From the beetle larvae consumed by African tribesmen to the fried grasshoppers sold by street vendors in Thailand, insects have always been a regular part of the human diet. Today, over two billion people worldwide regularly eat insects, according to a recent report from the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. And as populations swell in the developing world, insects could well become the key to global food security.
Now a team of MBA students from McGill University has won a $1-million dollar prize for trying to advance this idea. The Hult Prize, handed out Monday by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, is the culmination of a year long social-entrepreneurship competition involving thousands of students.
The McGill team, consisting of Mohammed Ashour, Gabe Mott, Jesse Pearlstein, Shobhita Soor and Zev Thompson – won for their plan to produce and promote insect farming for food consumption in urban slums. The Globe and Mail caught up with Mr. Mott in New York, after the he and his teammates claimed their prize at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
How did you come up with this idea?
We had been working on trying to come up with an answer for food insecurity in global slums, but we only had good ideas. To be competitive at the Hult Prize against other top business schools we knew we needed something revolutionary. We decided to split up, crowd-source ideas from our friends and try to come back with something crazy enough to work. Our team captain, Mohammed Ashour, came back with an idea from a friend in medicine. Insects. Once we did some preliminary research we knew we had our idea.
How significant could insects be as a food source?
Insects (or micro-livestock) are already a significant food source and they often have superior nutritional profiles to conventional livestock. The real issue is that they are seasonal, which means they are only available for a few months (or less) a year. Even if they were available year round, they are hand harvested, a labour intensive process which significantly inflates their cost.
What will you do with the prize money?
It will allow us to implement our business model rapidly, to get insects to the people who demand them, and do so year-round. The grasshopper season in Mexico is coming to a close, so it is imperative that we immediately harvest large numbers to begin our breeding colonies. We'll also continue to do research on the most demanded species of micro-livestock so we can further our goal of helping people acquire the traditional foods they desire, at a price and frequency that will significantly improve their nutrition.
Do you have to overcome a perception that insects are an inferior food source?
Yes, we do need to overcome that perception, but only among people in the developed world. The perception that insects are disgusting, or not a respectable source of food, tends to be a Western phenomenon. We do acknowledge that there are some developing countries without a history of insect consumption (entomophagy), and we do not propose to offer our solution there in the short term. Eventually, insect-fortified products will be available everywhere. In this year alone there have been three new insect-fortified food companies that have started up in the United States. Micro-livestock are coming to a grocery store near you.
Have you eaten insects? What do they taste like?
The team has eaten a wide variety of insects. Fried crickets taste slightly like buttery almonds, with a bit of an aftertaste. Fried in chilies and lime, however, they taste like those ingredients, and baked into a chip they are all but undetectable. My teammate Zev Thompson had grasshoppers in tacos and sauces in Mexico and found them spicy. Shobhita Soor had caterpillars in Thailand and found them savoury and sweet. I had stir-fried Thai Basil palm weevils 10 minutes after they were harvested – try to do that with a cow – and they were juicy and delicious.
Could and should insects be used more as a protein source in the developed world where meat consumption is very high?
Absolutely. I have been vegetarian for over 15 years, but I have decided to make an exception for micro-livestock. In comparison to conventional livestock they require vastly less water, feed and space to produce the same amount of food. Further, when you look at greenhouse gas emissions, they produce a fraction of the carbon dioxide and essentially no methane. As arable land decreases and water shortages become all the more common, we would be wise to consider shifting some of our caloric intake to these hyper-efficient superfoods.
This interview has been edited and condensed.