Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds and serial Ento-preneur, is trying to change the way Westerners interact with bugs by teaching the next generation the importance of insects. Through farmers markets, family events, public outreach, and education partnerships, Allen is working to promote the use of insects as a waste management tool, a sustainable protein source, and livestock feed.
In 2014 Allen started the first crickets-as-food farm in Texas with Aspire Food Group. Through his most recent venture as co-founder and advisor at Grub Tubs, Allen repurposed food waste from restaurants and grocery stores into nutrient-rich affordable animal feed for local farmers. While Grub Tubs was Allen’s first for-profit startup, he complimented that through his educational nonprofit, Little Herds, where he teaches about the consumption of insects, connects educators to resources, businesses to collaboration partners, and researchers to policy makers to encourage informed discussions and increase understanding of the various uses of insects.
Allen also helped start the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture, co-organized the first academic conference for insects for food and feed, Eating Insects Detroit, and raised over US$10 thousand to support partnerships with organizations like Farms For Orphans and the Global Orphan Foundation, which are implementing the domestication of insect practices to achieve greater food security.
Food Tank spoke with Allen about the use of insects as an integral resource to divert food waste, improve the environment, and support a nutritious diet.
Food Tank (FT): Grub Tubs and Little Herds focus respectively on reusing food waste and promoting the consumption of edible insects, especially through educational outreach. How did you get interested in these different focuses?
Robert Nathan Allen (RNA): In March of 2012, my mom jokingly sent me a video about eating insects, which I took rather seriously. The video talked about the nutritional aspect of insects, the resource efficiency of farming insects, and the different culinary traditions from cultures around the world that consider insects a food. Conceptually, I knew people in other countries ate insects and I knew insects were a source of protein, but I never seriously considered insects a food and certainly never realized how incredibly nutritious and resource efficient they can be. After the video, I was hooked. I kept researching and learning about the many uses of insects, which led me to the work of The Bug Chef and Daniella Martin who got me interested in convincing people to eat bugs, thus starting Little Herds. Through my time at Little Herds, I realized that talking to folks about feeding insects to chickens was an easier sell.
This realization and the work of other leaders in the feed insect industry inspired me to partner with Robert Olivier and start Grub Tubs, which repurposes pre-consumer food scraps. Grub Tubs composts the food scraps to feed insects, which can then be fed to the livestock. They can use insects like the Black Soldier Fly larvae to provide proteins and fats into animal’s diets, which saves the farmer money on their feed bill and in turn gives them economic incentive to increase their flock size and put more food back into the local economy.
FT: At Grub Tubs, you collected food waste and converted it to livestock feed. This food waste usually ends up in landfills. Why aren’t more people doing this?
RNA: In a lot of ways, this is a new way of thinking about waste management. But we are actually seeing other people doing similar things to Grub Tubs, like Enviroflight, and many others! For example, some organizations, like Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, take the spent grains from breweries or distilleries and feed those to insects grown for food. There are other great organizations and startups that are looking at how to utilize wasted food in many other ways. Grub Tubs is certainly not the only one addressing this issue, they are part of a growing movement.
FT: What is the regulatory environment like for reusing food waste and for producing insects for human consumption? Are there policies that would make it easier?
RNA: This is where the education aspect comes in. A big part of the regulatory environment is understanding how the use of insects can fit into existing regulations to ensure that their nutrients are being used properly. If food is still edible, people should eat it, if it can’t be fed to people but can still be fed to animals, it should be fed directly to animals. If the food can’t be fed directly to animals, it should be fed to the decomposers who can then be fed to animals. Currently, our waste management system is not set up like that, so we need regulatory clarification in the hierarchy of waste management.
One of the biggest issues is the hesitance to view food scraps as anything other than food waste. Even here in Austin, where the city has a Zero Waste by 2040 goal and is taking some fairly progressive measures to reduce the amount of organics that go to the landfill, we still talk to business owners who consider a potato peel trash. We’re working hard to educate people about the difference between wasted food and food waste. When food is unusable for one purpose, is there another way that it can be used to loop those nutrients back into the system as they degrade.
