond what ex­ists in the cur­rent an­i­mal agri­cul­ture sys­tem.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (3)

So, all of us are work­ing to­wards this goal: how can we effec­tively re­duce meat con­sump­tion? Th­ese are all plant-based prod­ucts, and I’ve had them all, and they’re deli­cious. And om­nivores like them. Our en­tire goal is to pro­duce prod­ucts that om­nivores would like to eat. So yes, I am ve­gan. I don’t care about ve­g­ans. I don’t care about veg­e­tar­i­ans. They’re choos­ing these prod­ucts any­way. I mean, most of you prob­a­bly have been veg­e­tar­ian and ve­gan for a very long time. You’ve eaten, ex­cuse my lan­guage, re­ally crappy prod­ucts, right? Be­cause you’re go­ing to eat them, you’re not go­ing to eat the meat. But it’s go­ing to take prod­ucts that re­ally mimic tra­di­tional an­i­mal prod­ucts for us to get om­nivores to switch, and right now, those prod­ucts are on the mar­ket.

I had the Mov­ing Moun­tains Burger for the first time here. Has any­one had that yet? No? Oh my good­ness, you have to try it. So it’s based out of mush­room. I love mush­rooms. This burger has a real mush­room taste, but it’s a burger. It’s available in over 500 lo­ca­tions in the UK, and ab­solutely deli­cious. So, I went out with an om­nivore for din­ner to have it, and he was so skep­ti­cal, and he re­ally didn’t want to hear about what I did, and he was talk­ing about his work. And I was like, “Oh, try a lit­tle bit.” And re­ally, he was shocked. Like, he re­ally was shocked, be­cause they don’t ex­pect that we can mimic the taste and cre­ate prod­ucts that they re­ally en­joy.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (4)

So, we strongly be­lieve there needs to be di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion. We don’t think that peo­ple are go­ing to eat in­sects in re­place of a burger, or a sausage, or a piece of fish. Peo­ple are go­ing to con­tinue to eat those prod­ucts, right? If they are go­ing to eat prod­ucts like in­sects, they tend to be more snacks, or a novel food, that’s kind of fun, “Oh, let’s go eat some crick­ets.” It’s not, “Okay, let’s go out for a burger. You know, oh, I think I’ll have a scoop of worms in­stead.” Right now, there isn’t that di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion, and we’ve seen that in the plant-based mar­ket as well. If you can­not repli­cate the an­i­mal prod­ucts that peo­ple are used to eat­ing, then they aren’t go­ing to buy them, so we strongly be­lieve there needs to be di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (5)

So right now, with in­sects, it does tend to be a lot of in­di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion, so snacks, or pro­tein bars, or pro­tein pow­ders. Now, those might be great for the mar­ket. There might be a huge mar­ket for them, but for us, it’s not solv­ing the prob­lem that we’re look­ing to solve. We want to cre­ate sub­sti­tutes for tra­di­tional an­i­mal prod­ucts. Nick might know more about this: I have heard that there was a cricket burger that just didn’t seem to be very tasty, and peo­ple weren’t big fans of it. There is a bolog­nese sauce that Nick brought, that’s re­ally tasty, but our po­si­tion is still that all of us are effec­tive al­tru­ists. We want to spend our money in the most effec­tive way. We want to spend our time in the most effec­tive way. Plant-based prod­ucts and clean meat prod­ucts are already proven con­cepts. Clean meat isn’t on the mar­ket yet, but plant-based prod­ucts are on the mar­ket and suc­cess­ful, and clean meat, we’ve proven the con­cept, and it will be on the mar­ket soon. So why put money and re­sources into some­thing that hasn’t been proven?

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (6)

So again, all of us are try­ing to re­duce the cli­mate im­pact of an­i­mal agri­cul­ture. How do we do that? So, we all know about food waste, right? There are mas­sive amounts of food waste. Right now, in­sect farm­ing can ac­tu­ally alle­vi­ate some of that is­sue. Some of the in­sect com­pa­nies will take our food waste and feed it to in­sects. But there are a cou­ple is­sues once you start to scale. Again, our goal is to re­duce meat con­sump­tion. When we start to re­duce meat con­sump­tion, we also start to re­duce agri­cul­tural waste. That agri­cul­tural waste is a lot of the prod­ucts that are go­ing into feed­ing in­sects right now, so there will be less of that, which means there’ll be less feed for in­sects. So part of the is­sue is that we’re re­duc­ing the sup­ply of waste any­way, and then a lot of the in­sects that we’re us­ing for in­sect pro­tein can’t always sur­vive on all the waste from agri­cul­ture, and need a more con­sis­tent feed. Some in­sects re­ally do need more con­sis­tent sources of food than what­ever we’re throw­ing away.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (7)

Then the ques­tion is how do we feed the world pop­u­la­tion. An­i­mal agri­cul­ture is in­effi­cient, so we should be feed­ing plants di­rectly to hu­mans. We have a cou­ple con­cerns with in­sect farm­ing as an al­ter­na­tive. Num­ber one, what hap­pens if the in­sects get out? I’m from the United States. We just had mas­sive hur­ri­canes in the South, and pigs in the agri­cul­tural sys­tem es­caped, and they were just left wild to get around, be­cause the hur­ri­canes took down those fa­cil­ities. Now, pigs are big. You can catch pigs. They’re also on the ground. You can round them up. What hap­pens if there is some sort of nat­u­ral dis­aster, which will con­tinue to oc­cur with prob­lems in cli­mate change, and the in­sects get out? That’s a real con­cern, not just be­cause these in­sects are out and con­tinue breed­ing, po­ten­tially in ar­eas where they’re not na­tive. They can also be near agri­cul­tural sys­tems where they could de­stroy nearby agri­cul­ture sys­tems.

