Interview with Robert Nathan Allen, Founder and Director of Little Herds
Tell us about Little Herds project: when and how did you decide to start an edible insects business?
In March of 2012, my mother sent me a video about eating insects, meant as a joke. It talked about the nutrition and sustainability of edible insects; the cultural relevance to culinary traditions around the world; and the idea of abstraction for skeptical western consumers. I thought the idea was brilliant, and was shocked that nobody in Austin, Texas or the US was really doing anything with it. I was able to connect to many of the industry’s early adopters and ento-prenuers and quickly realized that the industry needed a central voice that could communicate to the public the many benefits of eating insects, whether as a packaged good or on a restaurant’s menu. In 2013 the idea solidified into Little Herds, North America’s first educational nonprofit teaching the next generation about entomophagy. We received our 501c3 tax-exempt status as a charitable nonprofit in December of 2013, and in our first year and a half we did well over 50 public events allowing our community to have a first-bite of insects and insect-based foods. The response locally, nationally and globally has been overwhelmingly positive, with support from organizations like the UN FAO; Entomological Society of America; Slow Food; local schools, children’s museums and farmers markets; and all of the companies leading the insect industry.
Did you face any particular sanitary or normative problem at the beginning?
In the early days there were no farms growing insects specifically for human consumption, so we procured our insects from startups like World Entomophagy (later acquired by Aspire Food Group) who were processing insects into food-safe ingredients; experts like Dave Gracer who know which species are safe to eat and how to source them; and by growing them in my home (I farmed mealworms on a small scale in my house for 9 months to have a “locally grown” source of insects).
Now that the industry has expanded over the last 4 years, there are multiple options for sourcing insects that are safely and hygienically farmed for human consumption. There are also numerous products on the market that didn’t exist when we started, from protein bars to chips, cookies to crackers, flours, shake mixes and even whole insects spiced for snacking. Over the years we’ve been able to provide resources and guidance to many of these companies, helping to grow a sustainable and responsible industry and community working together to change the way the world eats.
What’s actually your main “market”?
Our main market is children, because kids don’t have the cultural taboos against eating insects that adults have ingrained through western socially norms. Our secondary market is the parents, because they’re easy to convince once they see how much the kids like the taste of insects, and they love the fact that it’s a healthy and eco-friendly snack that their kids actually want to eat! We also work on the broader scale to reach the public in general, promoting best-practices and safety when it comes to trying this new food that might cause allergic reactions and can sometimes be confusing to source or cook with.
Finally, our market is the industry as a whole, promoting responsible standards and building an aligned community to continue to normalize insects as food. Working with regulatory agencies, academic institutions and private companies, we seek to grow this incredible resource into the potential we know it has.
What are your most important services?
We’re currently working on two “services”. We’re creating educator tool-kits that will be available to teachers, professors, nonprofits and parents to share entomophagy with their communities. We’re also working on coordinating some exciting projects within the industry, such as data-aggregation and knowledge-sharing resources, and self-adopted industry standards that will provide a framework to clarify future regulations and assure future companies are putting the consumer and the planet first.
As first America’s edible insects nonprofit, you saw the first steps of the edible insects market. How and how fast is this market now growing in the USA?
In the past few years’s we’ve seen an explosion in positive media framing of entomophagy, as well as a huge increase in interest in the idea, both from consumers and startups. I think the crowdfunding sector is a great example of how the public, not large corporations, are driving the innovation and growth of the market by supporting startups crowdfunding for initial costs. 2015 was a massive year in the number of successful campaigns and dollars raised for edible insect-related projects. As we continue to see new products developed and brought to market, and see more chefs adding insects to their menus, I firmly believe the industry will continue to see monumental growth in the coming years.
Can you give us some “numbers” about the market in the USA?
Unfortunately there aren’t any numbers publicly available. One of the things we’re working on is a way to aggregate anonymous data from all the different players to provide a real-world snapshot of the industry on a continuing basis.
We do know that in the US we have well over a dozen companies working on farming insects for food at this point, and at least double that number of companies when you look at the consumer-facing goods available.
Will Europe market have a similar growth rate?
I think Europe will be similar in growth and adoption to the US, with a larger focus on species like the mealworm, while the US focuses on the cricket. With the recent changes in the Novel Foods regulations, companies now have a clear path to regulatory compliance available. I see these regulations as applicable to the US and North American market as rules are defined and regulations clarified.
You know that Italian food products are very appreciated in the USA, do you think it could be the same for the “Italian edible insects”?
We’re already seeing insect pasta introduced to the market, and I have no doubt that Italy will be in the forefront of insect product manufacturing, as it has always been a hub for food production and innovation. I had the opportunity to speak on a panel in Turin, Italy for Slow Food’s Salone Del Gusto, alongside many thought-leaders from Italy’s good food movement. Now that the Novel Foods regulations specify insects as food, I’m sure the interest will only continue to flourish and grow.
What will entomophagy be in western countries in ten years?
If we do our job, it will be just another option on the menu or grocery isle. It will be viewed as food, plain and simple.