According to Exo, crickets are 20 times as efficient as a source of protein than cattle, largely because they take far less land and food. To produce the same amount of protein, the bugs take six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and half as much as pigs.
There's already an industry of cricket farms, which largely produce food for pet and zoo reptiles — but now count companies like Exo among their clients.
"Introducing insects into our food system is going to be a great way to create a sustainable source of protein," said Megan Miller, founder of the cricket-flour purveyor Bitty Foods, which also serves the bugs in the form of chocolate-chip and chocolate-cardamom cookies. "Western culture is really the last holdout. We want to introduce insects to western culture by putting them in foods that are familiar."
The flour's purveyors promise there's no danger of picking out a stray leg or antenna (the crickets are first dehydrated and crushed), but insect-cuisine servers and supporters are banking on sustainability as a hook to grow entomophagy (that's the practice of eating insects).
Insects' biggest environmental advantage may lie in their emissions of methane. Agriculture accounts for 36 percent of U.S. anthropogenic emissions of methane, the potent greenhouse gas that's as much as 20 to 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. A White House methane reduction plan released in March specifically looks to slash the dairy industry's emissions by 25 percent by 2020 — a plan sometimes dismissed as regulating cow flatulence.
Crickets, by comparison, are estimated to release 80 times less methane than cows.
A 2013 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report titled "Edible Insects" even endorsed insects as a new food source, despite the "degree of distaste for their consumption" in some cultures. And a recent study in the journal Climatic Change pinned dietary changes as a key solution to global warming.
All of this is why Exo founders Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz — who first started experimenting with cricket protein bars as seniors last year at Brown University — think they can introduce more insects to the American palette.
Lewis said there's undoubtedly the "psychological threshold" to overcome, but said the health benefits have attracted customers, especially because they're attempting to make the bars tasty.
Bitty's Miller jokes that crickets are a "gateway bug" to the world's more than 1,800 edible insects. Insects are more commonplace in other cultures and even some high-end restaurants are starting to embrace them as cutting-edge dishes. Copenhagen's Noma, for example, serves up live ants and even D.C.'s Oyamel offers a grasshopper taco.
Ultimately, however, cricket diners may not be the environmental heroes they claim.
"Actually, for protein, dung beetles are the best," said Lewis. "But obviously that's kind of a hard sell."