Ontario firm plans to raise crickets for food

Company expects to produce 10,000 tonnes of insects annually and an equal amount of excrement for use as fertilizer

All is considered quiet when only crickets can be heard, but billions of crickets will be raising their voices when a production facility in London, Ont., starts production early next year.

The Aspire Food Group has started construction on a $72 million plant that will produce protein powder for pet food, human food, soil and plant amendments.

At capacity, the plant is expected to produce 10,000 tonnes of crickets annually and an equal amount of frass, or cricket excrement, for use on food-producing plants.

Mohammed Ashour, chief executive officer and co-founder of Aspire, said the company, formed in 2013, built a pilot facility in Austin, Texas, and then a second-generation research and development facility in the same city after that.

“The facility we’re building in London is really the culmination of everything we’ve ever learned in the last five or so years in our facility in Austin, and the first time we take it all to a commercial level of production,” said Ashour.

Because the crickets will be raised entirely indoors in a fully automated facility, it will incorporate state-of-the art technology to constantly monitor and collate data to improve production and efficiency.

“I think the most important thing to appreciate is that we are working with an organism that thankfully is so amenable to measurement.”

Sensors will record temperature, humidity, light intensity and myriad other factors in the plant and then, using Internet of Things technology and artificial intelligence, the neural networks governing all the conditions can be trained to identify patterns and adjust systems accordingly.

Cricket protein powder is the main output. It can be incorporated into various foods to meet burgeoning demand for protein, said Ashour.

“Certainly we acknowledge there’s a stigma around insect consumption by people who live in countries where insects are not traditionally thought of as food, and one of the ways to overcome this is to make the product into an ingredient that can be very easily and seamlessly incorporated into familiar foods, delivering the nutritional benefit and at the same time not compromising on taste or affordability.”

As for the pet food protein market, Ashour said the company has already identified major demand. Most production from the London plant will be used for dog and cat food, at least initially, and most of it will go to American manufacturers. Meat products that supply protein in pet foods are expensive and have a greater impact on the environment than does cricket protein, he said.

The frass is also expected to be popular for use in greenhouses, hothouses and berry crops, and most output from the new plant will be used in Canada. Frass is an organic fertilizer but also a biostimulant.

As Ashour explains it, the frass contains cricket DNA and when applied to plants, they identify it as an insect infestation. The plants then mount an immune response to ward off attack. That puts them in an immune-activated state so they readily fight any real insect attacks or pathogens that arise.

The crickets will be fed a chicken starter so direct comparisons can be made between cricket production and that of broiler chickens, said Ashour. However, he sees future potential for using pre-consumer food waste as cricket feed.

The $72 million price tag on the plant includes $16.8 million from Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, the organization behind Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster. It is the largest project funded by NGen to date under the federal government’s supercluster initiative.

Aspire collaborators also include Telus Agriculture, A&L Laboratories, Swiftlabs Inc. and DarwinAI.

“This is exactly the type of project the government of Canada envisioned supporting when the superclusters initiative was conceived,” said François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry, in a news release about the plant.

“This project promotes Canada’s strength and competitiveness not only in advanced manufacturing, but in multiple industries through collaboration and the application of world class technologies. It is clear that Canadian businesses have the capabilities and the expertise to develop real-world solutions for global issues, and Canada’s superclusters are helping them make these solutions a reality.”

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