Entoview with Aspire Food Group

Not many of us can say that we played a significant part in the start of an idea or concept that shapes the way the world works. Even for those in the right place at the right time, such as for the web innovators of Silicon Valley in the 90s, the next leap forward is often an unexpected one. As many are now beginning to realise, global population growth and food security issues have forced us to the cusp of a new agricultural revolution – only this time, everyone sees it coming.

One of the people at the forefront of entomophagy advocacy in the US is Robert Nathan Allen (RNA), one of the management team at Aspire Food Group and the original founder of Little Herds, an Austin TX non-profit aiming to change our attitude towards insects as food. RNA was kind enough to answer a few questions.

Robert Nathan Allen - Little Herds
Robert Nathan Allen in his Little Herds days

EBF: Could you start by explaining a bit about what Little Herds does? What’s its mission?

RNA: When we started Little Herds in 2013, it was kind of a catch-all organization; supporting startups with resources and information; working with regulatory agencies to clarify rules and regulations; and educating the public and children about insects as a food source, especially safety and sourcing advice.

Since joining Aspire in 2014, Little Herds has adopted a new director and they’ve focused their efforts specifically into public and children’s education and advocacy, leaving the regulatory and support efforts to other for-profit companies and consultants within the industry. In the long run I see this as a good direction for Little Herds to go in, as it allows the limited resources of a charitable non profit to be best used to pursue the Little Herds mission of encouraging people to adopt edible insects.

What’s your ento-origin story? How did you get into entomophagy and what nudged you down the advocacy route rather than, for example, developing insect-based products?

While bartending in Austin, Texas my Mom sent me a video about eating insects; a student project from a group in the UK who’ve since formed into an actual business called “Ento“. The video talked about the nutrition, sustainability and cultural relevance of entomophagy, and the ability to abstract insects for hesitant consumers.

It was like a lightbulb turning on; I had never considered insects as food beyond something that people ate out of desperation, but after seeing the video I knew that this was a truly unique resource that western countries have been ignoring to our detriment, and that the sooner we began to pursue it’s potential, the sooner we’ll be able to actually feed everyone in the world without destroying it.

I have to ask… what’s the weirdest bug you’ve eaten? Any good?

I’ve had sauteed Texas Bark Scorpions, had a flavor similar to bacon; smoky, salty, meaty. I’ve also had seared walking stick, which wasn’t tasty but has a neon blue goo inside that’s really freaky looking when it’s on your plate.

You’re now working for Aspire Food Group, with good ties in Ghana and Mexico. Was that from a purely research-based perspective or is there a food security mission involved there? What kind of things are you guys trying to do together?

Our farm in Ghana is absolutely geared around food security. Working with locals we’ve been able to implement a domestication process for the palm weevil larva, which is consumed by locals and even preferred over other livestock meats when available. Traditionally the larva have only been harvested opportunistically when palm trees are chopped down for wood, oil or to clear pasture land.

Now that people are raising them in their homes year round, they have a ready and abundant food supply that requires little to no resources and training, allowing them to have a secure food source for their family, or an income source when sold in the local markets. In two years we’ve grown from 10 farmers in one village, to 500 farmers in four villages, and more villages are interested in starting their own farms too.

Our farm in Mexico is a research institution looking at the viability of domesticating the chapulines, or grasshopper commonly wild-crafted in Wahaxa. If we can successfully domesticate this species we can repeat the success we’ve seen in Ghana in rural parts of central Mexico.

Aspire Food Group Logo

You know, you guys are lucky in the States in that there’s little to no legislative resistance to edible insects (unlike in Europe). Do you see that changing at all, or is it likely to just be smooth sailing? Why do you think that is?

