Paula-Lee Pownall, Coolup, is dedicated to an unusual business venture, growing crickets as a food source.
The 2020 Nuffield scholar spoke about the growing industry at the 2023 Nuffield Australia national conference.
Ms Pownall said many insects were gaining traction among fellow researchers looking to branch out into the new market, but she had opted for the high protein bug, the cricket.
It's estimated crickets are up to 69 per cent protein for every 100 grams, making them higher in protein than chicken or beef.
Ms Pownall's Mandurah-based business Grubs Up was founded in 2016 and produces and processes crickets and mealworms for human and animal consumption.
She said the turnover between hatching and harvesting was quick, about eight weeks, for thousands of crickets at a time.
When establishing her business, she was immediately met with difficulties in food safety regulations.
"When we started we couldn't get food approval, because all the policies were about trying to keep insects out of food," Ms Pownall said.
"We were also told we could only buy crickets from a registered breeder, which there is no such thing."
There are also high input costs, particularly labour and energy, as crickets need to be kept between 22-25 degrees Celsius to grow properly.
"We would solve one problem and encounter another and given the nature of the industry, there weren't many resources available," Ms Pownall said.
This led her to wonder if there was a more efficient way to grow and harvest crickets on a large scale.
In 2020, Ms Pownall received a Nuffield scholarship to investigate what the edible insect industry would need to drastically scale up, including regulations, production facilities and best practice.
The plan was to bring this information back to WA and scale up her own business.
But when the pandemic hit, borders closed and the edible insect industry nosedived.
Edible insect businesses globally were met with increased input costs, transport costs and issues in importing and exporting.
Many quickly began to supply to other industries, such as the pet food industry, and never looked back.
At the time, the global edible insect industry was estimated to be worth $500 million and is now expected to increase to about $3 billion globally over the next five years.
Ms Pownall spoke to edible insect growers in Canada, Asia and the United Kingdom, as well as industry stakeholders including investors, governments and customers during her scholarship trip.One Canadian cricket farmer told Ms Pownall it exported to 12 countries prior to COVID-19, but switched to domestic sales due to the cost of exporting overseas.
Also in Canada, Aspire Food Group is one of the biggest insect farming organisations in the world, or as Ms Pownall called it, "the Amazon warehouse" of cricket farms.
Launched in 2022, the company operates a $110m facility which is fully automated and uses artificial intelligence and advanced manufacturing techniques.
Ms Pownall said Canada was the chosen location for Aspire Food Group's production due to an investment of $35m from the Canadian government.
Some of the key learnings from her scholarship was to start small and develop market opportunities and to seek alternative energy solutions.
She said it was important to find a place in the market for edible insects, and to establish and develop these markets.
Ms Pownall gave an example of how the Australian bushfires in 2020 led to an uptick in cricket sales.
The bushfires led to a short supply of kangaroos which were supplied to the pet food industry in the United States.
Seeking an alternative source of protein, Canadian cricket producers were serendipitously able to fill the gap, after the pandemic-led decline in human cricket consumption.
"Even though you start small, it's important to understand the global market, including risk factors, such as disease and biosecurity," Ms Pownall said.
"Collaboration is key, both within agriculture but also with artificial intelligence and technology.
"If someone called me and asked me for one tonne of crickets I couldn't supply that, but if five of us got together we could supply that."
Due to tight regulations and a market which isn't easily understood by policymakers, Ms Pownall said it was imperative insect growers work alongside government organisations.
She said government support, as well as investments into research and development and food safety plans, was needed to boost the industry.
Ms Pownall said there were many ways to open up market opportunities within the industry.
"Using nutritional education, branding and social media is paramount," she said.
Ms Pownall gave an example of a cricket farm in South Australia, which supplies to the pet food market but has a strong following, thanks to videos uploaded to its YouTube channel showing the company's processes.
"They're so transparent on their YouTube channel, it just shows customers go to them first and intentionally," she said.
"Their point of difference is that they've got their branding, their transparency and a customer profile lined up to take them into the next phase of business."
Ms Pownall said to progress the edible insect industry, she aims to join the Insect Protein Australia board.
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