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (8)

Our other worry is changes in an­i­mals from se­lec­tive breed­ing. Th­ese in­sects are go­ing to be bred very quickly. They ob­vi­ously have short lives. This is what’s hap­pened to chick­ens with­out ge­netic mod­ifi­ca­tion. I don’t know if you can see very well, but go­ing to mar­ket in 1957, chick­ens were 905 grams. In 2005, they’re 4,202 grams, and they even cut the amount of time it took for them to grow to that size. This wasn’t through ge­netic mod­ifi­ca­tion. This was just through se­lec­tive breed­ing. Th­ese are very differ­ent an­i­mals. Now, I’m not say­ing that this nec­es­sar­ily will oc­cur with in­sects, but when you un­der­stand the agri­cul­ture sys­tem, peo­ple want to make the most amount of profit. That’s the way all busi­nesses work. It wouldn’t sur­prise me if this would also hap­pen within the in­sect world.

Then how can we cre­ate a more hu­mane food sys­tem? I think this is a re­ally im­por­tant ques­tion, es­pe­cially for all of us, who do think about these philo­soph­i­cal is­sues. Like, do in­sects suffer? We don’t ac­tu­ally have a lot of in­for­ma­tion on that right now, but is it re­ally safe to make the as­sump­tion that they don’t? And con­sid­er­ing the im­pact, when we’re talk­ing about trillions of an­i­mals, do we want to make the wrong de­ci­sion here? If they can suffer, we re­ally are caus­ing mas­sive, mas­sive amounts of suffer­ing. So, I don’t know if any of you know Lewis Bol­lard from the Open Philan­thropy Pro­ject. He’s a huge sup­porter of a lot of EA causes. So he said, “I’d be hard-pressed to as­sign less than a 10% prob­a­bil­ity to in­sects be­ing con­scious, and even at that level of 10%, we re­ally should be con­cerned.”

1400 Nicole Rawling v2 (9)

Thank you so much.

Nick’s Talk

I’ve got some prod­ucts which you can come have a look at af­ter­wards if you’re in­ter­ested, and some de­tails about my net­work. I won’t say too much about my­self, be­cause time is limited, but I guess the main thing to say is that I per­son­ally have a com­mit­ment and in­ter­est in sus­tain­able food sys­tems. I’ve formed an or­ganic food-grow­ing co­op­er­a­tive, and that’s what first got me in­ter­ested in the ex­ces­sive amounts of waste and food ma­te­rial that goes to waste that could be bet­ter used. I then joined a thing in Sheffield called The Junk Food Pro­ject, which again was around re­duc­ing food waste. And that con­nec­tion be­tween the need to feed the com­mu­nity globally and the amount of waste is what brought me into in­sects as an area of in­ter­est.

So I formed the Woven Net­work. It’s there to stim­u­late and learn about what op­por­tu­ni­ties there are, and to ex­plore them. My ar­gu­ment isn’t that in­sects are go­ing to feed the world, but that they can have a role to play. They can bring some ex­tra di­men­sion, which may not be pos­si­ble through a purely plant-based ap­proach. I imag­ine that many of you will have seen head­lines, news ar­ti­cles about in­sects, typ­i­cally with some­one about to put a cricket in their mouth.

1400 Nick Rousseau

It’s very sen­sa­tion­al­ized, and the me­dia, you know, has a ten­dency to kind of dra­ma­tize ev­ery­thing. But it’s a grow­ing and chang­ing land­scape, and I want to give you a bit of a sense of where things stand at the mo­ment, so that you can make your own judg­ment about your en­gage­ment with it now and in the fu­ture.

1400 Nick Rousseau (1)

It started in 2013, with a UN re­port from the Food and Agri­cul­ture or­ga­ni­za­tion, that con­sisted of a lot of re­search look­ing at our global food challenges, par­tic­u­larly around ac­cess to pro­tein, many of the points that Ni­cole made, and sug­gested the in­sects could have a role, sig­nifi­cantly in­fluenced by the fact that in­sects have been con­sumed through the cen­turies in many differ­ent cul­tures around the world, but ob­vi­ously, they’re not cur­rently in Western, de­vel­oped coun­try diets.

Again, I think we’d all agree with Ni­cole’s point about the un­sus­tain­abil­ity of the cur­rent food sys­tem, and that the ve­gan lifestyle and diet is rec­og­nized as be­ing the ba­sis for the most sus­tain­able op­tion, be­cause it cuts down on car­bon emis­sions, it cuts down on land use, it cuts down on wa­ter use, cuts down on a lot of the nega­tive im­pacts of live­stock farm­ing.

1400 Nick Rousseau (2)

This is my fam­ily. This is my wife. There is no way on God’s Earth that she’s go­ing to be­come a ve­gan, I’m afraid. So my ar­gu­ment is you’ll need to have a num­ber of al­ter­na­tives, and I think many of them will be plant-based, and I’m very in­ter­ested in that, and I think that’s a good thing, but food choices are made by a whole range of things. I had the op­por­tu­nity to go to Cal­ifor­nia re­cently, and there’s an ex­hi­bi­tion in San Diego Mu­seum about the way in which peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of an­i­mals and crea­tures changes as they be­come wild, do­mes­ti­cated, pets, on their plates, and it’s a sort of com­plex area, but I think the point I’m mak­ing is that choices are partly about availa­bil­ity, con­ve­nience, what you can get in your stores, and partly about price. Cer­tainly that’s a big is­sue. Also about fla­vor, the ex­pe­rience of eat­ing it, what you like. Reli­gious and so­cial is­sues can have a bear­ing on your food choices.

