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Rendering of an Aspire insect farm to be built in London, Ontario that will grow and harvest crickets for food use.Handout

Bugs: You won’t find many of them in Canadian cuisine. Place them on a restaurant menu and the response might just be – ahem – crickets.

But Mohammed Ashour bets crickets can soon play a much larger role. His startup, Aspire Food Group, is building a highly automated processing plant in London, Ont. Construction is scheduled to wind up in December, with commissioning taking place early next year.

The $72-million facility is expected to produce 10,000 tonnes of beige cricket protein powder annually. And if you’re not quite ready to add that to your weekly groceries, Aspire wagers you’ll be willing to feed it to your dog or cat. The plant will also produce 10,000 tonnes of frass – basically cricket poop – for use as a plant and soil supplement.

Aspire is part of a small but innovative coterie of companies that believes insect protein can help make North America’s food system more sustainable. In May, 2013 – a month after Mr. Ashour and his colleagues incorporated their company – the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization released a landmark report that urged the mass-rearing of insects as a promising source of protein.

The FAO envisioned a future resembling scenes from Blade Runner. The organization predicted food production will need to nearly double by 2050 to accommodate Earth’s growing population. The trouble is, there’s not nearly enough land or water to scale up existing agriculture to meet that demand, particularly if people continue to rely on animal protein.

The fact that many North Americans and Europeans currently regard eating bugs as taboo is one daunting obstacle for insect producers. Another is that existing producers are tiny and inexperienced relative to established food producers, resulting in uncompetitive pricing.

Recently, at Loblaws, one could buy whey protein for $4.40 for 100 grams, and soy powder for $2.54 for 100 grams. Entomo Farms, an insect protein producer based near Peterborough, Ont., sells a bag of cricket protein powder for $11.50 for 100 grams.

Lauren Keegan, Entomo’s chief executive officer, said her company is North America’s largest cricket producer. At its 60,000-square-foot renovated chicken barn in Norwood, Ont., the company has constructed what it calls “cricket condos”: warm, dark places intended to mimic how crickets live in the wild. They can move freely during their six weeks of life, feeding at a station of their choice or burrowing deep inside the condos.

Ms. Keegan said Entomo’s “free range” approach is “as opposite to Aspire’s operation as is possible.” What the two companies share is an obsessive focus on lowering costs. She hopes to halve her company’s production costs over the next two years, growing more crickets with the same work force.

Aspire, meanwhile, hopes to automate nearly every aspect of cricket production. In 2014, it opened a pilot plant in Austin, Tex., and began fiddling with a variety of variables to improve productivity.

Crickets in the cricket barn at Entomo Farms in Hastings, Ont., in 2016.Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press

“We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that crickets are such small organisms that are so easily controlled, that you’re able to capture enormous amounts of data,” Mr. Ashour said. “Things like temperature, humidity, airflow and being able to correlate those variables to things like growth and yield and mortality.”

For instance, crickets do not regulate their body temperature. In effect, they hibernate if it’s too cold or too hot. Aspire has sought to identify optimal temperatures to promote growth at every state of its crickets’ life cycle, down to the hour.

“We were able to go from producing something like two pounds per bin, four years ago, to now in excess of about 15 pounds per bin,” Mr. Ashour said.

Lessons from the pilot plant will now be applied in London, but at a scale 200 times larger. It will grow crickets in about 100,000 bins, some closely monitored by sensors in real time. Aspire uses robotics to automate as many processes as possible and plans to harvest crickets after just four weeks. Mr. Ashour says he believes he can drive costs down as much as 80 per cent compared with traditional cricket husbandry.

Aspire is leaning on a variety of commercial partners including Telus Agriculture, sensor provider Swift Labs, soil specialist A&L Canada Laboratories and DarwinAI, an artificial-intelligence company that will analyze the plant’s data to help improve harvesting efficiency.

Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, which administers the federal government’s advanced manufacturing supercluster program, announced last week it will provide a grant of $16.8-million toward the plant – the program’s largest ever.

NGen CEO Jayson Myers called it “a great showcase of advanced manufacturing capabilities” in Canada that will address “a major social concern around food security that’s only going to grow in the future.”

Aspire hopes to build more plants worldwide. It chose crickets partly because they’re found pretty much anywhere on Earth where humans live. Wherever it builds, it won’t be introducing an invasive species.

But in an apparent nod to commercial realities, Aspire now plays down its early emphasis on feeding the urban poor in countries where insects are already an established source of protein. For the foreseeable future, Mr. Ashour expects most of its cricket protein will end up in pet food.

Ian Mosby, a food historian and assistant professor at Ryerson University, said cricket protein’s low carbon footprint is its most powerful benefit. Yet for him, its commercial prospects are limited. Whey and soy also have much smaller carbon footprints than animal meat, and aren’t disadvantaged by cultural baggage.

“What it really comes down to is, we have this cheap protein that we’re producing a lot of in Ontario and in Canada,” he said. “How do you scale up the cricket production industry where it can compete with something like whey, which is a waste product of cheese-making?”

Dr. Mosby added he would “love to be wrong.”

Ms. Keegan expects Aspire will relegate her company’s status to North America’s second-largest cricket producer. Yet the new competition doesn’t bother her. Managers at the two companies said they speak regularly and admire each other.

Aspire’s arrival “anchors Canada as a place for reliable, good product,” she said. “It provides some very solid credibility for cricket at scale as a meaningful ingredient. And it keeps us driving forward to be better and to grow faster.”

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