Edible insects can create new jobs, stakeholders tell Sen. Jeff Flake: ‘We’re farmers. Please treat us as such’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Aspire Food Group
Picture: Aspire Food Group

Related tags Edible insects

A bill proposing to tackle government waste which stipulates that “no federal funds may be used for the development of insect-based foods for human consumption,” will make it even harder for the embryonic US edible insects industry to compete vs other alternative protein sources, say bug farmers and processors.

S.3716 – The REDUCE Government Waste Act​ – introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and co-sponsored by Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) - is now with the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

It stipulates that “no federal funds may be used for the development of insect-based foods for human consumption, including cricket farming and taste-testing of insect-based foods.”

Given that the amount of money that has historically been channeled to such activities is negligible (small business innovation research grants awarded to edible insect companies totaled less than $1.5m over the past decade), the move is baffling and unfair, said the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture (NACIA), a new trade association comprising 50+ bug-fueled stakeholders on a mission to “encourage the positive growth of insects as both feed and food.”

After a failed attempt to add an amendment to the Farm Bill earlier this year that sought to ban research funding for insect agriculture and insect-based foods, Senator Flake has now teamed up with Senator Cortez Masto in a renewed effort to frame ongoing research supporting insect farming as ‘wasteful.’”

Senator Jeff Flake

“At a time when the Office of Management and Budget is projecting trillion-dollar deficits in 2019 and beyond, how can we pay money and give millions of dollars in grants to pay companies to try to get people to eat bugs? It doesn’t pass the laugh test …”

Senator Jeff Flake, R-AZ, ​addressing colleagues in the Senate in July 2018 

‘The insect agriculture industry has grown tremendously in only a few short years’

The edible insects market is expected to reach nearly $1.2bn by 2023, supported by a CAGR of 23.8% per a recent Research and Markets report, added NACIA president Robert Nathan Allen, who said Sen. Flake’s move would cut off important research dollars at a time when the need for so-called alternative protein sources is becoming ever more pressing.

There is an explosion of growth in this industry globally and the US lags behind. The insect agriculture industry has grown tremendously in only a few short years - creating jobs, starting American businesses, and fueling economic growth. All signs point to that growth not only continuing, but accelerating​.”

There are currently more than 30 companies in the US growing insects for food and feed, employing approximately 200 people, he added, noting that a recent initiative in Charlotte, North Carolina (whereby black soldier fly larvae are fed food waste and are then harvested for poultry feed) could create 300 jobs.

Bug consultant: We should add insects for human use to the registry of crops, livestock, and farm enterprises eligible for all appropriate USDA programs

In a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee, Kevin Bachhuber - who founded the US’s first human-food grade farm in Youngstown, Ohio in 2014 (but was forced to close it in 2016 due to water quality challenges) – said:

“I am writing to you today to not only encourage you to block Sen. Flake and Cortez Masto’s attempts to defund insect agriculture, but to implore you to end discrimination against mostly rural specialty farmers by adding insects for human use to the registry of crops, livestock, and farm enterprises eligible for all appropriate USDA programs.”

Bachhuber, who currently works as a consultant​ in insect agriculture, added that Americans have been cricket farming (largely for bait and exotic pet food) since the 1940s, but said “ever-increasing awareness of the costs of protein and novel bio-engineering offers new frontiers in food, feed, pharma, and materials science” ​that can create American jobs.

But for no good reason, he told the senators on the committee, “Insects have long been excluded from the same consideration as their warm-blooded peers by the USDA… Denied regular access to the Farm Services Agency, the Farm Bureau, USDA, unrepresented in the definitions that govern crop insurance, farm subsidies, guaranties, or loans, is killing life for their workers. There are already insects in the Specialty Crop Block Grant, USDA risk pools, etc, but they're all bees.”

According to insect ag consultant Kevin Bachhuber, there are several programs available to other farmers from which insect farmers are excluded, including:

  • Farmers Market Promotion Program
  • Local Food Promotion Program
  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program
  • Risk Management Education (RME)
  • ELAP
  • Livestock and Meat Domestic Data
  • Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP)
  • Livestock Gross Margin (LGM)
  • Livestock Risk Protection (LRP)
  • Business and Industry Loan Programs*
  • SBA Microloan Program*
  • USDA Microloan Program*
  • USDA Farm Ownership Loan*
  • USDA Guaranteed Farm Loan*
  • Farm Storage Facility Loan Program
  • Direct Emergency Loans
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative
  • Beginning Farms and Ranchers Loans

*Bachhuber’s clients have had “mixed results” accessing the programs with an asterix (*) due to lack of definitions, he says.

‘I think it's ridiculous that Sen. Flake is targeting us like this’

The feed and bait side of the industry is ~$300m a year in the US, and the edible insects market is estimated to be up 40% over the last five years and above $50m, claimed Bachhuber. “I think it's ridiculous that Sen. Flake is targeting us like this, and I'd like your help to fight back.”

American cricket farmers, producing human-food grade protein powder, “cannot compete with our peers in Thailand​,” he added. “A reasonable price, as Sen Flake noted with a sneer to the press, for US-produced insect protein powder, is around $38/lb. The purchase price from Thailand? $12-18.

“I agree with Sen. Flake that the price is too high. Failures by the US government to appropriately fund basic research in micro-livestock agriculture alongside chickens and cows from the New Deal onwards have created this situation. We need to rectify this oversight, and it needs to happen now.”

‘We’re farmers. Please treat us as such’

But what specifically needs to happen – aside from ditching Sen. Flake’s bill – in Bachhuber’s opinion?

Funding that provides enough resources to adequately assess which programs need updated definitions to include insects and insect-derived products appropriately​,” he said.

Insect agriculture  - including but not limited to: crickets, mealworms, black soldier fly, cochineal beetles, superworms, lesser mealworm, chapuline grasshoppers, giant water bugs, dubia and discoid roaches, and other insects with known or suspected commercial uses - defined as a type of farming by the USDA for the purposes of qualifying for the programs​ [see box above].

Substantially easier access to funding and training resources to begin to close the research and commercialization gaps between insect farms and larger livestock.

“Insect and insect-derived products tracked by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service alongside  other livestock. Better data can help increase investors’ confidence, and it’ll provide a valuable metric by which we can see the direct impact of increased funding and support.

“Support for research of the functional, nutritional benefits of insects in livestock and human diets.”

The bottom line, he said, is that, “We’re farmers. Please treat us as such.”

Watch Senator Jeff Flake address colleagues on the Senate floor in July:  

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