Is­sues of right and wrong, I think, are in­creas­ingly on peo­ple’s minds. I find it a real strug­gle when I go into a su­per­mar­ket or a shop now to de­ter­mine, “Am I go­ing for food miles, or­ganic, fair trade?” There’s so many differ­ent things which are seen as right and wrong. It’s a re­ally com­plex area, and then you’ve got the sci­ence, and kind of be­ing pre­sented with hard facts about the nu­tri­tional com­po­nents that go into food. And I think there’s an in­ter­est­ing thing, again step­ping back a bit, about peo­ple’s re­ac­tion to sci­ence-based mes­sages around food, be­cause again, com­ing back to this, food is eaten in a so­cial con­text. I would love to go out to more ve­gan restau­rants and things, but it’s very difficult when your part­ner doesn’t share that view, so we’re very keen to see more restau­rants that offer a range of differ­ent prod­ucts, and I think that need for va­ri­ety is crit­i­cal.

1400 Nick Rousseau (3)

I want to make a fur­ther point that kind of builds, again, on Ni­cole’s point about meat con­sump­tion in­creas­ing. What you can see here is the mas­sive in­crease in meat con­sump­tion. This is typ­i­cally most pre­dom­i­nant in coun­tries like China and In­dia. And this isn’t be­cause they’ve dis­cov­ered that they re­ally like the fla­vor of meat. It’s be­cause they think they want to move to a Western lifestyle, and they as­so­ci­ate eat­ing meat and hav­ing ac­cess to meat as be­ing about be­ing af­fluent, be­ing wealthy, be­ing suc­cess­ful. It’s got a lot of con­no­ta­tions in peo­ple’s minds. Sadly, from my point of view, and to some ex­tent, I think, from the coun­try’s point of view, they are mov­ing away from their more tra­di­tional diets, which of­ten in­clude har­vested in­sects, which do have much bet­ter nu­tri­tional com­po­nents than go­ing to McDon­ald’s and hav­ing a burger. But that is the shift that we’re see­ing.

So I think there’s a thing about the challenge back to the plant-based product de­vel­op­ers, how you cre­ate that so­cial as­so­ci­a­tion of hav­ing a very ex­pen­sive steak. So ac­tu­ally mak­ing things ex­pen­sive is some­times im­por­tant, and an in­ter­est­ing one. We’ve been quite in­ter­ested in how sushi has come into sort of Western diets, hav­ing been seen as a sort of weird Ja­panese thing in­volv­ing raw fish, and I think it’s be­cause it seems cool. It’s as­so­ci­ated with a mod­ern lifestyle nowa­days.

1400 Nick Rousseau (4)

So a bit about in­sects then. The fo­cus of this is around hu­mans eat­ing in­sects in food prod­ucts, but in­sects and food have a much more com­plex in­ter­ac­tion. So, as I men­tioned, about 1,800 species of in­sects are ed­ible, and across the world, peo­ple have har­vested in­sects and se­cured a lot of nu­tri­tional value from that, from just har­vest­ing them in the wild. But equally, in­sects, if you’re try­ing to plant and grow crops, are a real pest, so the kil­ling of in­sects is a big part of plant food pro­duc­tion, and that’s a dy­namic which is quite challeng­ing, and again, the as­so­ci­a­tion that in­sects have with peo­ple, with poverty, with be­ing pests, is a challenge for us.

So in Thailand, we also have in­sect farm­ing, and I’ll come onto more about that. That’s now de­vel­op­ing and emerg­ing as an in­ter­ac­tion with in­sects, and that’s for hu­man con­sump­tion. Then you’ve got the sce­nario where in­sects are bred and farmed for feed­ing to live­stock, and this is about a way of try­ing to re­duce live­stock’s car­bon foot­print and in­crease their sus­tain­abil­ity. So it’s a com­plex web is the mes­sage, and each of these could be a talk in their own right. I haven’t got time for that.

So I touched on the fact that in­sects are kil­led in the grow­ing of plant prod­ucts. Soy is typ­i­cally a product that is grown a lot for live­stock feed, but also it’s con­sumed by ve­g­ans, and yet huge num­bers of in­sects and other crea­tures die in its farm­ing. I guess I want to make the point that you’re not go­ing to get away from kil­ling in­sects some­where along the line, and they may well be less sen­tient than oth­ers, but so are mice, and so are other crea­tures that suffer through farm­ing. I think to some ex­tent, the hu­man pop­u­la­tion is the prob­lem. I don’t have a solu­tion for that, I’m afraid.

So, a lit­tle bit about where we are with in­sect prod­ucts. As I said, peo­ple tra­di­tion­ally have just eaten them straight from their nat­u­ral form, cook­ing them up, fry­ing them up of­ten. We’ve had this gim­mick com­ing through big time, and it’s still very much part of the mar­kets, part of the most suc­cess­ful busi­nesses, you know, “Do you dare to eat this in­sect? Do you dare to put it in your mouth?” You know, lol­lipops with an in­sect in, things like that. There’s cer­tainly good money to be made from that. I don’t find it at all helpful, for a range of rea­sons. Sadly, on the GCSE cur­ricu­lum now, you learn about in­sects as be­ing a po­ten­tial part of the fu­ture food, and schools of­ten say, “Okay, how can we help our kids to ex­pe­rience this?” So they write to Crunchy Crit­ters, and they get a box of crazy things to try and pop in their mouths, which re­in­forces the view that they’re just weird­ness.

