It was not the auspicious time one might expect for the food scientist and entomologist who would pioneer the production of edible insects in Australia.
“It was one of those big field crickets and it was cooked in a lot of oil. I don’t really like chili much, but it was very, very hot,” says Blackburn.
“It had hot oil in the middle of it and it burned my tongue a bit, I really didn’t like it at all.”
But the bamboo worms he tested next showed much more promise.
“The bamboo worms had the texture of rice bubbles and were flavored with lemongrass and ginger, very very nice.”
That was 15 years ago, in 2007.
Returning home, Blackburn began experimenting with edible insects.
He added them to lollipops, which turned out to be a big hit with kids at an educational exhibit. Soon, polo shops and marketing companies were clamoring to sell them.
As a nutritionist, Blackburn knew he would have to get the labeling right if he wanted to sell his edible insect products commercially.
“I sent them out for nutritional testing in the lab, and when I got the results I was very surprised that no one was eating them as a food source because they were so nutrient-dense,” says Blackburn.
“It was at that point that I felt I had the perfect combination of skills to convince people it was a good idea and to really bring insect protein into the mainstream in Australia.”
When Blackburn started his business, it was a backyard operation in Western Sydney. Now, his insect protein farms produce millions of crickets in converted warehouse spaces.
Blackburn Cricket Corn Chips, made with cricket protein powder, were initially developed to win over his picky eater son and are now one of his most popular products. They are sold in IGA supermarkets, online at Dan Murphy’s and in over 1,000 school canteens.
His company, Circle Harvest, also sells mealworm snacks, protein-rich cricket paste and cricket protein powder.
One of the key advantages of insect farming as a future food option is its comparatively light environmental footprint, Blackburn said.
The insects can feed on food waste products and are quick to breed, going from egg to harvest in just six weeks.
“That means we can actually make more protein in a shorter space of time, using fewer resources and with less stress on the planet,” says Blackburn.
“If you replace just one meat-based meal a week with a meal that uses crickets as a protein source, you actually save more than 100,000 liters of drinking water a year.
“They generate 1/100 the amount of greenhouse gases when you compare them to traditional cattle as well.”
By 2050, the world will need to feed another two billion people, prompting scientists and researchers to ponder the increasingly urgent question of how we can produce 60 to 70 percent more food.
Robyn Warner is Professor of Meat Science and Chair of the Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative at the University of Melbourne.
Warner says we only have to look at supermarket shelves to see how what we eat is already evolving.
“It’s changing all the time,” says Warner.
“We have insect protein on the market, and plant protein products have come along quickly.”
According to data from Vegan Australia, the number of vegan products listed on the Woolworths website has more than doubled in the last three years, from 550 in 2019 to around 1,800 this year.
Fast-food giants are also jumping on the plant-based dining bandwagon, with KFC adding pea protein-based ‘Wicked Popcorn Chicken’ to the menus of select Australian stores last month.
Australia is the third fastest growing market in the world for plant-based foods.
In 2019-20, Australia’s plant-based meat sector generated $185 million in sales, and by 2030 consumer spending on plant-based “meats” in Australia is projected to reach $3 billion, according to figures from the Australian Trade and Investment Commission show.
Warner says that one of the key consumer groups adopting plant-based foods into their diets are “flexitarians,” who are open to eating meat as well as vegan or vegetarian products.
While flexitarians may not be ready to give up meat entirely, they are often looking to reduce the amount in their diet, says Warner.
“At the moment, the appeal is around animal welfare, sustainability in general, health, and some people just don’t like the taste of meat,” says Warner.
But there will always be some people who will never give up meat because they like the taste too much, he adds.
Consumers can expect more combination products, which contain both meat and plant-based ingredients, to appear on shelves, offering another option for reducing meat consumption, he says.
“This is where you can still get a very good taste and texture, as well as bring some perceived health benefits of plant-based products,” says Warner.
As food inflation and food safety issues mount around the world, Warner predicts meat will become “more of a premium product” over time.
Anyone for zebra or dodo?
While still highly publicized, it seems increasingly likely that cultured meat, grown from animal cells or tissues in a lab, will emerge as a major food alternative in the coming decades, says Warner.
“I think cultured meat is going to play a big part in this, along with traditional animal agriculture, but I also think it’s probably only going to appeal to certain people,” he says.
A study three years ago by the Future Food Hallmark Research Initiative found that cultured meat is still perceived by many as undesirable, or as having “a bit of a gross factor.”
The study found that more than 50 percent of consumers in many countries would be willing to eat cultured meat.
Acceptance appears to be growing slowly, says Warner.
In Singapore, lab-grown chicken nuggets are now on sale for the first time in the world.
While lab-grown meat has yet to clear the strict regulatory hurdles for its commercialization in Australia, there are some companies that are already producing lab-grown meat here.
In 2020, Blackbird Ventures’ startup Vow served some of its lab-grown meat to one of Australia’s best-known chefs, Neil Perry.
The company, which now has 54 employees, is focusing on producing traditional food sources in the lab (chicken, beef and pork), but also meat from alternative species that we don’t normally eat, such as turtle, zebra, lion and yak.
Vow co-founder George Peppou posed this question in a TEDx talk in January this year: “Why eat chicken, pork, and beef, when we can design something better?”
“What’s so special about the zero point 1 percent of the animals we eat?” she asks the audience.
“Your parents, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents probably ate a lot less meat than you did, but the meat they did eat was a lot more varied.”
“Charles Darwin spent many years sailing around the world, eating every animal he came across and writing detailed reports on its taste – beef, chicken and pork were nowhere near the top of that list.”
While no one had eaten dodo in roughly 300 years, the extinct animal could still return to menus, Peppou posits.
“Thanks to rapid advances in modern biology, we can even take some of the genetic code preserved and reconstructed to recreate the experience of enjoying the dodo for food.”
Humans have become enormously efficient at producing chickens, cows and pigs for consumption, but other unexplored species could have advantages when made in a lab, such as faster-growing cells and higher density, Peppou says.
While plant-based products were already finding a market with vegetarians and flexitarians, Peppou believes there will always be a percentage of “heavy carnivores” who simply won’t be willing to give up a juicy steak, which is where cultured meat is found. in laboratory. likely to enter.
However, Warner says it’s still unclear how much cultured meat will cost, which is likely to be a big factor in consumer acceptance.
However, the huge amount of research and financial backing that was being poured into the emerging industry was making the leap seem more inevitable, he says.
“Five years ago, I really didn’t think cultured meat was going to hit Australian shelves, or not any time soon,” he says.
“Now, I think I could get to Australia in five to 10 years, looking at what’s happening around the world.”
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected].