Chirps Chips - Serving up insects and squashing stereotypes

The thought of eating insects may make most Western readers squirm rather than salivate, but that’s something beginning to change. Chirps Chips is founded by three women, Rose Wang (CEO), Laura D’Asaro (COO) and Meryl Natow (Co-founder and Creative Director), and is letting Americans in on the secret of how deliciously sustainable insects can be. Their tortilla-style chips packed with flavor, protein, fiber, and of course – crickets.  

Chirps Chips is a leading example of one of the companies thriving while tackling the United Nations Global Goals that are featured in our Global Opportunity Report 2018. Created by Sustainia in partnership with DNV GL and the United Nations Global Compact, the report transforms some of the world’s biggest challenges into sustainable business opportunities. In this year’s report, we focused on the Global Goals predicted to be least likely to reach by 2030, according to DNV GL’s recent report The Future of Spaceship Earth. As human consumption has grown exponentially, Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, is an area where we need to do better. Globally we’ve been overextending our resource use, using the equivalent of 1.7 planets a year, and if we all lived like the average American, we would need five earths to sustain us.

A major culprit is our food production systems, and in the United States, food production is estimated to use 80% of the country’s freshwater, 50% of the total land area, and 17% of their fossil energy. The edible insect market is crawling with opportunity to feed the world’s growing demand for protein with a lower ecological cost. The challenge – show Western consumers that insects are delicious, nutritious, and sustainable. We caught up with Rose and Laura from Chirps Chips to tell us how they’re doing exactly that.

Edible Insects_ChirpsChipsChirps Chips are packed with flavor, protein, fiber, and of course - crickets.

What kind of opportunities do you see in the edible insect market?

I want to back up a bit and help you understand what we have here, and why this is so incredibly exciting. Insects are a food eaten by 2.5 billion people all over the world, in 80% of countries. Some insects taste sour, and others sweet. Some even taste like bacon. We founded Chirps after eating insects abroad and both having the same reaction of “this is really good!”

Taste is always a good place to start, but when we look a little closer, it gets even more exciting. Because beyond the flavour, insects are also one of the most sustainable protein sources available and packed full of nutrients. They have more calcium than spinach, more B12 than salmon, and more protein than beef.

What we have here is this whole undiscovered food group that has the potential to solve many of the issues surrounding food’s impact on the environment. All that is standing in our way is our perception about insects, and we believe that we can change that. If we can get people over the ick factor, we can introduce a new protein source that has the potential to replace animal products in a way that plant-based alternatives have failed.

What are some of the ways Chirps Chips offer a more sustainable source of protein?

If you get some of your daily protein from insects instead of larger animal products, then we can reduce our degradation of agricultural land and water supplies, while producing less greenhouse gas emissions. We are using Chirps as our “gateway bug” to show the food industry that cricket protein is a much better source of protein than soy and whey protein. In the future, we can use insects to directly replace meat.

Are you embedding the SDGs into your business strategy? If so, what do you see as the main benefits and opportunities they present?

People don’t realize that food has such a big impact on our climate. For example, the livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. Therefore, if we can reduce our reliance on livestock for protein and still continue to feed the growing human population, then we are massively hitting Global Goals 11-16.

You’ve described crickets as “The Gateway Bug”. What needs challenges do you face before insect products can disrupt mainstream meat consumption?

People just have to realize that bugs are delicious! More people eat insects (~2.5 billion) than speak English, but here in the Western world, we just don’t have a culture of eating insects. That’s problematic, because we eat the most livestock in the Western world. If we can introduce insects as an alternative protein source, then we would be solving a large portion of the demand issue that’s driving livestock farming.

Sushi is a great example of how food from another culture was successfully introduced to the American diet. Many of the ingredients in sushi like sea urchin may sound just as strange as bugs, but over the course of a few years, people grew to love it. And this is what we want to do for insects. Our job is to put insects into a format that gets Americans as excited about eating insects as the rest of the world.

Some research has found that the sustainability of crickets is dependent on the kind of feed they are reared on. How would you respond to that?

What this study looked at in particular was how good insects are at converting feed to food. They found that when insects were raised on waste streams, they were no more efficient than chickens and on normal diets, slightly better than chickens. Our insects are fed on a combination of vegetable matter (which can be excess food waste like extra lettuce from a local grocery store) and cricket feed to boost their protein levels. We are proud that insects can be fed on food that might otherwise go to waste, and this is important research. But feed to food ratio is just one element of the sustainability of insects, and it misses the larger picture that there is no question that insects are more sustainable compared to livestock.

Livestock farming is arguably the biggest contributor to environmental problems, using 1/3 of Earth’s arable land, 1/2 the water in the USA, and producing more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined (18% of global greenhouse gas emissions in total). You compare this to insects and it’s like the difference between an SUV and a bicycle. Insects are incredibly space efficient, using 1000x less land and water than cows and producing 100x fewer greenhouse gas emissions. We can and should study more about the sustainability of insects. However, I don’t want to lose sight of the larger picture that there is just no question that insects are still orders of magnitude more sustainable than animal protein sources.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs looking to solve global challenges?

It takes a village, so don’t do anything alone and always doubt and question whether or not you’re making an impact. Nothing is ever all good or all bad, but if you keep asking yourself if you’re truly making a positive change in the world, then you’re more likely to create net positive change.

You can learn more about Chirps Chips and other ventures pioneering alternative food sources on the Global Opportunity Explorer.