1400 Nick Rousseau (5)

This is a chef, and he has pro­duced in­sect-based burg­ers and other very deli­cious prod­ucts, and they’re de­vel­op­ing that as we speak. And I think that whole area of dishes in restau­rants, cer­tainly it’s very big in Cal­ifor­nia and el­se­where, so I think there’s a grow­ing in­ter­est in this area, in how you cre­ate true dishes which are con­tain­ing in­sects and de­manded by cus­tomers. I’ve brought a range of prod­ucts that are pro­duced by our mem­bers, and they take many differ­ent forms. A lot of them, again, I wouldn’t dis­agree are sort of snacks. They’re gim­micks. They’re part of that sort of pro­tein bar lifestyle. They’re not go­ing to stop peo­ple eat­ing meat. And these guys are pro­duc­ing the ma­te­rial that goes into One Hop bolog­nese sauce, and they dis­cov­ered a way of tak­ing in­sect pow­der and pro­duc­ing some­thing which is more of a paste, which is much more ver­sa­tile, al­though it’s an in­sect product. So I guess part of my ar­gu­ment, again, is that we haven’t seen the end of what in­sects can be like. What’s go­ing on?

1400 Nick Rousseau (6)

In­sects have a range of nu­tri­tional com­po­nents, which can be harder to repli­cate in plants, and I think there’s par­tic­u­lar things, such as the omega-3 and the amino acids, which are par­tic­u­larly, be­cause they’re not plant-based, are more suit­able and use­ful for hu­mans. I’m not a bio­chemist. I’m not go­ing to claim that plant prod­ucts can’t in­clude these as well, but I think they have a role in that kind of de­bate about how you offer peo­ple the nu­tri­tion that they need. And I should say, of course, I did men­tion there’s 1,800 differ­ent in­sects, so it’s overly sim­plified to say we’re talk­ing about crick­ets, you know? There’s a whole bunch of other in­sects out there. And also, in­sects have many other com­po­nents which can be quite valuable in terms of their mar­ket value. The prod­ucts that are on the outer cas­ing of in­sects can have a lot more med­i­cal value than their pro­tein con­tent.

1400 Nick Rousseau (7)

The refer­ence has already been made to in­sects as waste con­vert­ers, and this is what first got me onto this. And I think this is still very much a sort of un­tapped area. Cur­rently reg­u­la­tion, cer­tainly in the Euro­pean Union, is very re­stric­tive of what you can feed in­sects if you’re go­ing to feed those in­sects, then, or use those in­sects to cre­ate live­stock feed, be­cause of the risk averse­ness of Euro­pean reg­u­la­tions, and I un­der­stand that, but I would ar­gue that there’s a lot of value in un­der­stand­ing this bet­ter, and if we do have huge food waste moun­tains and in­sects can be con­vert­ing those into some­thing that’s valuable, that could be good. I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily ad­vo­cate what’s go­ing on in Dur­ban, where I think 40,000 homes are con­vert­ing their hu­man fe­cal waste into Black Soldier Fly that is fed to chick­ens, funded by the Gates Foun­da­tion. I think that illus­trates that you can go quite a long way down there. The challenge, of course, is that you then try and sell that to con­sumers, that’s a difficult sell, you know? Here’s a tasty burger that was fed on some­thing which you don’t re­ally want to think about. So not easy, some of this stuff.

Another thing that I think has been par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing, again the men­tion was made ear­lier about an­timicro­bial re­sis­tance as be­ing a real prob­lem fac­ing hu­man­ity, fac­ing our world col­lec­tively. The use of an­tibiotics, which are es­sen­tially ar­tifi­cial ways of stim­u­lat­ing a crea­ture’s re­sis­tance to these dis­eases, could po­ten­tially be re­placed by AMPs, an­timicro­bial pep­tides. Again, I’m not a bio­chemist. Stud­ies have been done that found that if you stim­u­late in­sects in the cor­rect way, they cre­ate AMPs, which then when fed to chick­ens mean that they are then re­sis­tant to campy­lobac­ter, E. coli, and other things, so they’re us­ing a nat­u­ral sys­tem that ex­ists within na­ture to build re­sis­tance to dis­ease rather than ar­tifi­cially stim­u­lat­ing that. So that, I think, could have a role in the fu­ture.

1400 Nick Rousseau (8)

And fi­nally, in South­ern Africa, the mopane cater­pillar is be­ing har­vested to ex­tinc­tion in some ar­eas, so ac­tu­ally farm­ing it, and en­courag­ing peo­ple to farm it, is a way of cre­at­ing eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, and then putting the crea­tures back into the habitat. So try­ing to pro­tect nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tions could be an­other benefit.

In­sect farm­ing is a chang­ing area. Again, as Ni­cole’s pointed out, this is go­ing to evolve. It’s go­ing to be in­creas­ingly in­ten­sified. One of the big challenges with in­sects is that they are rather more ex­pen­sive, be­cause it’s quite a man­ual pro­cess to cre­ate them, so there’s a pres­sure on cost, and big in­vest­ment is go­ing into this now, which is go­ing to try and drive the price down. So I ab­solutely un­der­stand the pres­sures that are on the food sys­tem, that will ap­ply here as much as any­where else.

1400 Nick Rousseau (9)

Here are some challeng­ing ar­eas. I think we don’t know enough about the suffer­ing area. The Dutch have in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion for in­sect farm­ing, be­cause it’s ac­tu­ally quite a big busi­ness. It’s quite a big sec­tor there, based around the five free­doms, so they’re seek­ing to cre­ate an un­der­stand­ing and some stan­dards around in­sect farm­ing, which would rec­og­nize the need to main­tain the welfare of in­sects. Re­source use. The point about re­source use is that again, typ­i­cally the ar­gu­ment against meat pro­duc­tion is it uses more land, more wa­ter, and more other prod­ucts. The lat­est stud­ies of in­sects, and this also ap­plies to green­house gas emis­sions and yes, con­sumer ac­cep­tion, is that it kind of de­pends what you feed the in­sects on. And again, this comes back to if we could feed them on waste, then you know, it’s a win-win.

