Worried your dinner is hurting the environment? It might be time to set aside the steak and reach for a cricket.
Pound-for-pound, crickets pack more protein than cows, chickens, pigs, and the rest of the mammals and birds we've come to associate with barnyards. And their smaller footprint — both literally and environmentally — makes them a candidate for a more sustainable food source.
Put down 100 grams worth of pure cricket and you've just ingested 69 grams of protein. That's compared with 43 grams of protein in dried beef protein or 31 grams of protein in identical servings of chicken. The insects also contain essential amino acids and are high in iron, calcium, B vitamins, and fiber.
Those squeamish about eating the hoppers whole may prefer pancakes — or any other baked goods — made from cricket flour. And last month, Brooklyn-based startup Exo (as in exoskeleton) started marketing cricket-flour protein bars to the marathoner-body builder demographic. They run $36 for a 12-pack, or just $32 for a monthly subscription.
Cricket food products are being marketed mainly for their nutritional value, but their purveyors are also offering them up as a potential remedy for climate change.
Worldwide, agriculture contributes one-third of greenhouse-gas emissions — most of which comes from grazing livestock. And while feeding cows requires acres of pasture or farmland, crickets are being served up as a possible fix.
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."