Wicklow farmer on a mission to get Ireland eating insects

Tara Elliott has created insect cookies, pancakes, muffins and buns, breads and candy

Tara Elliott is rearing crickets, mealworms and beetles and believes she could be Ireland’s first commercial insect farmer. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Tara Elliott is rearing crickets, mealworms and beetles and believes she could be Ireland’s first commercial insect farmer. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Not many farmers started their careers by keeping stock in a hot press but Tara Elliott is not like many farmers. She is rearing crickets, mealworms and beetles and believes she could be Ireland’s first commercial insect farmer.

Currently all live edible insects used to feed reptiles, birds and other pets must be imported, so as part of her MSc thesis she is exploring opportunities for developing an insect industry for human food and livestock feed.

She says she is on a “one woman mission to get Ireland eating insects”.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has been encouraging people to consider insects as a nutritious and cheap food source, given that the global human population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050 with fears that food production will not match this demand.

Ms Elliott started her enterprise by rearing 1,000 beetles in a hot press and as the stock multiplied she relocated outdoors. It has grown so much she is moving into a 20,000 square foot unit in Blessington, Co Wicklow where she will rear mealworms, crickets and locusts.

“Within six months time I estimate to have an insect output of one ton per week,” she says.

She is rearing more than 100kg of mealworms in heat-treated bran. “I feed them organic apples and potatoes and of course water.”

She recently entered the field of crickets by importing 10kgs of the little creature. “They live in a temperature-controlled deep container “and none have escaped so far”.

She intends to produce cricket flour and mealworm flour which can be used in baking to boost protein content and add vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 fats.

“I’m developing an insect-based protein bar called the I-Bar and I have also made insect cookies, pancakes, muffins and buns, breads, candy and insect snacks,” she says.

Current legislation prevents the sale of cricket flour on the Irish market but she says there is already a demand from the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. She believes legislation will change later this year as other countries allow the marketing and sale of insects for human consumption.

In the meantime, the demand for live insects to feed reptiles and birds is strong.

“Since all live insects must be imported from abroad - mainly the UK and mainland Europe - I am also rearing insects to provide for the live insect food demand that already exists within Ireland for food for reptiles, amphibians, wild birds and fish,” she says.

It takes about three months to bring mealworms from eggs to the harvesting stage. If they are destined for human consumption, they are fasted for 24 hours to clear their tracts, cleaned and then frozen as a humane way of killing them. Mealworms and crickets also undergo high pressure processing treatment which gives them a similar shelf life to vacuum-packed beef.

She says consumption of insects is normal practice in other parts of the world . “In Uganda, insects are considered a delicacy and 1 kg of grasshoppers fetch prices at local markets that are 40 percent higher than 1 kg of beef,” she says.

“Insects are high in protein, low in fat and about 20 times more efficient than beef at producing body mass from feed. Insects could be the ultimate sustainable food source as they have a high rate of reproduction, are fast-growing, require little water or food and produce low CO2 emissions.”

Ms Elliott believes the key to removing the “yuck factor” is by educating children about how edible insects could help to feed the world in the most sustainable manner.

She plans to give talks and demonstrations to school children and is developing an educational package for junior and senior schools.

“I believe once the public has had the opportunity to taste them, their conditional response of disgust a the idea of eating insects can be reversed,” she says.