If we’re feed­ing them on cab­bages that have been grown in the fields, then again, we come back to the point that it’s sort of a waste­ful thing to be do­ing. So I think there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to make bet­ter use of in­sects. It re­quires more re­search to go for­ward, but if we be­lieve that there are benefits in hav­ing in­sects as part of that mix, then I think we need to be putting more re­search into look­ing at how we can op­ti­mize that re­source use. And again, as has been referred to, if you feed in­sects differ­ent things, you get differ­ent nu­tri­tional value com­ing out the other end, so there’s a lot of sci­ence go­ing into that as well. Green­house gas emis­sions, again, much lower than the methane you get from cat­tle, but again, it de­pends what you feed the in­sects on. Con­sumer ac­cep­tance, clearly a challenge. Is it go­ing to be a meat re­place­ment? I’m not sure it’s go­ing to be in the long run, but who knows? And we have these reg­u­la­tory challenges around the food safety risks, which again, a differ­ent kind of thing in a plant-based area. It’s more ex­pen­sive.

So that’s me. It’s an in­ter­est­ing area. I hope this has been use­ful in terms of your own sort of un­der­stand­ing a bit more about the sort of pros and cons of it. I still think there’s some­thing that’s worth ex­plor­ing, and I think the next speaker is go­ing to em­pha­size that. Thank you.

Kyle’s Talk

My name is Kyle Fish, and cur­rently, I’m work­ing as a re­searcher at Tufts Univer­sity, fo­cus­ing on food sys­tem in­no­va­tion. So far, we’ve heard some ar­gu­ments for and against the use of whole in­sect farm­ing as a tool for pur­su­ing food sus­tain­abil­ity, but now I want to broaden the con­ver­sa­tion a lit­tle bit and con­sider an­other type of in­sect farm­ing, speci­fi­cally in­sect cell farm­ing, the ba­sic idea here be­ing that we might be able to pro­duce mas­sive amounts of in­sect cells with­out grow­ing whole an­i­mals, and then use those cells them­selves to pro­duce differ­ent food prod­ucts. To un­der­stand what’s go­ing on here, it’s im­por­tant to know a lit­tle bit about the gen­eral frame­work of cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture.

1400 Kyle Fish v2

So you can see in this di­a­gram, we’re start­ing with a cow, but what we’re do­ing is tak­ing a small sam­ple of cells from the cow, pri­mar­ily mus­cle and fat cells, and then putting them into a big tank, known as a biore­ac­tor, and get­ting them to mul­ti­ply. Then, once we’ve grown lots and lots of these cells, we can col­lect them out of the biore­ac­tor and form them into 3D tis­sues, to pro­duce meat prod­ucts that are iden­ti­cal to the ones that are tra­di­tion­ally ob­tained from slaugh­tered an­i­mals. The main mo­ti­va­tion of this is ob­vi­ously to re­duce the de­mand for fac­tory farms and re­duce the de­mand for other prob­le­matic meat pro­duc­tion meth­ods. Since most meat prod­ucts are made up pri­mar­ily of mus­cle and fat cells, do­ing this al­lows us to make only the parts of the an­i­mal that peo­ple are ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in eat­ing, with­out the suffer­ing, and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, and other con­cerns as­so­ci­ated with whole an­i­mal farm­ing.

The­o­ret­i­cally, this pro­cess could be used to pro­duce any type of meat that’s nor­mally con­sumed. The cow here doesn’t have to be a cow. You could start with a pig, or a chicken, or a turkey, and take cells from those an­i­mals, and then use the same pro­cess to cre­ate any of the food prod­ucts that are nor­mally gen­er­ated from those an­i­mals. So one of the things that the group that I work on is in­ter­ested in is push­ing this a lit­tle bit fur­ther, and in­stead of us­ing a cow here, ac­tu­ally start­ing with in­sects as the source. The idea is in­stead of tak­ing mus­cle and fat cells from a cow, we can get them from in­sects, and then use the same pro­cess to pro­duce in­sect cells, that can then func­tion as ei­ther a pro­tein and nu­tri­ent sup­ple­ment in plant-based or other cul­tured prod­ucts, or it could po­ten­tially be used to cre­ate stan­dalone in­sect meats, or mimic ex­ist­ing prod­ucts in other ways.

1400 Kyle Fish v2 (1)

How­ever, the ques­tion re­mains, “Why would we want to do this?” We know that cells from cows and chick­ens taste re­ally good, and there’s po­ten­tial for be­ing able to do this pro­cess with those, so one could rea­son­ably ar­gue that it’s not worth ex­plor­ing in­sect cells in this way. But to an­swer this ques­tion, it’s worth know­ing a lit­tle bit about the tech­ni­cal challenges fac­ing clean meat de­vel­op­ment to­day, clean meat be­ing meat that’s pro­duced through this pro­cess of cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture. So some of those challenges, first of all, most cell cul­tures re­quire a re­ally ex­pen­sive liquid serum that’s de­rived from fe­tal calves, and us­ing this serum in cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture is out of the ques­tion, both for eco­nomic rea­sons and for eth­i­cal rea­sons. It’s still an an­i­mal product, so even if we’re just grow­ing cells, there’s still an an­i­mal cost if this is part of the equa­tion.

