Can Eating Insects Save Our Planet?

Our planet is being destroyed by unsustainable agricultural practices, but LIVIN Farms thinks an unlikely savior – the humble mealworm – could be the answer to our problems.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘food waste’ are among dozens of buzzwords cropping up in environmental discourse of late.

But amid the clamor about global warming, talks of sustainability, too, have been growing louder. Alternative protein is one of sustainability’s most dominant fields, with a global market poised to be worth $17.9 billion by 2025.

Founded in 2015 by Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger, LIVIN Farms is an alternative protein company based in Hong Kong and Vienna that encourages people to harvest edible insects from the comfort of their own homes, through education programs and mealworm-farming devices known as Hives.

“Our mission was to empower people to […] co-create a healthy planet. But really, what we wanted people to be empowered in doing, is to grow their own food,” LIVIN Farms COO Cristina Michelini says of the first iteration and vision for the Hive.

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The Hive Explorer helps demonstrate food recycling in a way that makes it understandable and accessible for families. Photo: Zaref Khan Photography.

One benefit of farming mealworms is the ‘closed-loop’ system involved in the activity. Mealworms can digest all kinds of food waste, even plastic, making them valuable assets in the fight against single-use plastics. Research is ongoing as to whether the mealworms’ fecal matter is fully biodegradable, although one study’s findings suggest optimism about the insects’ ability to solve the mounting microplastics crisis.

The insect’s byproduct can be used as plant fertilizer to grow plant-based foods more efficiently – and is safe to use for such purposes even when consuming a diet consisting only of Styrofoam, a Stanford study found. And the mealworms themselves can be roasted, boiled or frozen, offering a nutritious alternative to meat.

Becoming LIVIN Farms

“It takes a lot of R&D, it takes a lot of testing, it takes a lot of prototyping.”

The current production methods and supply chains that keep human populations fed pose several critical issues. According to the United Nations, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted every year, equating to a loss of $1 trillion. Overpopulation is another example: global population levels are expected to rise to over 9 billion by 2050.

Driven by growing demands for meat, our efforts to produce more of the stuff have exacerbated climate change. Deforestation in the Amazon, for one, has caused devastating wildfires, and meat production has become notorious on the emissions front, releasing 250-500 liters of methane per day. The potent effects of these emissions are amplified by wide-scale production: 302 million tons of beef, pork and chicken were produced in 2018.

For LIVIN Farms Co-founders Unger and Kaisinger, who wanted to create household protein farming devices, the product development challenge lay in the lack of research available on home-grown proteins at the time. This complicated the matter of designing a compact, home-friendly micro-ecosystem.

“There [wasn’t] much out there for growing your proteins,” adds Michelini. “It’s not stuff that you can Google or study that easily […] It takes a lot of R&D, it takes a lot of testing, it takes a lot of prototyping.”

Taking up the challenge of creating a small yet intricate product, LIVIN Farms created its very first mealworm-farming system, the Hive Home. A tall, multilayered device, it combined practical factors (i.e. temperature, space and insect biology) with user friendliness, to maximize convenience for users without compromising the mealworms’ quality of life.

Before long, the Hive Home had garnered $145,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign, and found its way into hundreds of homes around the globe. Users could experiment with mealworms in their meals and leave less of an emissions footprint. Having successfully identified that there was a market for LIVIN Farms’ technology, the startup turned to the next opportunity: honing its insect-growing technologies.

Educating a new generation

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The Hive Home, LIVIN Farms’ first
product for home insect protein cultivation. Image courtesy of LIVIN Farms.

Though a resounding success for a first-of-its-kind product, the Hive Home revealed a crucial missing element in LIVIN’s model: the necessity for education alongside technology.

“If you don’t know the facts, and if you don’t know the ways to interact with insects, it’s difficult to get close with them,” Michelini explains. This realization fed strongly into the design of the next product.

Following hundreds of prototypes, the Hive Explorer, or Hive 2.0, was born, with education as a key component of the product. The smart, portable Explorer, among other improvements, provides users with a better view of the mealworms they are cultivating.

Michelini explains that increased visibility of the mealworms makes it easier for people to familiarize themselves with and better appreciate their mealworms’ “superpowers”: their ability to digest food waste and produce new nutrients.

