IN A FEW YEARS, if Lara Hanlon has her way, you’ll be able to pop into a supermarket after work to pick up a bag of crickets for the bus ride home.
By day, Hanlon is a designer at computer giant IBM. By night, she runs Éntomo, a free-to-use online resource where people share information on edible insects.
It hosts blog posts from bug enthusiasts and meal ideas that feature mealworms and the like.
The practice of eating insects, entomophagy, is frequently hailed as a healthy, sustainable alternative to meat – but Hanlon also believes it has commercial potential.
“Right now, people are kind of jumping on board because it’s something novel, it’s kind of exciting, it’s a little bit daring in some ways. People are curious,” she tells Fora.
“But actually, the more people are exposed to it and the more education they get around eating insects, and why it’s not just a fad, they actually start to realise the potential of it.”
According to the United Nations’ food and agriculture arm, at least two billion people, mostly in Asia, eat insects as part of their regular diet.
That said, there are only really a handful of startups in the UK and US that have managed to make a business out of it, mostly by selling insect-based powders or energy bars.
The phenomenon has yet to make any real ground in Ireland.
A spokesperson for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) explained that insects are classed as ‘novel food’ under European Union law and “must be authorised before being placed on the market” by relevant authorities.
The FSAI currently has control in Ireland’s case, but that power will transfer to the European Food Safety Authority from 1 January 2018. The Irish body is yet to receive any applications for authorisation.
However Hanlon believes the lack of interest in the Irish market to date mainly comes down to a lack of education around the produce.
She’s hoping Éntomo – which she currently runs on a voluntary basis – will make farmers and consumers alike more aware of the potential that bugs have as a marketable food substance.
The biggest challenge is getting consumers over the ‘gross factor’ and convincing them that insects can actually taste good.
“I think if we get people to understand entomophagy in the first instance and then experience it, then I think there’s a chance of them hooking on and making it something they might turn to it over time on a regular basis.”
Hanlon suggests the squeamish should be eased into edible insects by offering them something familiar like bread with ingredients made from insects, rather than a bowl of live ants.
“If they actually have a pleasant first experience … then I think we can get somewhere.”
Hanlon regularly uses cricket powder, which is basically just ground-up crickets, when she’s cooking. The ingredient is imported from Mopagy, a startup in the UK.
“It’s pretty versatile,” Hanlon says. “I would put it in breads, biscuits or savoury recipes. It has the aroma of cocoa powder. That is definitely the most accessible insect.
“In a way it’s about disguising it so it looks like something familiar.”
When pitching entomology to sceptics, Hanlon plugs insects’ potential health and environmental benefits.
“They’re quite high in protein, calcium, iron as well. Very low in fats, not a whole of calories,” she says, adding that the require less resources such as water and electricity to produce than the likes of cows and pigs.
People in the middle
“You see there are restaurants all around the world that have been using insects on their menu for a long time. They’re pretty gourmet cuisine,” Hanlon says, noting that the acclaimed Noma restaurant in Copenhagen has bugs on the menu.
“You’re seeing insects being plated up in these fine dining restaurants all across the world and then you’re seeing them being eaten on the streets in places like Thailand, Cambodia, street vendors in rural areas of Asia.
“It’s the piece in the middle, the majority of people are not exposed to it, that’s where I’m interested in.”
In terms of commercialising her own site, Étomo, Hanlon says she is in no rush.
“I think there’s real potential. I would love to see it evolve some more,” she says, but adds that until Ireland develops a bug farming sector, there’s not much of a business opportunity.
“I don’t expect that in a couple of months people will be heading down to the supermarket and picking up a tray of locusts,” she says. “But I think in a few years, that is definitely something that could be achieved.”