Also, most cells have to be grown in sin­gle lay­ers on flat sur­faces, and this vastly re­stricts the pos­si­bil­ities to scale up pro­duc­tion. If you’re hav­ing to grow all of your cells on a flat layer, it’s re­ally difficult to grow the amount of them that you would need in or­der to cre­ate some sort of food product. Ideally, you want to be able to grow them in what’s known as sus­pen­sion cul­ture, which is where the cells are float­ing in a liquid solu­tion, where they can be grown at much higher den­sity. Also, lots of cells have to be grown in very spe­cific en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. Lots of cell types have to be grown at right about 37° cel­sius with 5% CO2 in their at­mo­sphere. Other­wise, they will die, or at the very least, they’ll stop grow­ing in the same ways.

So all of these are re­ally se­ri­ous challenges that cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture com­pa­nies to­day are work­ing to ad­dress, but if we start to look at some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of in­sect cells, these challenges start to seem a lit­tle bit less in­timi­dat­ing. For ex­am­ple, with in­sect cells, it’s rel­a­tively easy to adapt them to serum-free me­dia. You don’t need that an­i­mal-based serum in the same way that you do with a lot of other cell types. Also, it’s rel­a­tively straight­for­ward to get them to grow in sus­pen­sion cul­ture, so with in­sect cells, you can grow them in a liquid, float­ing around, in­stead of hav­ing to keep them at­tached to these flat sur­faces. Also, the in­sect cells can tol­er­ate lots of differ­ent en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. They don’t care a whole lot what tem­per­a­ture they’re grown at. You can even change the pH, the car­bon diox­ide con­cen­tra­tions, and the in­sect cells don’t re­ally care. They’ll keep grow­ing in more or less the same way.

1400 Kyle Fish v2 (2)

And all of those char­ac­ter­is­tics in­di­cate that in­sect cells are worth ex­plor­ing within the cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture paradigm. But to re­ally un­der­stand whether or not this is a vi­able op­tion, we need some data from the lab, and we need to ex­plore how these in­sect cells ac­tu­ally be­have, and whether or not the cell types that we’re in­ter­ested in re­ally dis­play these char­ac­ter­is­tics. So the team that I work on has been look­ing at five differ­ent goals re­lated to in­sect cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture, the first two be­ing to adapt in­sect mus­cle stem cells to grow on serum-free me­dia, and then also to get them to grow in sin­gle-cell sus­pen­sion. Then, we also wanted to look at reg­u­lat­ing how these cells grow, to make sure that we can grow them quickly and effi­ciently, and then also mak­ing sure that we can get them to turn into the spe­cific kinds of cells that we’re in­ter­ested in, from a food per­spec­tive.

We’re also in­ter­ested in grow­ing com­plex 3D tis­sues. Hav­ing lots of cells is great. They’re very nu­tri­tious, but it’s only re­ally valuable if we can some­how as­sem­ble them into a for­mat that peo­ple are ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in con­sum­ing. Whether that’s grow­ing 3D in­sect tis­sues on their own or in­cor­po­rat­ing them into other prod­ucts. Lastly, we’re in­ter­ested in im­prov­ing the nu­tri­tion of the cells, and look­ing at differ­ent ways to mod­ify these cells or mod­ify the con­di­tions that they’re grown in, in or­der to im­prove the nu­tri­tion that they offer to hu­mans. On the right, here, you can see a fruit fly, which is the cell source that we’ve been work­ing with up un­til now. We’ve got­ten our cells from these an­i­mals, and then are turn­ing them into in­sect mus­cles.

And in the bot­tom, all of the lit­tle green dots that you can see are mus­cle stem cells, so they’re cells that are still grow­ing, but haven’t yet turned into ac­tual in­sect mus­cle. Then it’s a lit­tle bit hard to see with the light, but there are some red fibers also run­ning through the slide, and those red fibers are in­sect mus­cle that have started to form from these cells that were grow­ing in cul­ture, and those mus­cle pieces are what we’re re­ally in­ter­ested in us­ing for food.

I don’t have time to take you through all of our ex­per­i­ments and re­sults, but we’ve found some re­ally ex­cit­ing re­sults from each of these ex­per­i­ments.

We’ve also been work­ing with a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ma­te­rial known as cy­to­sine. This is a to­tally ed­ible ma­te­rial, and we’re able to pro­cess it in a way to get these re­ally nice, al­igned struc­tures that mimic the stri­a­tions in meat. Then we can ac­tu­ally take these in­sect mus­cle cells and get them to grow on this ma­te­rial to cre­ate differ­ent meat-like tis­sues. And this is re­ally promis­ing. All of these find­ings sup­port our hy­poth­e­sis that in­sect cells are worth ex­plor­ing in cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture.

1400 Kyle Fish v2 (3)

How­ever, there are still some challenges and open ques­tions when look­ing to use this tech­nol­ogy. For one, not a lot of work has been done to date with in­sect mus­cles. There isn’t the same body of back­ground re­search about in­sect mus­cle growth and de­vel­op­ment that we have for cows, chick­ens, or ob­vi­ously hu­mans, and un­der­stand­ing these pro­cesses is re­ally es­sen­tial for be­ing able to grow and then use these cells in some sort of food sys­tem. Also, taste is a pretty open ques­tion. Peo­ple have eaten whole in­sects, I’m sure Nick could tell you a lot about what those taste like, but no­body has re­ally eaten prod­ucts just de­rived from in­sect cells, so it’s un­cer­tain how much room we’ll have to play around with differ­ent fla­vors and tex­tures, to see what sorts of prod­ucts we can turn these into or how we can in­cor­po­rate them to bolster other prod­ucts that are cur­rently be­ing gen­er­ated.