One teacher in LIVIN Farms’ program, who introduced a Hive into her school, gave students with special needs the responsibility of nurturing the mealworms to cultivate a sense of compassion toward insects. Michelini explains that children tend to be more receptive than adults to working with insects, perhaps fulfilling a natural sense of curiosity.

“If we can prime our audience to the idea of insects and insect proteins and edible insects, then we’re more likely to make an impact.”

Through the ‘closed-loop’ system of cultivating mealworms, Michelini says that LIVIN Farms aims to encourage people to grow their own proteins at home, and “understand that it takes only small gestures to really reduce the amount of food waste that you put out there, one, and, second, to create new edible proteins.”

Arguably, the educational aspect of sustainability is what sets LIVIN Farms apart from fellow alternative protein startups.

“There aren’t many other insect alternative producers that are also heavily invested in educating, and that has made it such a significant part of their business. So I’d say that is our major differentiation, because if we can prime our audience to the idea of insects and insect proteins and edible insects, then we’re more likely to make an impact,” says Michelini.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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Each layer of the Hive Explorer teaches a different scientific concept: from the life cycle of the mealworm beetle to the importance of food waste. Image courtesy of LIVIN Farms.

With the Hive Explorer, new users can choose to simply observe insects in their self-contained space, whereas the more curious users can tap into their tactile senses by physically interacting with the mealworms. Cognizant of the stigma surrounding insect consumption, Michelini addresses the efforts required to dispel negative misconceptions of insects.

“It’s a rebranding process,” she says. “We like to call it a ‘learn by daring’ approach […] We wanted people to feel like they can take the challenge and try it, and just find out that it can be normalized.”

Unger echoed similar sentiments in her 2015 Ted Talk, citing conventional foods such as potatoes, lobsters, and sushi as some of the “greatest rebranding success[es] in the history of foods.” This served to highlight the arbitrariness of public opinion – suggesting that if a similar shift takes place, insects’ time to shine may arrive sooner than we think.

Further, from peanut butter-and-oat protein balls to mealworm burgers, insects could bring much-needed versatility to the table with what Michelini describes as a ‘slight crunch’ and ‘light, nutty taste.’ Upon tasting them for the first time, Michelini says that she could instantly imagine them as a topping for a salad or avocado toast.

Producing mealworms requires only 10% of the land required to produce the same amount of beef. Mealworms are also rich in protein and – unlike meat – in fiber as well. They are also relatively low-maintenance: feed food scraps to the mealworms, and the scraps will be converted into fertilizer for your plants.

The Hive’s compact design belies its complex technology, making the product’s features all the more impressive.

“There’s a sensor that picks up on temperature and humidity, and activates a fan or a heating plate based on what the mealworms need in their environment at that point. It can be easily plugged in, so it’s a plug-and-play kind of concept as well,” Michelini explains.

This technology, Michelini suggests, may ease the worries of first-time home insect farmers. But LIVIN Farms’ biggest challenge, she says, lies in changing the public’s mindset around insects and sustainability.

“Sustainability is not a daunting topic, it’s not something demoralizing,” she says. “But it’s something where there’s a lot of potential for each one of us.”

Moving forward

Every year, more people are turning to alternative proteins as a means of consuming consciously. In the first seven months of 2020, early-stage venture investors fed 20 alternative protein startups over $1 billion in funding, demonstrating their optimism in this industry.

The fast-growing alternative proteins field was worth approximately $2.2 billion in 2019 – though still trifling compared to the meat market, worth $1.7 trillion, this in turn demonstrates that there’s plenty of room to grow.

While insect protein faces certain branding issues that plant-based protein startups don’t encounter, obtaining investment is not a concern for LIVIN Farms.

This, as Michelini explains, is because the startup positions itself differently to investors by solving two problems: the pre-existing problem of food waste, and the issue of sustainable meat production going forward. This dual-pronged approach sets LIVIN Farms apart from other players in the alternative protein space.

In August 2020, LIVIN Farms clinched €2.5 million in funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC), which will be used to further expand insect breeding on an industrial scale. The startup also has ambitious plans for its education arm, aiming to become a leading sustainability education provider in the long run. And in the meantime, the startup is pushing for greater adoption and awareness around insect farming.

LIVIN Farms is driving to meet a singular purpose with other alternative protein startups: to build a dynamic community empowered to make sustainable choices. So the next time you’re contemplating what to have for lunch, consider a mealworm burger. It may change your life, and the world around you.

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