Controversial new research regarding cricket farming? Not really. . .

  • Post by  Pat Crowley Apr 25, 2015

Here at Chapul world headquarters, we’re always on the lookout for innovators and insights to fuel the protein revolution. Two weeks ago, two University of California researchers – Mark Lundy and Michael Parrella – published a study of cricket “ranching” techniques which falls squarely into this category. Their work generated a bit of buzz around the web (see Popular Science article here); that attention is itself rooted in growing interest in insects as a protein source. Chapul has always been an environmental mission as much as a commercial venture, so we couldn’t resist joining this debate.

First, a bit of context. Livestock production boils down to a few key efficiency metrics, particularly the “feed conversion ratio (FCR)” and “protein conversion efficiency (PCE).” These numbers describe inputs and outputs – FCR contrasts the quantity of feed required to produce a kilogram of edible animal, and PCE compares the protein produced (as meat) to the protein consumed (in the feed). As one example, Tyson Foods, an 80 year old behemoth which slaughters roughly six million chickens per day, estimates that it takes a bit more than 200 pounds of corn (aka 3.7 bushels) to produce 100 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken meat. That’s feed conversion. Agribusiness companies focus on these ratios because feed often absorbs 50-80% of the total cost of meat production; meat producers care about feed conversion for the same reason Pirelli worries about the cost of rubber. Here at Chapul, when we hear bushels of corn, we think about the acres of land planted with corn stalks, and the gallons of water flowing into those fields. To extend the Tyson example, we know that each bushel of corn needed 3,000 gallons of water to grow. Crunch a few numbers, and the six ounce chicken breast you just tossed on the grill required over 40 gallons of water, or about what you’d need to fill a full-size bathtub. If you’re roasting pork chops or prime rib, you’re in Jacuzzi territory. And that’s why we care so much about feed conversion.

Now, back to Drs. Lundy and Parrella. Their research tackled two questions: 

(1) How will crickets’ feed conversion change when the critters are raised at higher density (i.e. more crickets per box), and 

(2) What happens to that conversion if you compare chicken feed vs. commercial food waste with low protein content.

These questions matter, both because industrial scale cricket production will presumably operate with relatively high density, and because food waste could be an extremely cheap and environmentally efficient alternative to grain-based feed. Part of the reason to consider cricket protein is the environmental benefit of improved feed conversion, and if modern cricket ranches could start swapping grain for food waste from restaurants and cafeterias, so much the better. In short, the results are a mixed bag, and raise some fascinating questions for further work. As expected, crickets are certainly more efficient, even when fed a standard chicken feed formula, instead of a nutrient mixture optimized for insect metabolism. Every pound of chicken feed produced 0.58 pounds of edible cricket, as compared with 0.42 pounds of edible chicken, for those keeping score at home. Protein conversion efficiency was a closer race – bugs beat birds by roughly 10%. If the food waste experiment were on Top Chef, however, the agronomists would be packing their knives and heading home. Conversion ratios were little different from chicken numbers, and most of the crickets died before they were harvest-ready.

So, what do we think? Above all, we are thrilled to see first-class scientists working on scalable cricket rearing at one of the world’s premier centers of agronomy research. Industrial poultry farming benefits from decades of research, trial and error, and genetic selection. In the 1920s, a pound of feed would produce about three ounces of live bird in 90 days. Today, that pound of feed will get you 6-7 ounces in half the time. If crickets can already deliver substantially greater efficiency than chickens have achieved after ninety years of experimentation, then bugs look like a better bet for the next century. To put this in context, 90 years of chicken farming experience implies over 500 consecutive growing cycles, across hundreds of facilities housing the global stock of roughly 20 billion chickens. Lundy and Parrella completed three growing cycles in one facility in Northern California. Cricket ranchers have already learned a lot about nutrients, temperatures and housing, and research like this can only accelerate that progress. Further, while Team Chapul has a particular interest in water resources, and hence feed conversion, the environmental damage wrought by industrial meat production reaches far beyond the amber waves of grain. Pernicious greenhouse effects from methane emissions, groundwater polluted with animal waste, and new pathogens developing resistance to the 30 million pounds of antibiotics fed to livestock every year in the U.S. alone. It’s quite a rap sheet. We’ll keep working on delicious Chapul products to make this revolution as tasty as it is essential. And we're excited to see more research like this which can help accelerate production of this naturally efficient protein.