FT: Although millions regularly eat insects like lobster, there is a ‘yuck factor.’ Do kids and adults respond differently to eating insects? How do you get them past any initial misgivings?
RNA: You hit the nail on the head when you said millions regularly eat insects like lobster. The vast majority of people would not agree with that sentiment, but in reality, if you look at lobsters and shrimp, they look otherworldly! They don’t look all that different from insects. Genetically and evolutionarily speaking, crustaceans like shrimp, lobster, and crabs aren’t really that far from insects. They’re both arthropods and they have a chitinous shell, which is one of the reasons why shellfish allergy is a concern.
The food system is fluid and our perceptions about foods change. We see that potential with insects as well. By encouraging chefs and entrepreneurs to include insects in familiar foods like chips, crackers, and pasta we are changing perceptions. In this way, we talk about a bottom-up and a top-down approach. The bottom-up approach is putting insects in staple foods and making it easier to approach for the common consumer. The top-down approach is encouraging chefs to include insects on their menus.
Kids are a great platform for educating their parents and adults around them as they are more curious and receptive to new ideas in general. Younger children haven’t had the psychological taboo against insects ingrained in them, and haven’t been told over and over that bugs can’t be food. We love when little kids walk up to our booth and start chowing down on crickets, while their parents are freaking out behind them. It’s a great opportunity for us to start a conversation explaining the benefits of insect use.
FT: As an individual consumer or restaurant, how do you source edible insects in the United States?
RNA: Right now, you source insects from the internet, but there are a few companies that are selling through grocery stores or vitamin shops. Nutrition advocates and people with specialty diets typically integrate insects into their diet easier, especially those who follow paleo, ketogenic, or gluten-free diets. Additionally, there are restaurants in most large major metropolitan cities that have had insects on the menu in some form or another. Whether it’s a traditional Mexican restaurant using Oaxacan recipes and chapulines grasshoppers—it’s a part of Oaxacan food culture—or a Thai restaurant using traditional Thai ingredients, like “jing reed” crickets, and recipes. There is an increasing number of chefs that are integrating insects into their dishes, making it more approachable for the common consumer. At the same time, people are being exposed to the issue through mainstream forums, for example, Mark Cuban on Sharktank invested in two insect product companies in just two years.
FT: Do you have any advice for readers who want to make a larger difference in their communities?
RNA: I’ve learned a lot of lessons that started with recognizing the industry’s infancy. Until five years ago, there were no insect farms producing insects for food. But in that time we’ve gone from zero to dozens of farms and dozens of insect products available in a variety of forms and fashions. We’re learning how to educate consumers in a better way by looking at other industries.
We’re also learning that we still have a long way to go. The farm here in Austin, Aketta Cricket Farms, has revolutionized insect agriculture and husbandry. They are mechanizing the industry, fabricating equipment on site with 3D printing, and collecting data to increase their efficiency. They’re using robotics to replace the most expensive inputs, like human labor, with automated processes, which in turn brings down the price of the product for the consumer. As companies like Cowboy Cricket Farms, Tiny Farms, and Entomo Farms refine their farming practices, they are going to make insects more accessible to more people. The regulatory landscape is also becoming easier to navigate. In 2016 we received guidance from the Food and Drug Administration about how to farm, process, package, transport, and market insects in compliance with the current Good Manufacturing Practices.
It’s been incredible to experience the collaboration, transparency, and willingness to work together in this industry. It reflects the idea that a rising tide raises all boats and collectively we can be more impactful if we all work together. With upcoming Bug Ag conferences, like Insects To Feed The World and Eating Insects Athens, it’s more important than ever to be willing and open to collaboration, to explore new ideas, and to put our own psychological taboos aside. This has been a huge part of Little Herds’ success. We have been able to work with many different people from many different backgrounds, collaborating with farmers, chefs, food scientists, regulators, parents, nutritionists, and doctors to change the food system as a whole.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.