Con­sumer ac­cep­tance is an­other po­ten­tial con­cern. Con­sumer ac­cep­tance is a challenge in cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture in gen­eral. It’s still up for de­bate whether or not peo­ple will ac­tu­ally be will­ing to eat meat prod­ucts that have been grown in some sort of lab or fac­tory, and as if that wasn’t difficult enough, do­ing this with in­sects may add a whole other layer of com­pli­ca­tion on top of that. How­ever, we also think that there is po­ten­tial that peo­ple will eval­u­ate this fa­vor­ably rel­a­tive to the idea of eat­ing whole in­sects, so there are some pos­si­bil­ities in terms of mar­ket­ing along those lines.

But even de­spite these challenges and un­cer­tain­ties, we think that this is a very promis­ing area of in­ves­ti­ga­tion for a num­ber of rea­sons. One of them is the pos­si­bil­ity to cre­ate new food prod­ucts that peo­ple will find in­ter­est­ing and nu­tri­tious, and that will help to re­lieve some of the bur­den cur­rently cre­ated by ex­ist­ing food sys­tems. How­ever, there are lots of other ways that this could be valuable. For ex­am­ple, with the char­ac­ter­is­tics that in­sect cells have, there’s a lot of po­ten­tial for us to learn from these cells and de­rive les­sons from work­ing with them that we can then ap­ply in other cell types. If we can figure out why it is that in­sect cells are fine grow­ing in serum-free me­dia, and why it’s rel­a­tively easy to get them to grow in sus­pen­sion, then we can ap­ply those les­sons to work more effec­tively with cow cells, chicken cells, or turkey cells to make prod­ucts that peo­ple are more fa­mil­iar with, and do some sort of di­rect sub­sti­tu­tion.

We can also look at this from a per­spec­tive of global health and food se­cu­rity. In­sect cells are rel­a­tively sim­ple and easy to grow rel­a­tive to lots of other sys­tems that have been pro­posed, which means that this tech­nol­ogy might offer a way for cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture to play a role in re­duc­ing the bur­den of global poverty and food in­se­cu­rity in re­source-con­strained en­vi­ron­ments around the world. This sys­tem would be a lot eas­ier to im­ple­ment in ar­eas that don’t have the same sort of sci­en­tific and in­dus­trial in­fras­truc­ture as places like el­se­where in the Western world.

So that ba­si­cally sums up the case for in­sect cell farm­ing. Again, we think that this is a very valuable tech­nol­ogy. One thing to note in terms of whole in­sect farm­ing, there is po­ten­tial, at least in the short term, for those efforts to con­tribute to the de­vel­op­ment of this tech­nol­ogy. In the case of aqua­cul­ture, a lot of the valuable re­search about fish mus­cle growth and de­vel­op­ment, that has been used in the fish cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture in­dus­try, was ini­tially done as part of aqua­cul­ture pro­grams, so the same thing could be said here, that if in­sect farm­ing pro­grams are helping to con­tribute to this sort of body of knowl­edge that can even­tu­ally be ex­ploited to do in­sect cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture in re­ally im­pact­ful ways, then there’s a chance that that could be valuable.

1400 Kyle Fish v2 (4)

So I think soon here, we’re go­ing to open it up for ques­tions, but be­fore we do, I want to give a thanks to the rest of the cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture team at Tufts Univer­sity, es­pe­cially to Natalie Ru­bio, who has been lead­ing these in­sect pro­jects, and David Ka­plan, the di­rec­tor of our lab, and also a thank you to our fund­ing part­ners who have helped to make this work pos­si­ble. Thank you.


Ques­tion: Where do you see the timelines on what you see as the ideal situ­a­tion, or your sort of var­i­ous ar­eas of in­ter­est? What do you see the timelines on those? Where do you see timelines in terms of maybe in­sects be­com­ing main­stream, or in terms of, yeah, the de­vel­op­ments of your var­i­ous ar­eas?

Nick: It’s not an easy ques­tion to an­swer, be­cause there are quite a num­ber of challenges. I think there’s ob­vi­ously work go­ing on to cre­ate new types of product based on in­sects, and that’s very much a live thing at the mo­ment. I think one of the things that is in­ter­est­ing is, the prod­ucts at the mo­ment are com­pa­nies that are say­ing, “I want to sell in­sects,” or, “I want to sell burg­ers that are made with plants.” I think there’s a scope in the fu­ture to see these things be­com­ing more blurred, po­ten­tially, to get the best of differ­ent wor­lds. I’m sure the purist ve­gan wouldn’t agree with that, but there could be a mar­ket for prod­ucts which do have nu­tri­tion­ally perfect com­po­si­tion for differ­ent mar­kets, differ­ent au­di­ences, differ­ent types of per­son, differ­ent fla­vor com­po­si­tions, and maybe draw on the in­sect cell farm­ing and things, but I’m just see­ing so many differ­ent things com­ing through that are kind of hap­pen­ing.

I think the reg­u­la­tory thing is a big hur­dle for us in terms of the in­sect area, be­cause the Euro­pean Union has a novel food reg­u­la­tion, which means that any­thing that is deemed to be a novel food, and in­sects now are, iron­i­cally they weren’t un­til the be­gin­ning of this year, so peo­ple have to prove that the in­sect prod­ucts they’re de­vel­op­ing are safe and don’t have any risks. And that’s af­fect­ing the mar­ket quite sig­nifi­cantly. It’s mean­ing that the big­ger com­pa­nies have got an op­por­tu­nity to go for­ward and smaller ones less so. So that’s some­thing that’s go­ing to change very slowly, I sus­pect, in prac­tice.

