By: Melissa Baird

I recently attended the Pioneers 18 conference in Vienna, Austria. This slickly produced, high tech conference won the event of the year last year and they sure put on a show. The co-host was a humanoid robot called Pepper that had the audience break out in to fits of applause and more than one smile.

On the main stage a variety of speakers posed unanswerable questions about the future of humanity since Artificial Intelligence (AI) is developing at such a rapid rate no-one can really predict the impact on our development other than to say that we are in for the ride of our lives.

But it was not just robotics and the technological revolution that was of interest. There are remarkable developments in food technology and some rather curious innovations that could positively impact how the world is fed. Cue Daniel Vach who originates from Prague and has the largest cricket farm in Thailand that is producing high protein flour made from crickets.

SENS foods had a huge PR boost in early June with the launch of their high protein SENS bars and new product, SENS bread, to the Rewe group, a retail chain in the Czech Republic. It appears the European market is on the verge of accepting cricket and other insect-based products as “completely okay”.  This is going to give impetus to the emerging insect industry and 2018 is becoming the year of the cricket all around Europe.

The protein bars are already in many shops, gyms around Europe. As Daniel explained: “By 2050, we need to double our production of food. There is a shortage of protein and farming more cattle or catching more fish is not a solution. Even now, we simply overstretch our natural resources. That cannot last long. We need to look into alternative sources of protein, or there will not be enough food to feed everyone.”

I had these thoughts in my mind when I facilitated the seminar on Food Security and Agriculture at Sustainability Week in Tshwane just two weeks after meeting Daniel and the figures on South African food ‘insecurity’ are staggering. According to Mandla Nkomo – the managing director of Solidaridad, the number of people in South Africa who are food insecure equals the entire population of Zimbabwe (13.6 million). Solidaridad is a global organisation that provides solutions for agricultural sustainability and was responsible for the development of Fairtrade and other certification labels that were created to eradicate poverty in the lives of farm workers. But as he later said, “you cannot certify workers out of poverty”. What will bring change and set to balance the lives of the hungry with what the earth can provide? It is not the lack of science or technology that is holding true change back but the fact that people are not connecting the ‘dots’ in agriculture and food supply. Could the cricket be that dot? If the United Nations is already promoting eating insects as a solution to the coming food crisis (insects are already eaten regularly by 2 billion people all over the world). The figures add up; to produce the same amount of protein, crickets require 12x less feed, 2000x less water and produce 100x less greenhouse gases than cattle. The whole cricket farming industry is at its beginning, and SENS bars taste great, are highly nutritious and an example of insect-based food products that can’t be overlooked.

Of course, I had to try one but was warned that if I had a shellfish allergy (I don’t) I would not be able to eat cricket. On my best days I am a vegan, on a few days in the year I eat wild meat prepared by friends, but on none of them have I ever (knowingly) eaten an insect.

The surprising thing about it was it tasted just like any other protein bar I have eaten, only it had less sugar. If the European market is waking up to the unique aspects of this product, could that happen in South Africa? Once upon a time the South African mass market did not eat pilchards, but clever marketing soon made canned fish a meal served up on more than three million South African plates a day.

SENS gives the figures: 11 crickets = 1 gram of flour. I protein bar uses 55 crickets and the super high protein bar uses 132 crickets.  The flour has a shelf life of two years and does not need to be refrigerated. This means it can be distributed with less impacts on GHG emissions and higher quantities can be produced for longer shelf life without the need for preservatives. Could cricket flour become the staple flour of SA?

I asked Daniel why he had become interested in this endeavour and what was his inspiration. He said he “hated wasteful consumption patterns” and wanted to come up with a solution that would change that and solve the food crises. Cricket farming is a true example of a circular approach to agriculture. The crickets are fed on organic waste streams from rice husks and the cricket’s excrement – called “frass’ – is an excellent fertiliser; one waste stream that is useless transforms in to two products that are useful, and by farming crickets the reduction in GHG emissions is measurable as is the use of water which in meat production is a serious cause for concern.

My vegan heart was confused: crickets, they sing don’t they which prompted me to ask what his cricket farm sounds like. He looked at me rather perplexed and then laughed and said, “Well actually they are quite quiet.” Ja, probably because they know they are going to be eaten I thought but who knows. Being a cold-blooded creature, the cricket is literally frozen to its end before being processed, unlike what happens to cattle, chickens etc.

I finished the cricket protein bar and enthusiastically discussed it with the head of the Bayer Foundation, Thimo Valentin Schmitt-Lord who is searching the world for mass produced solutions to end hunger. I said to him I have seen the future of food. Lab grown meat may be a part of it but to think that conventional animal production can do the job based on water usage, deforestation and GHG emissions is not it given the planet’s current environmental crises.