Save the Lemurs! Eat the Crickets!

You, my friend, are living through a food revolution. In labs across the world, researchers are growing meat from just a handful of animal cells, or engineering striking imitations of meat, including an entirely plant-based burger that bleeds. Human eaters are also starting to appreciate a rich protein source crawling around right under our noses: crickets. People have eaten bugs for millennia, but the Western world forgot that until recently. Companies are now racing to turn crickets into the (lucrative) future of food.

One group of researchers and conservationists, though, thinks it can also use edible insects to save endangered mammals. They’ve spent the last few years developing a program to encourage the people of Madagascar—who have historically consumed insects—to re-embrace bugs as a source of protein. That in turn could relieve pressure on endangered lemurs, which hunters target for bushmeat. The goal is to build facilities to raise and process crickets into a powder, which would create a reliable source of nutrition and jobs for a growing and often undernourished population, all the while saving one of the most iconic primates on Earth.

Madagascar is an island under constant environmental siege. Just 10 percent of its forests remain, which alone has imperiled the critically endangered red-ruffed lemur and six other vulnerable or endangered lemur species. Many inhabitants of remote villages rely on the primates as food, venturing into the jungle to hunt them, putting the species in even more danger.

It’s not malice against lemurs—it’s a matter of survival. “You have to have breakfast before conservation,” says Brian Fisher, an entomologist with the California Academy of Sciences, who helped start the program. “But edible insects is modular—you can start really small and scale up to a family, to a village, to a region.”

What Fisher and his colleagues have going for them is that eating bugs is nothing new for the Malagasy. “Insects here are already important because when we still had queens and kings, they were eating insects,” says project coordinator Irina Andrianavalona. Farmers would collect insects, bake them, and grind them into a powder to be used as a protein source in times of need. But some Malagasy, particularly those living in cities, forgot that tradition. “So we needed to start to tell the people again that we still have insects we can use to fight the malnutrition problem.”

Oddly enough, powder made from this particular cricket looks, smells, and tastes like chocolate.

Brian Fisher/California Academy of Sciences

Crickets are a rich source of protein, not to mention a range of vitamins.

Brian Fisher/California Academy of Sciences

The trick was finding the right bug to make into insect powder. It had to be a species that keeps easily in captivity and that doesn’t taste like holy hell. So the team began an audition of sorts for native cricket species. (If they had imported a cricket species from elsewhere, an escape would have caused ecological chaos.) They specifically needed a cricket that was more sociable—in other words, that didn’t turn cannibal when crammed in with its fellows—and that was less finicky about food.

The species the researchers landed on is called Gryllus madagascariensis. Then it was just a matter of recruiting the brave six-legged founders of the colony, so they passed around pictures of the cricket for local kids to identify and collect. They ended up with 50 individuals. “We started one and a half years ago with those 50 specimens and now we have about 350,000 new crickets each day,” says Sylvain Hugel, an entomologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “It’s just crazy.” As of this moment, there are perhaps a million crickets hopping around a facility in the capital city of Antananarivo, yielding 140 pounds of powder a week for the people of Madagascar.

Compared to other livestock, it’s pretty easy to grow a batch of crickets. In the facility, the insects grow up together in boxes three feet wide and tall and six feet long, known as cricket condos. Inside each of these are stacked egg cartons, which creates a complex of dark, humid spaces that the insects love. The crickets eat chicken feed and drink from saucers of water until they’ve just about reached the end of their lifespan of 6 or 7 weeks. At that point, technicians euthanize them with CO2, which lowers the insects’ metabolism until they slip into the void. Workers then bake the crickets for a few hours, grind them into a powder, and package the food, ready to add to porridge or rice as a critical source of protein for Malagasies.

As for the taste: “The funny thing is that the cricket we have chosen, fried it tastes like a regular cricket, nothing special,” says Hugel. “But the powder tastes like chocolate. It’s very shocking when you just smell it.”

But why not ramp up the production of traditional livestock in Madagascar instead? It’s a matter of efficiency and convenience. When it comes to feed, crickets are 10 times more efficient than cattle, and 100 times more efficient when it comes to water. And when you feed warm-blooded livestock like cows and birds, you’re doing it so they produce meat, yes, but you’re also just giving them the calories they need to keep their body temperature constant. Not so with bugs. “That’s the reason why they have quite a small footprint,” says Hugel. “It’s not only because they have small legs.”

Cricket agriculture means more water for human consumption, and more land that’s dedicated to growing food for humans instead of cows. And a bag of cricket powder keeps a whole lot better than a cut of beef, plus it’s more versatile: for breakfast it goes in porridge, and for lunch and dinner it goes into sauces.

Cricket powder is also far more scalable than traditional livestock, given how little land it requires to manufacture. The idea with this program is to grow the industry in the capital city and beyond, which will itself help address the malnutrition problem—almost half of children under 5 are malnourished here—and use the proceeds to spread the edible-insect doctrine throughout the country. The researchers say that with investment, they could scale up their program to provide enough protein for every Malagasy child.

To be sure, that won’t be easy, because there’s no single way to get a village to eat more bugs and fewer lemurs. For one, villages won’t all be eating cricket powder. Whole roasted insects may not be as versatile, but they’ve got all the protein, and they taste pretty good. A bizarre Malagasy insect (though not a cricket) known as the sakondry, which grows a coat of white frizz as defense (yes, it cooks off), tastes like bacon—at least to Fisher. The plan is to hype this species in particular as an alternative to hunting lemurs. As an added bonus, farmers can sell whole sakondry at markets as a source of income.

The big question, though, in these early days of the program: Will edible insects actually take the pressure off lemurs? “You’ll need proper data, before and after, to see if it’s actually having an effect,” says conservation biologist Åsa Berggren, who studies edible insect production but who isn’t involved in this work.

This project is young, so the researchers don’t yet have that robust data, but Fisher says the cricket powder has been very well-received, and that he has a student working to gather more data about that reception. “In all cases, people are returning to eat more because they like the taste, not because they think it is sustainable or good for them,” Fisher says. Hence the importance of auditioning different species not only for their ease of cultivation, but how palatable they are.

Whether edible insects actually take the pressure off endangered lemurs, humans the world over are coming around to the fact that if we want to keep having a world, edible insects are going to be on the menu.

More Great WIRED Stories