One of the new generation of Silicon Valley start-ups making the shift from information to insect technology is Tiny Farms, whose co-founder, Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, gives us some thoughts on the growing entomophagy industry and their place in it.
EBF: Tell us a little bit about what Tiny Farms are doing out there in San Fransisco.
Dan: Tiny Farms is developing technology to enable the agricultural production of insects. We’re making it easier to start an efficient, large scale edible bug farm, unlocking the potential of insects as a modern food ingredient.
What that means practically is we’re building a giant R&D bug farm in Oakland, California, running a ton of experiments, and using what we learn to help farmers start raising bugs worldwide!
So why all the hype – what’s the big deal with eating bugs?
The most important thing is that they taste really good! They’re also a great animal to farm, requiring very little food, water or space to produce a huge amount of protein. They’re eaten regularly by 80% of the world’s cultures, and are generally pretty healthy (high in protein, low in saturated fats).
What makes your bugs fit for human consumption and why are others not?
Over 1,000 species of insects are already known to be edible, but there are nearly a million different species of insect in total – we have a lot of tasting to do!
The systems we design produce insects specifically intended for use as food. They’re species selected for their palatability, they’re raised and processed in conditions cleaner than those required for meat production, and they’re guaranteed by law to be fed with wholesome feed. You can collect insects from the wild, but there’s a high chance they’ll be contaminated with pesticides – and since wild collection can also put a lot of stress on natural ecosystems, it’s better to eat farmed bugs.
How did you personally first get into the world of entomophagy?
The first bug I (deliberately) ate was at the ThinkTank museum in Birmingham, UK, nearly ten years ago. They were giving out cricket crisps as part of an exhibit on insects. I ate a few, enjoyed them, but didn’t think of them again until around three years ago.
At that point, my friends Andrew and Jena – now my co-founders – were exploring the idea of using technology to help people grow food closer to home. They discovered a community of people exploring the use of insects in food, and we realised there was something big getting started. Fast forward three years and the edible insect revolution is well under way!
How often do you actually eat bugs and what are your favourites?
A couple of times a week! Locusts are my favourite bugs to cook with, but since they’re an agricultural pest we can’t raise them in California. Crickets are great fried with some salt and chili flakes, and fried waxworms taste like roast chicken skin!
What were the toughest challenges you came across in starting up Tiny Farms?
As a growing business, the challenges never end – they just change over time! To begin with, we had to figure out where the sector was headed, identify the problems it would face and decide which ones we were best placed to solve. That’s why we decided to focus on farm technology rather than building a food product – we’re technologists at heart, and we bring skills to the table that nobody else in the industry has.
Once you get started, it’s difficult to know where to focus; which opportunities to pursue for long term benefits, and which to keep your business ticking over in the short term.
At the moment, we’re focused on recruiting the right team – employees, advisors and investors – to help us grow. We’re laying the foundations for our business, so it’s really important to get things right!
Why do you think it’s so difficult for Westerners to get used to the idea of eating bugs?
It has actually been a lot easier than we anticipated! Three years ago, we would never have guessed that JetBlue would be serving Exo bars in-flight, or that so many insect companies would have raised money through crowdfunding. With the Internet, if something looks and tastes good, people will share it, so new food ideas spread really fast.
Traditionally, the West hasn’t had access to many big, tasty insects. It’s just too cold in Northern Europe, where most Western cuisine originates. Now that we live in a globalized world, it’s a lot more common for people to experience cuisine from other cultures – and the web amplifies that even more.
Do you see this changing in the future?
It’s inevitable that insects will become more prevalent in Western food, the same way that beef is becoming more popular in Asia. It helps that there are dozens of advocates and entrepreneurs working hard to spread the word!
So what has the future got in store for Tiny Farms?
As a company, we’re always trying to think ahead of the curve. Insects will have a big impact on both Western cuisine and global food security, but there are a huge number of engineering and business challenges to solve before the insect production sector fully reaches its potential.
Our job is to look to the future and figure out answers to important questions. Who will be the farmers of tomorrow? Where will they live, which species will they produce, and how will they participate in a networked, global economy? What technology and products will they need to succeed, and how can we build them?
Insect farming today is where conventional agriculture was a few hundred years ago. There’s a lot of catching up to do, and we’re going to see centuries of progress unfold in a couple of decades. It’s incredibly exciting, and we are thrilled to be along for the ride!