We think that there will certainly be an increased amount of scrutiny of edible insects from regulatory agencies as the sector continues to grow, but the current legislation in the US provides amble opportunities for food-insect businesses to operate and grow while still adhering to all recommendations and mandates from the regulatory agencies. Of course any food business will have to show that their product is safe and wholesome, and that their operation follows good manufacturing practices to ensure consumer safety, but this is proving to be possible for the businesses taking the time and energy to do it right and not cut corners. The risk here is that some businesses will and have tried to make a quick buck by using inferior or even unsanitary insects for human food, but that’s the kind of situation we’re working to prevent, and as the regulation continues to solidify those businesses should see a higher barrier to entry and eventually be excluded from the market. Consumer demand for transparency has ironically worked out very well for companies like ours who are proud of our product and processes.

How are the American public reacting to bugs? Are you noticing people’s attitudes getting better at all? Who gives you the best reactions?

Attitudes have changed DRASTICALLY in the past 3 to 4 years. These days it’s rare for us to find people in Austin who haven’t heard of eating insects. Whether they’ve seen Pat Crowley on Shark Tank, tried Hopper Crunch from the local grocery store, eaten Exo bars at the gym, had crickets at their local restaurant or seen Little Herds around town, the response is overwhelmingly positive. Beyond Austin the trend holds true. Because of the huge number of prominent and legitimate media outlets covering entomophagy as a real tool in fixing our food system, rather than a fear-factor stunt or novelty gag-gift, more and more people are at least aware of it. The number of companies that have successfully crowdfunded their first products to market speaks volumes to the public’s desire to find new alternatives to traditional protein sources that are more ethical and humane, more resource efficient and nutrient dense.
Little Herds Event

Kids are always the best audience, as they haven’t had the psychological taboo ingrained as deeply as adults that insects are gross, scary or disease carriers. Young kids will start chowing down on toasted crickets without having a clue what they’re eating; it just tastes good! Of course, this means you’ve got parents freaking out about what their kid is eating, and that’s a perfect opportunity for us to explain why they should be feeding bugs to their kids.

Parents and teachers are almost always excited about the idea of making the foods their kids WILL eat healthier without trying to get the kids to eat better. Healthier chocolate chip cookies? Yes please!

So there’s this school of thought that insects can be compatible with a vegetarian diet. What’s the idea behind this? I’ve heard some say that farming insects for food is more eco-friendly than farming some of the high-protein plants we’re used to, such as soy, for instance. Then there’s the whole question of insect sentience. What’s your take on this?

We respect the vegan perspective; there’s still a lot of interesting research going into insect sentience and how they interpret negative stimuli like pain, and we’re not going to argue that insects are not living creatures, because they definitely are. Vegetarians on the other hand, that are concerned with health, the environment and ethical or humane treatment of animals almost always view entomophagy favorably. Dan, Little Herds’ current Director is a vegetarian but views insects as a great addition to his diet because it answers all the problems he had with traditional meat sources. We adhere to the Five Freedoms used to measure animal welfare. Insects are unique as a commercial livestock option in that we can actually farm and harvest them while still fulfilling the Five Freedoms.

These last couple of weeks, Meghan Curry of Bug Vivant has been climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and fuelling her climb solely with bug products, supplied by a big chunk of the North American ento-producers. The proceeds are going to the work done with Little Herds. Do you know if there are any special events planned as a follow-up to her climb?

You’d have to ask the current Little Herds Leadership, but I’m guessing that a website overhaul is in the works and that Tshirts are in the near future 🙂

Meghan’s campaign is almost over – more details found here.

Lastly, what’s next for you and Aspire?

Who knows!? This industry has grown at such a fast pace, there’s no real way to know what things will look like in a year. I suspect that we’ll continue to see more startups adopting insects into consumer products; more restaurants serving insects; more educators discussing entomophagy; and a continued trend of positive media coverage. I’m most looking forward to the research that this current popularity will inspire in the coming generations of scientists, as there’s still a lot of research that needs to go into insect husbandry and processing, both for commercial operations in developed countries and micro-farming initiatives in developing nations.

Find out more about Aspire Food Group here, or follow them on Twitter.

More on Little Herds here, or on Twitter.

Meghan’s Indiegogo #BugWall climb can be found here.