Bugs could be answer to food crisis, Israeli start-up says

Bugs could be answer to food crisis, Israeli start-up says

Israeli firm aims to be the first to farm edible insects, using high-tech methods; protein source to be marketed in the West

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Dror Tamir offers one of Steak TzarTzar's edible grasshoppers to potential tasters. The company was one of the Israeli start-ups at FoodTech Nation, December 15, 2015 (Courtesy)
Dror Tamir offers one of Steak TzarTzar's edible grasshoppers to potential tasters. The company was one of the Israeli start-ups at FoodTech Nation, December 15, 2015 (Courtesy)

Millions of people suffer from lack of protein, which is especially dangerous for children – and with the world population set to grow significantly in the coming years, mankind needs more, and cheaper, sources of protein.

Problem solved, believes Dror Tamir. According to Tamir, his company can provide a healthy, cheap alternative source of protein to the millions of children who lack other sources. His plan, he believes, will improve their health, give their families food security and jobs, and help the environment.

How? With bugs. “We are growing edible insects for humans,” Tamir said.

His company, Steak TzarTzar –the word means cricket — which he founded with Ben Friedman and Chanan Aviv, aims to be the first to farm edible insects, using high-tech methods to quickly grow them in an organized manner, under sanitary conditions.

Dror Tamir (Courtesy)
Dror Tamir (Courtesy)

In a world where protein is already lacking – and will become even harder to come by, as the world’s population grow to as many as 9 billion by 2050 – insects, and especially grasshoppers, are one under-untapped source. According to Tamir, grasshoppers are not only healthier than most sources of protein, but also cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

Without sufficient protein, health dangers abound. Lack of protein can hurt kids’ development, damage their immune system, and shorten their life expectancy. Already, cattle is not a viable source of protein for most people because it is too expensive and harmful for the environment – and the availability of animal protein will continue to fall as the world’s population grows and global warming makes farming in temperate climates more difficult.

Other alternative sources of protein are also impractical. Genetically modified salmon were rejected by the market, Tamir said, and the world’s first artificially grown burger cost about $330,000 to produce.

“We wanted an alternative protein source and found that insects are the easiest solution,” Tamir said.

Around 2.5 billion people already consume insects, and there are about 1,900 edible insect species. Steak TzarTzar will grow different species of grasshoppers, which Tamir calls “one of the most edible insects.”

The company will first focus on east Africa, where grasshoppers are considered a delicacy but are twice as expensive as cattle. They are only available for four to six weeks of the year and need to be collected in the wild, he said.

Grasshoppers are cheaper to farm and grow faster than cattle. The company’s goal is to provide the insects year-round at an affordable price.

Grasshoppers are picky eaters, Tamir said. They eat healthy food, which makes them healthy to eat. They are about 70 percent protein, 20 percent fiber, and five to seven percent fats. They contain whole proteins, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals.

“It’s a real superfood. There’s nothing like it,” Tamir said.

Steak TzarTzar sees huge business potential in the new industry. It plans on extracting nutrients and protein powders to sell in the Western world, and sees the 2.5 billion people who currently consume insects as a market already familiar with the product.

The program could help impoverished areas by providing them with job opportunities and a stable food source. They plan to set up community farms for small villages. The farmers could sell or export their surplus.

Convincing the Western world to try their product will be a challenge, Tamir said. The company plans to start by marketing grasshopper-derived protein powders to athletes, who are often early adopters of new nutrition products. Tamir, himself a record holder in track and field in Israel, recalls Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs for breakfast.

“Is that worse or better?” he said.

Steak TzarTzar currently runs a facility in northern Israel growing eight species of Israeli grasshoppers, under as sterile growing conditions as possible, monitoring the bugs for disease and keeping poisonous species away from growing areas.

The company hopes to have its first commercial farm operating by the end of 2016, and already has an agreement with the Kenyan government to set up a test farm there, said Tamir. In addition, Steak TzarTzar has been in talks with potential partners in Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, France, Cameroon and the United States.

Some are interested in developing farms and some are interested in selling protein powders, which Tamir produces by freezing and grinding the grasshoppers.

Steak TzarTzar faces significant challenges. Tamir realizes that marketing edible insects to the Western world will be costly, and the farms will require a high level of expertise, technology, and lots of energy, which can be hard to obtain in Africa.

He is optimistic, however. “It’s a simple solution that can help a lot of fields,” Tamir said. “We can have a huge impact on the lives of millions.”

The company held a “taste night” two weeks ago. They served Ugandan-style fried grasshoppers to a crowd of potential partners and investors, who, Tamir said, actually enjoyed the dinner.

“It’s hard to convince yourself to try eating bugs,” Tamir said, but swears that “they taste like red mullet, a very popular dish in Israel.”

Will Israelis go for grasshoppers? He can’t predict that, but Tamir said that the company has solved one problem that will be an issue for some Israelis. “Our grasshopper varieties are kosher, based on the tradition of Jews from Yemen and elsewhere who have traditionally eaten them.”

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