Protein shakeup: Are crickets and lab-grown meat the future of food?

Conventional farming is fuelling the climate crisis — and it’s still not filling our growing population’s demand for food


By Jessica Leeder, Toronto Star (Canada)

Aug. 2, 2022


After buying a 12-acre plot of land in southern Ontario to grow food, Mohammed Ashour and his company could have chosen to raise cows. But they recognized that the small handful of animals would only yield a few hundred kilograms of protein each year. Ashour had much loftier goals.


Instead of cattle, Ashour, CEO and co-founder of Aspire, and his team opted for pinhead crickets, which increase in size 800 per cent over the course of their month-long life.


“Crickets eat a fraction of the food that other forms of livestock consume, but they produce the same amount of protein,” he explains.


To maximize the crickets’ potential, Ashour’s team drew on experts in artificial intelligence, manufacturing and robotics. This year, they will open what is arguably the country’s most efficient protein-producing operation: a $90-million, windowless, robot-powered vertical farm that extends 11 storeys high and produces close to zero waste. (It will also sell frass, waste produced by the crickets, which is an effective compost.)


The facility is in London, Ont., on the aptly named Innovation Drive, where farm fields share space with manufacturing and technology outfits, including a pizza factory owned by Dr. Oetker.


When Aspire ramps up to full capacity, it will boast sophisticated sensors that will collect between 27 and 30 million data points each day, helping to optimize conditions to produce an annual protein yield of a whopping 12 million kilograms. The smart system is a high-tech, low-impact effort to help solve the global protein crisis — a crisis that requires a dramatic reimagining of how we get the most out of our farmed land.


“Our planet is rapidly growing in population and appetite. At the same time, it’s shrinking in resources with which to produce food,” Ashour says. “If we can come up with ways to produce more food with fewer resources, we can have an outsized impact on solving this problem.”


The unsustainability of our current agricultural system has been well documented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Resources Institute and other climate watchdogs. Livestock accounts for 14.5 per cent of all global man-made greenhouse-gas emissions; cattle, which are particularly hard on the environment, are responsible for 65 per cent of that share.


Getting rid of animal-sourced food would make a considerable difference: the UN found that doing so would lower our greenhouse-gas emissions to a third of their current level by 2050. Earlier this year, The Economist published an analysis showing that if we cut meat out of our diets, it would free up three-quarters of the world’s farmland...


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