SUDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG

Ready For Cricket Flour? Ethics And Economics Of Insects As Food Commodity

A Czech entrepreneur is ready to mass-produce insects and turn them into a marketable, protein-rich food staple. Now he just needs buyers.

Spaghetti with bolognese sauce made and garnish made from crickets
Spaghetti with bolognese sauce made and garnish made from crickets
Niko Kappel

CHIANG MAI — How do 400 million chirping crickets sound in a huge hall? "Very loud," says Radek Husek, laughing. "It's just deafening right now."

The 25-year-old Czech man is opening the world's largest cricket farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Radek's company, Cricket Lab, uses the critters to produce a flour with which it wants to revolutionize the food market.

In 2050, there will likely be 9 billion people on Earth. And as the numbers rise, so does the need for protein. At a time when people are eating more consciously and are increasingly turning away from factory farming, the question, then, is where these proteins should come from.

Radek turned this question into a business. Many experts consider insects to be the solution to the protein problem. They are easy to breed, easy to process and contain a lot of proteins. More than two billion people in Asia already eat insects. But in the West, creepy crawlers are not yet part of the menu. Radek wants to change this, and with his cricket flour, revolutionize the Western world's diet.

The young Czech is a real business guy, with a LinkedIn profile any corporate recruiter would appreciate. He was valedictorian at the University of Economics in Prague, with a semester abroad at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona. He also founded a successful start-up at that time, and then sold it. Next came a Master's degree from the London School of Economics that he couldn't, however, complete — because of the crickets.

"If you'd told me a year ago that I was going to start the world's biggest cricket farm, I probably would have thought you were crazy," Radek says.

Cricket flour can be processed into anything: Bread, noodles or protein bars.​

At first, the entrepreneur hardly knew anything about the insects. He just had the idea, so he sought out competent help. His business partner, Jesse Willems, is in charge of cultivating crickets. Willems studied animal management at Van Hall Larenstein University in the Netherlands.

The partners finished construction of the facility in May, and are now focused on the breeding process. By the fall, they expect to be at "full cricket capacity." They chose Thailand as a location because that's where living conditions are the best for the crickets, Radek says. It's constantly warm, which is best for their reproduction.

At Radek's cricket farm, crickets are washed, killed and ground automatically. This is a world first. "Most cricket farms in Thailand are small," he says. "We want to produce as much as possible with little effort so that we can offer the cricket flour at reasonable prices." The animals are kept in six meter high boxes to save space, requiring a total of only 660 square meters of space for the cultivation of the crickets.

The cricket flour is almost tasteless and can, therefore, be processed into anything: Bread, noodles or protein bars. And when the farm is fully operational, at the end of the year, only eight to 10 employees per shift will be needed to make the flour — a tiny number considering the mass production they're expecting.

An array of insect snacks at a market in Chiang Mai, Thailand — Photo: Radek Hušek/Facebook

Those words — mass production — make some people wince. For the environmentally-conscious, pro-sustainability crowd, the term conjures up images of pigs cramped in super-sized livestock farms, or endless rows of egg-laying hens. And certainly, in terms of sheer numbers, the cricket farm will process a mind-boggling number of critters. At full capacity, 3.5 tons of cricket flour are expected to be produced every month. Each gram of flour contains 11 crickets, meaning the factory will go through 400 million of them in a month.

That's a lot of dead bugs. But is that a problem? Professor Heinz Mehlhorn, a zoologist at the University of Düsseldorf, doesn't think so. "Crickets have such a poorly developed nervous system that it's not comparable to factory farming of pigs or cows."

Radek's company advertises that the crickets are shock frozen and die in seconds — apparently without suffering. But what about pigs that are killed in seconds with a bolt gun. They suffer, don't they? "Pigs literally sense death when they are taken to the butcher. They can feel fear of death," Mehlhorn says. "That's why they still suffer, even though the killing process is virtually painless. The crickets don't have that sensitivity."

From a moral standpoint, therefore, mass-producing insects "definitely makes sense," the professor adds. There are environmental arguments in favor of commodity cricket production as well. On its website, Radek's company explains that to produce half-a-kilo of protein, crickets require 12 times less feed than cattle and half as much as pigs or chickens.

Man is a creature of habit and is easily disgusted by insects.

Expecting a hard sell

But do Europeans really want products made from insect flour? "Of course Europeans are disgusted when they think of crickets as food," says Radek. That's why Cricket Lab processes the animals into flour.

Vegetarians and vegans are also potential customers for Radek. "Many people become vegetarians or vegans because they reject factory farming," he says. "We don't cause any pain to the animals and work in a way that's protective of the resources."

Two vegetarians even work at Cricket Lab. :They are fully convinced of our idea and would definitely eat the products made from cricket flour," Radek says.

Still, Mehlhorn thinks Radek and his company will have a hard time in Europe. "I don't believe that this type of food can prevail in Europe," the zoologist explains. "Man is a creature of habit and is easily disgusted by insects. They've had to invest a lot of money for this farm. I could easily imagine that they might go bankrupt, which I would find a pity. Insect flour is really a good idea that would benefit mankind."

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Green

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat


CAUCHARI
— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.


It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park

Xinhua/ZUMA

Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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