TOKYO -- With the global population forecast to swell to 10 billion by the year 2050, chronic food shortages are a very real threat. In the race to find better ways to feed more mouths, some startups are exploring an alternative food source that has been hiding in plain sight: insects.
In Helsinki, the chirping of some 500,000 crickets fills the offices of venture company EntoCube. The company, founded in December 2014, sees great promise in the critter's dense nutrient profile.
A hundred grams of crickets yields about 20 grams of protein, nearly matching the numbers for beef and powered milk. But the economic and environmental costs of raising crickets are far smaller. Increasing the weight of a cow by 100 grams requires roughly 1kg of feed and 1,534 liters of water; producing a similar gain with crickets requires just 100 grams of feed and 1 liter of water.
Crickets can save the world from the looming food crisis, said EntoCube CEO Robert Nemlander. The company has developed containers for farming food-grade insects and plans to sell its products to nonprofit organizations in Africa and other entities.
In the once-bustling steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, an urban cricket farm operated by a venture company is injecting new life into the economy. A restaurant there, Suzie's Dogs and Drafts, offers customers deep-fried crickets as a topping for their hot dogs. Deep-fried crickets are crunchy like shrimp and are popular among young and old customers alike, said Bradley Miller, a cook there.
In Japan, Nissin Foods Holdings is studying ways to extract protein from insects and make them more palatable.
Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries estimates that population growth will push up global food demand by 60% to 6.9 billion tons by 2050 compared with the level in 2000. "Food production can't keep pace with the expected increase in food demand in Asia and Africa," said an official in the ministry's food security office.
The idea of using insects as a food source is not new, but it has gained extra traction since the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report in 2013 on the use of insects for food and feed security.
The push to ensure food security is creating huge business opportunities for innovative companies with practical solutions.
One such business is Hampton Creek. The San Francisco-based company has invented plant-based egg substitutes that use plant proteins from beans and other vegetables. Its eggless mayonnaise and cookie products, called Just Mayo and Just Cookies, are both available at supermarkets in the U.S.
Hampton Creek's office-cum-kitchen is an eclectic space, crammed with electronics and various food items. The staff is no less diverse, with a star chef, a biologist and others using artificial intelligence technology to discover the best-possible plant proteins and develop new foods.
The company's goal is to help create a new paradigm for the food industry in which ordinary people can buy safe and tasty products, said Hampton Creek CEO and founder Josh Tetrick. Sensing a growth opportunity, major Japanese trading house Mitsui & Co. has invested in the food venture.
Food production is no longer limited to rural farms. Nowadays, it is not unusual to find food gardens atop buildings and in vacant lots in urban areas.
Horimasa, a Tokyo-based company that trades bearing parts, teamed up with the University of Hawaii to develop a compact and environmentally friendly farming mechanism. It consists of two tiers: On the upper level, vegetables are grown hydroponically using LED lights; on the lower level, fish are farmed in a water tank. Prices for the system start at 1 million ($8,100).
These aquaponic systems are highly portable and consume relatively little energy and water. As such, they can transform unlikely spaces -- such as the deck of a ship or a patch of desert -- into an instant farm. Horimasa says it has received inquiries from Russia and countries in the Middle East.
"Competition for farmland is going to intensify across the globe. To survive this race, we will have no choice but to produce food in urban areas," said Masaharu Hori, the company's president.