Then the other challenge we’ve got is the whole kind of in­sect farm­ing, the cost of it, the cost of the raw ma­te­rial that you get as a re­sult, and there­fore the pro­por­tion. A lot of these prod­ucts have got rel­a­tively small amounts of in­sect ma­te­rial in them, be­cause oth­er­wise the costs would be pro­hibitive. So that’s an­other pres­sure that’s a bit of a challenge, in terms of farm­ing tech­nol­ogy, how to man­age that within welfare con­straints. So there’s a lot of things. I don’t have a time scale, I’m afraid.

Kyle: I think that in terms of in­sect cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture, it’ll be quite a while be­fore there’s any sort of product available that’s de­rived ex­clu­sively from that tech­nol­ogy, but I don’t think it would take too long to find ways to in­cor­po­rate in­sect cells as a pro­tein or nu­tri­ent sup­ple­ment in plant-based prod­ucts or other cul­tured prod­ucts. And also, on our team, we’re work­ing with a va­ri­ety of other cell types as well, and have already started to see ways in which our work with in­sect cells can in­form and im­prove the work that we’re do­ing in other ar­eas, so even if it’s a while be­fore a product comes out of this tech­nol­ogy, it’s already helping to speed up de­vel­op­ment in other ar­eas.

Ni­cole: At least, I mean, there’s a lot of plant-based prod­ucts on the mar­ket right now. There are com­pa­nies that claim they can get clean meat prod­ucts not based on in­sect cells on the mar­ket this year. It’ll prob­a­bly be a mix­ture, so not 100% clean meat. Most clean meat com­pa­nies say two years to be on the mar­ket and five to 10 to be at price par­ity.

Ques­tion: Will in­sect cell cul­ture re­duce the risk of dis­ease out­break ver­sus what we see in mam­mal cell cul­ture?

Kyle: Rel­a­tive to mam­malian cell cul­ture, I don’t think so. There are already pretty strict con­trols on mam­malian cell cul­ture, and pretty ro­bust tech­nolo­gies for de­ter­min­ing if there are po­ten­tial pathogens in some sort of cul­ture, and we’re able to use those same tech­nolo­gies with in­sect cells. So as with any sort of cell cul­ture, there is a risk of con­tam­i­na­tion, but we’re able to iden­tify that pretty quickly, and it wouldn’t be a prob­lem in terms of putting an ac­tual product on the mar­ket.

Ques­tion: What about us­ing yeast or bac­te­rial cells? What’s the ad­van­tage of in­sect cells over, say, yeast or bac­te­ria?

Kyle: So in­sect cells are sort of a happy medium be­tween yeast or bac­te­ria and mam­malian cells. They have a lot of the com­plex­ity that mam­malian cells have, in terms of be­ing able to turn them into differ­ent cell types and cre­ate com­plex tis­sues that you can’t get with bac­te­ria and with yeast, and yet they offer some of the same growth sim­plic­ity that you see with yeast or bac­te­ria. So they’re a lot eas­ier to grow, while also main­tain­ing some of the com­plex­ity, which is one of the rea­sons that they’re re­ally in­ter­est­ing.

Nick: There’s an Is­raeli com­pany that’s de­vel­op­ing pro­tein al­ter­na­tives from yeast. There’s lots of in­ter­est­ing things be­ing de­vel­oped.

Ques­tion: I think you touched on, in your talk ear­lier, about se­lec­tive breed­ing that we’ve seen in chick­ens. What would be bad about that if we saw that in in­sect farm­ing, if you think that would be bad?

Ni­cole: Well, I think there’s a lot more in­for­ma­tion that we need right now, be­cause the in­dus­try isn’t very de­vel­oped. It’s just con­cerns that we have, that we hope the in­dus­try would ac­tu­ally take these into ac­count. I mean, there’s re­ally no way to pro­tect from ever hav­ing some sort of mas­sive ex­o­dus of in­sects from a fa­cil­ity. It’s bad enough if you have billions of black flies get­ting out into an area where they shouldn’t be. What if those black flies are differ­ent, right? That they have been bred in a cer­tain way to maybe have more pro­tein or meat than a nor­mal black fly? How will that have an effect on the en­vi­ron­ment? We just don’t know.

Ques­tion: What is used for in­sect cell growth in­stead of an­i­mal serum?

Kyle: There are a lot of differ­ent for­mu­la­tions. Most of the ones that we’ve ex­per­i­mented with are com­mer­cially available, like pro­pri­etary serum for me­dia for­mu­la­tions, but typ­i­cally the growth fac­tor pro­files for in­sects are a lit­tle bit sim­pler, so they’re growth me­dia that just con­tain those fac­tors in­stead of hav­ing them in the serum mix­ture.

Ques­tion: If you guys could have one thing on your wish­list in terms of pub­lic per­cep­tion, what’s the one thing that you would per­haps po­ten­tially change?

Ni­cole: Let’s eat plants.

Nick: I guess I’d like to see things like the bolog­nese sauce com­ing for­ward as some­thing that peo­ple are more con­scious of, rather than just in­sects on a stick.

Kyle: And I think just rais­ing aware­ness for the field of cel­lu­lar agri­cul­ture more gen­er­ally. A lot of com­pa­nies and a lot of aca­demic groups are do­ing re­ally valuable work in this, and pub­lic sup­port would go a long ways to­wards di­rect­ing ad­di­tional fund­ing, ad­di­tional tal­ent, and other re­sources to help ac­cel­er­ate this tech­nol­ogy more gen­er­ally.

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