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"Gold rush" for cricket snacks startup as Finland legalises edible insects

People have eaten bugs as a reliable source of protein for millennia — but not so much in the West. Now Finland has changed the law to allow insects to be sold as food.

As of 1 November, insects can be sold as food in Finland. The move prompted Finnish food safety authority Evira to publish a 44-page booklet of guidelines for safe insect consumption, including the important information that those with a shellfish allergy should be careful about crunching crickets.

It's a burgeoning industry, with a trade lobby group already established for Finnish producers.

Finnish firm EntoCube is part of the new wave of cricket-producing foodstuff companies, having been busy growing and marketing insects for the past three years.

The firm says there’s still some PR work that needs to be done, because the prospect of eating insects remains off-putting to many people in the West.

Hollywood horror movies like The Fly where the main scientist character slowly turns into a giant human housefly after a mixup in the lab, still largely reflect attitudes towards insects; some just think they’re gross.

Salted, roasted crickets

But to the pleasure of insect entrepreneurs, Finland even may be a little ahead of the curve when it comes to eating bugs. According to a Finnish survey carried out at the end of last year, some 70 percent of 585 respondents said they'd be interested in insects as food. Results of the survey were published by the University of Turku and the Natural Resources Institute in December 2016.

Even though Finland’s official ban on selling insects as food was only just lifted, EntoCube, a startup based in the southern city of Espoo, has been quietly marketing their edible cricket and mealworm snacks for the past three years.

Their product range — which includes lightly-salted roasted crickets, peanut-cricket chili snacks, cricket-fortified granolas and others — is carried by a handful of specialty shops around the country including health food store chain Ruohonjuuri.

Garnish, not food

However, for the past three years their munchables needed to be sold not as food products but rather as 'kitchen decorations,' because health officials can regulate what foods companies sell, but not necessarily what people put in their mouths.

EntoCube’s CEO Perttu Karjalainen says when he and his partners started, they set up their first cricket farm a standard 40-foot shipping container, they simply hoped that someone might buy their idea.

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Perttu Karjalainen, co-founder and CEO of EntoCube in one of the company's cricket farms, some of which are made out of repurposed shipping containers. Image: Yle News
Now some three years later, the young entrepreneurs continue to raise the insects themselves. The company now has four active container grow-rooms which are each able to produce about 70 kg of crickets over a 35 day cycle. He says the company has immediate plans for further expansion, as well.

Like with most startups, the early stages have been lean. Karjalainen says one reason the company managed to survive was because he and the rest of EntoCube weren’t paid salaries for the first two years.

But how does one convince an insect noob to start putting them in their mouths? Karjalainen’s "elevator pitch" is simple.

"Insects taste fantastic and you should try them!" he jokes. But he has other reasons to convince people to start eating insects, too.

"The long pitch is that we are heading towards doom on our planet and we need to be clever in the way we use resources, and the kinds of food streams that we utilise," he says, saying that conventional western food production methods are bad for the environment and create a lot of carbon emissions.

"Especially the way that we produce the animal proteins that we choose to eat. Seventy percent of all the grain we grow is used to feed [livestock]," he says.

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Entocube cricket farm closeup
These Entocube crickets are nearly ready for harvest. Image: Yle News

Climate implications

While some may initially balk at the prospect of trading ground beef or other meat products in their burgers for cricket patties, Karjalainen really does have a point that can’t be scientifically dismissed.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, 25 percent of global land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are driven just by beef production alone - including the conversion of forests in the Brazilian Amazon.

Experts estimate that the global population will break the 9 billion barrier by the year 2050 - which is less than 32 years from now. As global income levels rise and developing countries grow economically, the WWF says, the demand for beef is increasing and is expected to grow.

As world population numbers expand, so too does demand for fresh water supplies.

The production of beef requires exponentially more water than, for example, vegetables, according to data from the UK-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Some 15,415 litres of water is used to produce one kilogramme of beef, while the cultivation of, for example, one kilo of rice is just under 2,500 litres of water.

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Entocube's farmed crickets on a plate of modified animal feed.
Crickets on plate of modified animal feed in one of Entocube's cricket farms at the company's facilities in Espoo. Image: Yle News

Karjalainen says beef production uses eight times more fossil fuel power to produce same amount of protein, compared to the same amount of protein from grains.

Producing one kilo of edible crickets, Karjalainen says, requires just a single litre of water. 

And according to a 2013 article in The Economist, only 1.7 kg of feed is needed to create one kg of high protein edible crickets.

Food safety authority Evira published a 44-page document of insect-as-food guidelines for the burgeoning industry on November 1, effectively making it possible for EntoCube and other companies to finally get down to business.

Yle News visited EntoCube’s headquarters and interviewed Karjalainen in late September, days after Finnish health authorities announced that insects would soon be permitted to be sold as food products.

Since then, EntoCube has been gearing up for the new business landscape by raising even more crickets and making other preparations.

Karjalainen said in early November that production of their food-grade insects started on October 23.

“As the growth cycle is 35 days the first food grade crickets will exit the farm in late November,” Karjalainen said.

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