It has long been understood that if we, as a species, are going to deal with overpopulation and hunger, we need take a serious look at our current methods of food production. Not only are a good many of our practices unsustainable – monoculture, ranching, and overuse of chemical fertilizers being foremost amongst them – it is fast becoming clear that alternatives exist that are more environmentally friendly and more nutritious.
However, embracing a lot of these alternatives means rethinking our attitudes to what constitutes food. All told, there are millions of available sources of protein and carbohydrates that aren’t being considered simply because they seem unappetizing or unconventional. Luckily, researchers are working hard to find ways to tackle this problem and utilize these new sources of nutrition.
One such group is a team of McGill University MBA students who started the Aspire Food Group, an organization that will produce nutritious insect-based food products that will be accessible year-round to some of the world’s poorest city dwellers. Recently, this group won the $1 million Hult Prize for the development of an insect-infused flour that offers all the benefits of red meat – high protein and iron – but at a fraction of the cost.
The team – which consists of Mohammed Ashour, Shobhita Soor, Jesse Pearlstein, Zev Thompson and Gabe Mott – were presented with the social entrepreneurship award and $1 million in seed capital back in late September. The presentation was made by former U.S. president Bill Clinton in New York City at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting.
The Hult Prize Foundation runs an annual contest open to teams of four or five students from colleges and universities from around the world. Their task is to develop ideas for social enterprises – organizations that use market-based strategies to tackle social or environmental problems. This year’s challenge, selected by Clinton, was to tackle world hunger.
Over 10,000 students entered, and the McGill team was one of six which reached the final stage, where they pitched their idea Monday to judges that included Clinton, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus and Erathrin Cousin, CEO of the World Food Program. The $1 million was provided by the family of the Swedish billionaire Bertil Hult, who made his fortune with the venerable EF Education First company.
Mohammed Ashour explained the process behind the insect flour in an interview to CBC News:
We are farming insects and we’re grinding them into a fine powder and then we’re mixing it with locally appropriate flour to create what we call power flour. It is essentially flour that is fortified with protein and iron obtained from locally appropriate insects.
What is especially noteworthy about the product, aside from its sustainability, is the fact that it delivers plenty of protein and iron in an inexpensive package. These nutrients, the team noted, are in short supply in the diets of many people in developing nations, but can be found in high amounts in insects. For example, they note, crickets have a higher protein content per weight than beef.
And while the idea of eating insects might seem unappealing to many people living in the developed world, Soor pointed out that people in many of the countries they are targeting already eat insects. In addition, the type of insect used to produce the flour for a local market would be chosen based on local culinary preferences. As she put it:
There really isn’t a ‘yuck’ factor. For example, in Mexico, we’d go with the grasshopper. In Ghana, we’d go with the palm weevil.
The insects would also be mixed with the most common type of local flour, whether it be made from corn, cassava, wheat or something else. Thus, the product would not only provide nutrition, but would be locally sourced to ensure that it is accessible and beneficial to the local market.
In addition, the team has already held taste tests in some markets. In one test, they offered people tortillas made from regular corn flour, corn flour containing 10 per cent cricket flour and corn flour containing 30 per cent cricket flour. As Ashour indicated, the reviews were met with approval:
Amazingly enough, we got raving reviews for the latter two… so it turns out that people either find it to be tasting neutral or even better than products that are made with traditional corn flour.
The team hopes to use the prize money to help them expand the reach of their organization to the over 20 million people living in urban slums around the world by 2018. And I can easily foresee how flours like this one could become a viable item when teamed up with 3D food printers, tailoring edible products that meet our nutritional needs without putting undue strain on the local environment.
And be sure to enjoy this video of the McGill students and their prize-winning flour, courtesy of CBC news: