Tiziana Di Costanzo, co-founder of Horizon Edible Insects, talks us through the environmental benefits of incorporating insects into our diets.
Firstly, could you give us a brief history of the company and what inspired you to start Horizon Edible Insects?
Our experimentations with edible insect farming started in 2013 as a school project. This coincided with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations publication of the dossier “Edible insects – Future prospects for feed and food security” which has since sparked a global interest in the subject. We had tasted insects on our travels and we knew how good [some] can taste. What we did not know is, how easy it is to grow your own! We had always thought about doing something sizeable to contribute to the preservation of the natural environment and we had been looking for ways that we could live a more sustainable life. Horizon Insects was conceived as a way to promote the urban farming of edible insects as an Earth friendly way to produce proteins as opposed to mass rearing.
Describe to us the benefits of an insect-based diet, and how it might help protect the planet.
Although there are variations from species to species, in most edible insects the composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids is comparable with that of fish. In the case of mealworms, the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that found in fish and meat. Swapping fish with insects for some of your meals would mean slowing down and hopefully stopping the exploitation and depletion of global fish stocks. Another very important environmental aspect of an insect-based diet is that some insects, like mealworms, have a zero-water footprint. They do not drink and, the moisture they draw from bits of fruit and vegetables they are fed, is enough for them to thrive. The fruit and vegetables we feed them is donated by our local fruit shops and it consists of items they are unable to sell. These are normally not good enough to be donated to food banks, but they are much appreciated by our insects! So again, an important aspect of our production is the recycling of waste. It does not end here, because insects have a high feed conversion rate. This means that 1.7kg of feed will give you 1kg of insects, whereas 6kg are needed to get 1kg of traditional meat.
Is this the key to future food security?
Tell us about the production process, how do you farm the insects?
Being at the bottom of the food chain, insects are naturally very prolific hence, when farmed in a controlled environment they reproduce in large numbers and very rapidly. We are a tiny back garden operation. The farm is a 30sqm purpose built thermally insulated shed. We use upcycled materials to build racks, that allow us to stack up high, tray after tray of insects. We feed the insects twice a day with bran and vegetables and clean the trays regularly. The insect excrement, called frass, is collected and sold as a valuable soil conditioner, widely used in hydroponics.
How easy is it for consumers to grow their own supply of insects?
I would say that mealworms are extremely easy. They are very forgiving insects and, although they prefer and grow faster at warmer temperatures, they will thrive no matter what. We’ve recently started selling ‘grow your own’ started kits on our website and we are eagerly waiting for pictures from people tagging us on Instagram with pictures of their first bug recipe! Farming crickets on the other hand, is quite labour intensive, they need temperature control and, of course they chirp a lot, especially at night!
What has been the general response from the public so far? Are people enthusiastic to try an insect-based diet?
Interest has definitely grown over the past few months. It looks like some people have fully embraced the idea, whilst others cannot overcome the ‘yuck’ effect. We had some PhD students visiting our farm a few weeks back; one student really wanted to try insects, but no matter how hard he tried, he could not get himself to put a worm in his mouth… fascinating! On the other hand we’ve had vegan and vegetarian guests that are open to the idea of entomophagy. The subject of vegan and vegetarian is very controversial. However, if the reason behind people’s choice are environmental, insect-eating is being considered as compatible with veganism in certain circles (so called ento-veganism). What we found is that, once people try insects once, they wonder what the fuss was all about! Mealworms in particular havea very tasty and nutty flavour, which is very hard to object to.
Fancy growing your own?
How close do you think we are to insects becoming a mainstream food source in the UK?
There have been many “insect products” hitting the shelves. Some contain as little as 0.01% insect powder, some are more plastic packaging than content. So yes, with clever and aggressive marketing there will be a growth in consumption. However, this is a far cry from being able to buy fresh insects from a local market or a local farm, which is the vision we are striving for. We think there is a real world-changing potential for lots of people like us to produce proteins serving their local community, shortening the supply chain, avoiding the need for freeze drying, post processing, packaging and other practices with a heavy environmental impact.
What are your plans for the future of Horizon Edible Insects?
We will continue to promote our concept of developing an ‘insect urban farming movement’ made of like-minded people for which sustainability is so much more than a mere marketing tool. For now, we are a lone voice, but we hope to get more people farming locally and prevent globalization of this industry. Sadly, we have already seen recent EFSA Novel Food regulations, favouring global firms by imposing the submission of an expensive individual application process, to prove each insect species is safe. This application process includes a data protection provision by which the applicant is allowed 5 years proprietary protection of its data. This means that the big players, which have been able to submit applications, will have 5 years exclusivity on the sale of certain species. We look at it as a patent on food, which is outrageous, if we think that insects are have been consumed for millions of years by billions of people in the world!