This Thanksgiving, North Carolina (NC) continued its yearly tradition of feeding the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NC remains the nation’s second largest producer of turkey in addition to being a top producer of pork and chicken. In other words, the state is responsible for producing some of the most unhealthy, land intensive, and environmentally polluting proteins in the country. Hog farming, in particular, has been linked to negative effects like asthma, cancer, air and water pollution, and declining property values for those living near hog farms, as covered extensively by researchers, doctors, journalists, and independent organizations.
While advocates of pork, chicken, and turkey farming will often cite NC’s $84 billion agricultural industry, protein production is not paying off like it used to. The News & Observer reported that there been a steady drop in the number of farms—with 100,000 fewer farms since the 1960s —and in the percentage of farms making a profit (only 43% are recording economic gains) .
When faced with these realities, the state may long for a way to maintain its agricultural identity, while supporting economically, socially, and environmentally healthy protein production practices. I don’t usually advocate for “magic bullet” solutions, but in this case, it’s hard to argue with one unparalleled option: insect farming.
While some people may be uncomfortable by the thought of insect farming for humans, times are changing. Consumers are getting over their initial aversion to eating “bugs” just like we got over the disgust of eating delicacies like lobster (“the roach of the sea”) or sushi (which used to be raw fish with fermented rice). After all, insects are packed with essential nutrients and all the other goodies that make for a healthier source of protein.
Consumers have rapidly increased the demand for insects sold in products like protein bars, baked chips, and all-purpose cricket flours. “There simply aren’t enough farms to supply the insects that people want,” said Kevin Bachhuber, founder of Big Cricket Farms in Ohio—the first American cricket farm for human consumption. Since its establishment in 2014, multiple farms have popped up nationwide, including BitWater Farms in Mills River, NC. Bachhuber describes the success of the farm by constantly turning away orders because of high demands: “The crickets are sold four weeks before they’re finished being raised … we’ve had to be selective at times about who ends up with our crickets. I’ve raised my prices maybe six times so far.”
Aspire, another cricket farm, found similar success this March when they began testing the demand for whole, dry-roasted crickets. Mohammed Ashour, CEO of Aspire, shared that they were so successful that Aspire crickets are now offered on the menus of high-end restaurants.
While we typically associate an increase in the demand for livestock production with land use inefficiencies and environmental degradation, insect farming is almost unbelievably low-impact. In the academic journal Global Food Security, Dr. Peter Alexander and colleagues found that insects “are the most efficient animal production system considered” with a 34% decrease in the land needed if insects like mealworm replace 50% of existing animal commodities. In addition to needing less physical space, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that insects for farming emit fewer greenhouse gases and can be raised on organic side-streams, and require significantly less feed than conventional livestock. If NC embraced insect farming, it could relieve much of the pressure farmers are facing to find affordable, arable land.
Unfortunately, the state recently passed on an opportunity to cash in on the potential economic and environmental gains of insect farming when the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017 (SB 15) was signed this summer. Lawmakers could have incentivized farmers to research and advance insect farming in a way that promotes food security, healthier protein options, and smart land use decisions.
As Dr. Alexander described, “we are not trying to mandate or even suggest some policy that you eat insects every day [but] our work indicates the potential benefits that are there [for land uses and environmental outcomes].”
Insect farming is the next frontier in agriculture. Bachhuber believes we are close to developing “edible insects [like crickets, grasshoppers, and mealworms] into a full-fledged market.” The General Assembly can lead NC in cricket farming by revising rural development extensions in the next iteration of the Farm Act, slated for 2019, by designating crickets as a specialty crop. The land is ready; the market is ready; and the people want it.
As we enjoy this holiday season, I invite you to introduce family and friends to delicious, protein-rich snacks and enjoy their look of delighted disbelief as they exclaim, “there are crickets in this?”
About the Author: Karla Jimenez-Magdaleno is a second-year master’s student in health behavior and land use and environmental planning. She loves to think about the intersections among public health, economic development, and land management. In her spare time, Karla works as a health communication analyst at RTI International and produces episodes for “The Measure of Everyday Life.”