edible insects insect farming

Edible insect farming and big bug dreams

Montreal company Tricycle takes a unique approach to farming that could very well be the future of food.

Louise Hénault-Ethier, the energetic scientist responsible for research and development at Tricycle, slips into her lab coat and leads us through the breeding area, a square, temperature-controlled room where stacks of what look like plastic shoe bins are piled 10 shelves high. Each bin has a label neatly stuck on the front, bearing a 12-digit code. 

The cramped room, roughly 800 square feet, looks more like a generous walk-in closet than a farm. 

And yet, this is where Hénault-Ethier and her three associates at the company — Étienne Normandin, Alexis Fortin and Guillaume d. Renaud — breed 44 million heads of livestock a year, keeping a watchful eye on their development as the hum of the climate-controller keeps a steady temperature between 25 and 28 degrees, and the humidity level at 60%. 

She pulls one of the drawers open and gently gives it a shake. After a few seconds, almost imperceptibly, minuscule mealworms — the size of short, thick, white hairs — begin to wiggle to the surface through what appears to be sawdust. (It’s actually dried food.)

“There’s life in this one!” I can’t help but yelp, because after all, that’s what one does at the sight of thousands of squirming bugs. 

But Hénault-Ethier and her young company are betting on a new growing trend that will hopefully foster a different reaction: eating them. By the millions. 

Welcome to Tricycle, an innovative, Montreal-based edible insect farm with big bug dreams, and a unique approach to farming that could very well be the future of food. 

Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams tricycle
Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams

If your idea of eating insects is limited to devouring the worm at the bottom of a mezcal bottle or inadvertently swallowing a mosquito during a bike ride, you should know that bugs are already part of the traditional diet of approximately two billion people on the planet. Grasshoppers, beetle grubs, caterpillars, giant ants and crickets are just a few of the culinary staples notably found in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

From 1993 to 2005, the Biodome infamously put edible insects on the map in the city with its Insect Tastings event, where visitors could crunch into a wide array of six-legged delicacies. The insect movement gradually faded away, crawling back under its rock until it received a massive jolt in 2013, when the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommended the production of edible insects for an ever-growing population because of their tremendous nutritional bang and limited ecological impact. 

“For the same weight, you’ll have two to three times more protein in insects than you have in meat,” explains Étienne Normandin, director of production and entomologist at Tricycle, whose mealworm powder features a whopping 58 grams of protein per 100 grams. “Insects can also be included in a vegetarian diet because they contain vitamin B12, an essential vitamin only found in animals.” 

With the nutritional wind in its sails, the market recently exploded with a variety of insect-based snack bars, powders and flours now readily available in many grocery stores. President’s Choice even sells their own private-label cricket powder. Insects also made it to prime time TV thanks to Shark Tank and Mark Cuban’s numerous forays into the industry.

A recent report from Barclays forecasts that the edible insects market could reach $8-billion by 2030. In Quebec alone, l’Association des éleveurs et transformateurs d’insectes du Québec (AÉTIQ) already boasts more than 30 breeders and processors, producing more than 100 tons of insects a year. 

However, in all this sudden frenzy, Tricycle’s approach remains unique in that it’s truly both entomological and ecological, keeping the environment at the core of its business model. 

“We want to give a third life to food,” explains Hénault-Ethier, in reference to the company’s name. “We’re working on a circular economy that I would qualify as deep. A circular economy is when you take a byproduct and give it value. Well, at Tricycle, we’re taking it to the next level.”

And it all starts with food waste — roughly 80 tons of it a year. 

edible insects insect farming
Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams

Hénault-Ethier’s laboratory is a short, metallic counter located just on the other side of the breeding area. 

“This is my playground and my small instruments of torture,” she chuckles, pointing to an assortment of Petri dishes, scales and clipboards, along with plastic bags of dry insects. 

Here, Hénault-Ethier analyzes as much food waste as she can, collected within a five- kilometre radius. Whether it’s pulp from local juicers Loop, who make their products by repurposing discarded fruit and vegetables, spent grain from the nearby Etoh micro-brewery or bread residue from la Boulangerie Jarry, Hénault-Ethier uses these byproducts to concoct a perfect blend of feed for her worms. Like an alchemist of refuse, she carefully weighs each gram to find the perfect combination to optimize her tiny tenants’ growth. 

The feed is broken down into two types: dry and humid, which are equally essential to ensure her mealworms reach maturity, from eggs to larvae, in roughly three months’ time. 

“They’re able to churn out chickens a lot faster,” she laughs. “But they’ve been doing research on chicken breeding for hundreds of years. We’re just starting.”

