CHIANG MAI — How do 400 million chirping crickets sound in a huge hall? "Very loud," says Radek Husek, laughing. "It's just deafening right now."
The 25-year-old Czech man is opening the world's largest cricket farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Radek's company, Cricket Lab, uses the critters to produce a flour with which it wants to revolutionize the food market.
In 2050, there will likely be 9 billion people on Earth. And as the numbers rise, so does the need for protein. At a time when people are eating more consciously and are increasingly turning away from factory farming, the question, then, is where these proteins should come from.
Radek turned this question into a business. Many experts consider insects to be the solution to the protein problem. They are easy to breed, easy to process and contain a lot of proteins. More than two billion people in Asia already eat insects. But in the West, creepy crawlers are not yet part of the menu. Radek wants to change this, and with his cricket flour, revolutionize the Western world's diet.
The young Czech is a real business guy, with a LinkedIn profile any corporate recruiter would appreciate. He was valedictorian at the University of Economics in Prague, with a semester abroad at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona. He also founded a successful start-up at that time, and then sold it. Next came a Master's degree from the London School of Economics that he couldn't, however, complete — because of the crickets.
"If you'd told me a year ago that I was going to start the world's biggest cricket farm, I probably would have thought you were crazy," Radek says.
Cricket flour can be processed into anything: Bread, noodles or protein bars.
At first, the entrepreneur hardly knew anything about the insects. He just had the idea, so he sought out competent help. His business partner, Jesse Willems, is in charge of cultivating crickets. Willems studied animal management at Van Hall Larenstein University in the Netherlands.
The partners finished construction of the facility in May, and are now focused on the breeding process. By the fall, they expect to be at "full cricket capacity." They chose Thailand as a location because that's where living conditions are the best for the crickets, Radek says. It's constantly warm, which is best for their reproduction.
At Radek's cricket farm, crickets are washed, killed and ground automatically. This is a world first. "Most cricket farms in Thailand are small," he says. "We want to produce as much as possible with little effort so that we can offer the cricket flour at reasonable prices." The animals are kept in six meter high boxes to save space, requiring a total of only 660 square meters of space for the cultivation of the crickets.
The cricket flour is almost tasteless and can, therefore, be processed into anything: Bread, noodles or protein bars. And when the farm is fully operational, at the end of the year, only eight to 10 employees per shift will be needed to make the flour — a tiny number considering the mass production they're expecting.
An array of insect snacks at a market in Chiang Mai, Thailand — Photo: Radek Hušek/Facebook
Those words — mass production — make some people wince. For the environmentally-conscious, pro-sustainability crowd, the term conjures up images of pigs cramped in super-sized livestock farms, or endless rows of egg-laying hens. And certainly, in terms of sheer numbers, the cricket farm will process a mind-boggling number of critters. At full capacity, 3.5 tons of cricket flour are expected to be produced every month. Each gram of flour contains 11 crickets, meaning the factory will go through 400 million of them in a month.
That's a lot of dead bugs. But is that a problem? Professor Heinz Mehlhorn, a zoologist at the University of Düsseldorf, doesn't think so. "Crickets have such a poorly developed nervous system that it's not comparable to factory farming of pigs or cows."
Radek's company advertises that the crickets are shock frozen and die in seconds — apparently without suffering. But what about pigs that are killed in seconds with a bolt gun. They suffer, don't they? "Pigs literally sense death when they are taken to the butcher. They can feel fear of death," Mehlhorn says. "That's why they still suffer, even though the killing process is virtually painless. The crickets don't have that sensitivity."
From a moral standpoint, therefore, mass-producing insects "definitely makes sense," the professor adds. There are environmental arguments in favor of commodity cricket production as well. On its website, Radek's company explains that to produce half-a-kilo of protein, crickets require 12 times less feed than cattle and half as much as pigs or chickens.
Man is a creature of habit and is easily disgusted by insects.
Expecting a hard sell
But do Europeans really want products made from insect flour? "Of course Europeans are disgusted when they think of crickets as food," says Radek. That's why Cricket Lab processes the animals into flour.
Vegetarians and vegans are also potential customers for Radek. "Many people become vegetarians or vegans because they reject factory farming," he says. "We don't cause any pain to the animals and work in a way that's protective of the resources."
Two vegetarians even work at Cricket Lab. :They are fully convinced of our idea and would definitely eat the products made from cricket flour," Radek says.
Still, Mehlhorn thinks Radek and his company will have a hard time in Europe. "I don't believe that this type of food can prevail in Europe," the zoologist explains. "Man is a creature of habit and is easily disgusted by insects. They've had to invest a lot of money for this farm. I could easily imagine that they might go bankrupt, which I would find a pity. Insect flour is really a good idea that would benefit mankind."
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