On average, each human being consumes 75 pounds of meat per year. But, like most averages, that number can be somewhat deceiving. Americans and Australians, the world’s biggest meat consumers, eat closer to 220 pounds of meat per year, or about 50 chickens or an eighth of a cow. The average Rwandan, Nigerian, Indian or Ethiopian, on the other hand, eats less than 15 pounds of meat per year.
And worldwide meat consumption, on the whole, is going up. First, because there are more people, and more people eat more of everything. But meat consumption is rising faster the population, because as incomes are rising globally, people are buying more meat. That is particularly visible in nations like Brazil and China, where a local population that ate less than 20 pounds of meat per year in 1961 now eats more than 100 pounds of meat per person per year.
In fact, the only nation where increased income has not radically changed meat consumption habits is India, where consumers have eaten less than 10 pounds of meat per year on average for the last 70 years. That is largely attributed to cultural factors that are unique to India.
The problem is the meat is environmentally costly: It’s heavy on water use and land use, produces a lot of methane and is a leading contributor to deforestation. But meat is also the main way most humans consume protein – and, of course, it tastes good, at least to a vast majority of consumers.
Which means to lower meat consumption, one needs a reasonable substitute. Much of the trend in this regard has been chasing products that look like meat, taste like meat and even bleed like meat, but that are actually plant-based, like the burgers from Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat.
But Laura D’Asaro and Rose Wang had a different idea. Instead of eating fake meat, they thought, people should learn to eat a real meat that is a lot more sustainable than pork or beef.
It is an out-of-the-box solution, at least for Americans, D’Asaro told INC, but it doesn’t have to be. People all over the world eat insects and like them, making them a more natural fit than some of the science projects currently happening in food labs to replace meat.
“We have people spending millions on trying to make plants taste like animals,” D’Asaro noted. “Insects are an amazing solution that are minimally processed and don’t have the environmental impact of meat.”
The problem with eating bugs? Stated simply, they look like bugs. Both D’Asaro and Wang experienced insect eating while studying abroad, but when they brought the institution home and tried to share it with Harvard classmates, they quickly learned that “ooey-gooey” bugs – or anything with legs still attached to it – were a bit of a non-starter for American audiences. And so they decided to bake the bugs into chips, which today are the signature offering of Chirps, the bug-based snack food company the two founded.
And by hammering the bugs into protein-rich corn chips, they are not trying to disguise the fact that there are crickets baked into the snack. On every bag of Chirps, the phrase EAT BUGS is emblazoned loudly on the packaging.
It was not initially an easy business to start – D’Asaro noted that “as the bug company, you’re always the weird one” in the world of food innovation. Investor interest was hard to come by at first – in fact, they noted, the idea of eating bugs seemed like an effective investor repellent. But two successful kickstarter campaigns, a Shark Tank appearance and 1,200 stores worth of placement later, the firm is looking stronger. D’Asaro noted that their revenue has doubled every year.
And, she added, insect farming may increasingly be the way the world needs to go, as it becomes more important to find sustainable ways to feed the growing population. It takes 2,000 gallons of water to make a pound of beef, and it takes just one gallon of water to produce a pound of crickets. It also releases less greenhouse gases and requires very little land.
“Insects are the most sustainable source of protein on the planet, and I think people are going to get more open-minded about giving them a chance,” said D’Asaro.