Once the insects reach the larval stage — weighing an average of 100 mg each, slightly lighter than a coffee bean — they’re ready for harvest and are then dehydrated in an oven, to be sold either dried or in powdered form. Some lucky adults are kept for reproduction, to repeat the cycle. 

But that’s not all: along the way, all the insects’ droppings are also recovered to make a potent fertilizer known as frass. 

“Our tests have shown that one teaspoon of frass per litre of earth yielded 16 times more vegetables than without it,” she explains. 

The whole process is painstaking work that requires constant supervision, meticulous control at various stages of growth, continuous testing — and a hell of a lot of sifting. 

The result is a high-end, local production of nearly four tons of mealworms a year where 93% of the food used in the breeding process is, in fact, local, organic residue. 

Now in their third year of operation, Tricycle and its five employees offer consultation services to entrepreneurs who are tempted by the insect-farming venture, since the scientific groundwork is already done. 

“We want to be an open-source company, a reference centre, and our goal is to create a network of interconnected insect farms across Quebec,” she says. 

And the secret recipe to feed her worms? 

“It turns out that the key for them to thrive is a wide variety of food in their diet,” she explains.   

Ironically, food variety remains Tricycle’s biggest challenge in the marketplace. 

edible insects insect farming
Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams

There’s no doubt that we discriminate when it comes to what we’re willing to tolerate on our plates. While most of us still balk at eating insects, we’ve nevertheless elevated shrimp and escargot to the status of fine cuisine. Louisiana crawfish are a delicacy — even if they’re also known as mudbugs. And if you take a long, hard look at a lobster, it clearly has all the architecture of a giant insect. 

The line between insects and seafood is probably murkier than we think. A note on Tricycle’s products warns that people allergic to crustaceans can also be allergic to insects. 

“It’s a cultural problem,” says chef Jean-Louis Thémistocle, who grew up in Madagascar where tables of grasshoppers were regularly displayed next to peanuts at the local market. Chef Thémis, as he is known, is a pioneer of insect cuisine in Quebec, and wrote a book on the subject back in 1997 entitled Des insectes à croquer. “It’s not the insect’s taste itself that’s the pushback. It’s the concept of putting a bibitte in your mouth. Eating bugs just isn’t a reflex. And the only way to change the mentality is through chefs and gastronomy.” 

Chef Richard Desjardins, who teaches at l’Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, is doing just that by asking students in one of his classes to cook with insects and prepare hors-d’oeuvres with them.

“Today, everyone knows we can eat insects and that there’s an important ecological component to eating them,” says Desjardins. “But the question is always the same: people don’t know what to do with them.”

Insects, Desjardins points out, are quite versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes such as risottos, muffins, sauces, dressings and cookies. 

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point of eating a brochette of mealworms,” says Desjardins. “They’re an excellent, nutritional additive, but not necessarily a main dish.”

As for the taste, it will vary depending on which one of the 1,900 edible varieties you’ll eat. For example, mealworms have a distinct taste of roasted nuts, while ants are more acidic, closer to lemon.

The ultimate irony may be that we’re all eating insects already. We just don’t know it. 

“On average, everybody eats half a kilo of insects per year,” explains Normandin, from Tricycle. “There are fragments of them in flour, peanut butter, chocolate, in fruit and tomato juice, in beer. There’s a threshold of acceptability for insect fragments in a lot of products. When a tractor passes in a field, there’s no small arm that comes out and says ‘no crickets, no ladybugs allowed.’ So they end up in our Cheerios and Corn Flakes.”

Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams
Edible insects, insect farming and big bug dreams

Eating habits take time to change, and in the meantime, Tricycle is developing partnerships in other areas for its products, like animal food, snacks or protein supplements. 

Within two years, they’re also planning to expand their facility and massively increase their production, thanks to automation, with the ultimate goal of breeding 20 to 50 times more insects. This would also help them reduce their price point to fend off the competition coming from Europe and China. Their bag of 50 grams of dried mealworms remains a relatively high-end product, selling online at $7, the equivalent of $140 a kilo. 

“We’re at the dawn of a new industry,” concludes Normandin. “In the information sector, we’ve seen new technologies emerging, with wi-fi and cellular. Well in agriculture, the equivalent is insects. But like every revolution, it’s not going to be easy. In general, because of our hesitation to eat insects, I would say that Canada is about 10 years behind.” 

Tricycle is doing its very best to catch up. ■

For more information about Tricycle, please visit their website. This feature was originally published in the May issue of Cult MTL.

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