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Costs compared to other meats

In everything I have read about bugs as a protein source there is only one thing that worries me. Somewhere, I think it was in that FAO report, it says that in Thailand insects are priced 4 times higher per weight than conventional meats. If insects are such great and efficient protein producers, how come their meat is so much more expensive? In the text this is presented as something positive: That people are willing to pay so much proves that insects are not only for the poor who can’t afford anything else, but popular among the better-off who can make an active choice.

The obvious answer is that compared to other kinds of farming, insect farming is new and hasn't yet been optimized to the same extent as the others. Heck, many of the bugs ending up on Thai markets are probably still "hunted" rather than farmed. Maybe there are also subsidies (as in the US and EU) that keep conventional meat artificially cheap.

What do you think? How cheaply do you think different kind of insects could be sold? Which price do you think it would have to reach in order to compete? (I realize there are bigger obstacles than price at this point, but eventually the pricing will have to be reasonable.)

Comments

  • Hmmph, elitism @Per? It seems to swing from 'poor man's food' for the locals to 'rare delicacy'. I'm no expert here but I think so many will get rich by marketing a niche food while others sell the same product as poor mans' manna in a different environment or country. Mind you, marketing a niche product is a harder to reach market. I wonder in the end when we will all get sensible and sell the product for what it is truly worth according to cost of production, packaging and marketing etc as opposed to what we can squeeze the market for. My own particular vision and dream is that bugs will help satiate the need for protein, calcium and minerals for the poor of the world as well as (especially) taking the edge off the demand for meats from animals who feel terror and pain from having their throats slashed. This is MY true passion and drive. To help animals who mourn their young as opposed to insects which eat their young... that's just my thing. :)]

  • Right now, it's basically a matter of scale. Even in Thailand, insects are produced by inefficient, labour-intensive means, hiking up the cost.

    If you look at what makes up the operational costs of growing a given amount of insects, the major parts are:

    • Feed
    • Climate control
    • Labour

    Feed is where insects shine when compared to other livestock. 10lbs of the same feed will get you 8lbs of crickets, but only 1lb of beef.

    The cost of climate control depends where you live, but if you are in a temperate climate and have decent insulation it will generally be relatively minor.

    Labour, however, is a big deal. In the US, the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour (which is not even enough to live on). This comes out to roughly $1160 per month. If you're going to be farming insects commercially, you need to charge enough for the bugs to cover this cost.

    Let's say feed costs $2.50 per pound (the approximate cost of organic chicken feed, which can be fed to crickets). This means that ignoring everything else, the basic cost for a pound of crickets is $5.

    However, you also have to think about labour costs. If you were only producing one pound of crickets per month, you would still have to pay someone to do it - so to break even (not even making any profit) you'd have to charge wages + feed cost, which is $1165 per pound of crickets. Those are some expensive bugs.

    If you're raising 100lbs of crickets per month, you can spread that cost over each pound you sell. So, a pound would cost (wages/100) + feed cost, which is $16.60 per pound.

    If you raise half a ton (1000 pounds) of crickets per month using the same full time employee, you'd have to charge (wages/1000) + feed cost, which is only $6.16 per pound.

    So, the more crickets you can raise with the same amount of labour, the cheaper they can be. There are two things holding this back right now.

    One is volume - the market for edible insects isn't yet as big as the market for other protein sources, so it might be risky to raise a ton of crickets - you may not be able to sell them all, even at that cheap price.

    The other is automation. Most current farming methods were designed for raising pet feed insects, which can be sold at a huge margin - since a pet lizard may only eat a couple of crickets per week, you can happily charge $0.50-$1.00 per insect and people will still buy them. This means there hasn't been any incentive to automate farm processes, so farms are still remarkably inefficient.

    We hope to change that with the technology we're developing. One reason we use mesh bags in our mealworm kits, for example, is that they "self harvest" - frass falls through, so at the end of the growth period you're left with a bag of mealworms that is ready to eat (no sorting required). And as more human-food farms come online, we'll see huge increases in efficiency as people do their best to reduce the cost of labour.

    This is basically the phenomenon behind the agricultural revolution, which has been ongoing for tens of thousands of years. Innovations have allowed the amount of food produced by a single farmer to grow from enough to barely feed their family to enough to support a whole town.

  • Regarding eventual pricing, the floor is basically the cost of feed - you can never sell insects for less than it costs to feed them.

    Note that in the above examples I ignore the impact of scale on feed prices; realistically, you can make savings on buying in bulk.

    Chickens have a similar feed conversion ratio to crickets (around 2:1). Does this mean that the price per pound of crickets will probably end up being similar to the price per pound of chicken ($1.50)? Perhaps, but it's important to remember a couple of things:

    • You can eat 100% of a cricket, but you can't eat 100% of a chicken (bones, etc.)
    • It costs a lot more to house chickens than it does crickets
    • You can fit more crickets into a given space
    • Crickets are easier to transport after harvest
    • Chickens are far more labour intensive to manage, especially humanely

    It's hard to give an exact number, but I think it's safe to say that we'll end up with insects available at a price point significantly below that of chicken.

  • Volume is always a problem to overcome. It creates a barrier to the idea that it can be an affordable food. Now any I insect product you buy for human consumption is priced as a novelty or upscale food. As more people raise them and actually start to create competition for the market prices will remain high. That being said I think the amount of cost and labor to run the open kit you are offering would be minimal for an individual to produce their own supply for their own use.

  • Exactly - edible insects have to reach a certain volume before they'll be a genuinely more affordable option to buy in stores. However, if you're growing them yourselves they are already super cheap, since you don't have to pay yourself a salary for doing it!

  • Feed prices are not the floor. Like with chickens, insects can thrive on a variety of feeds that are wastes from other industries/process, and don't cost anything. almost 1/2 of all the food produced in the US is thrown away, if that material could be routed through animals, like chickens, pigs, and insects, we could produce tons of valuable protein at a significantly reduced cost. It's not just garbage, but even lawns are a huge untapped feed source.

    Also, there are a number of insects that can be harvested in other ways, like grasshopper or locust plagues. Turn the pests into food.

    Sure, there are obstacles to this approach, but overall cost decreases and whole system efficiency increases.

  • and when you look at tipping fees for landfills, you soon realize that there might be a business model where producers of organic waste actually PAY YOU to feed your insects with their waste.

  • That's a brilliant point - and there are already people capturing slaughterhouse waste and turning it into feed using black soldier fly: http://www.agriprotein.com/

  • yes, black soldier flies are popular for slaughter and manure management, but there are a lot of waste streams that could be used for insect production.

    The average American lawn produces 2 tons of biomass a year. Over 50,000 square miles are dedicated to lawns in America. That's 3 times the size of all corn production.

    Each lawn could produce over 1/2 a ton of crickets/locusts a year! And there are 30 million lawns in the US. You are talking about millions of tons of potential protein for virtually no cost. In fact, routing lawn biomass through insects could save a lot of money.

    And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Organic waste from restaurants, bakeries, breweries, groceries, kitchens, crop wastes, paper production, tree trimmings, etc could all be routed through livestock (including mini livestock). The potential is HUGE.

    The majority of that waste is headed to landfills, and a small fraction goes to compost facilities. Routing through insects, and then composting their waste would significantly reduce landfill use and methane production.

  • Looking at mealworm protein cost effectiveness involves some factors. First if one were to use mealworm larvae as the sole protein source (assuming the amino acid profile were suitable) figure the persons weight in pounds, divide that number in half & use that cipher as grams. This is the WHO formula; thus for a 100 pound adult their minimum daily requirement is 50 grams of protein.... Next we must distinguish between data for mealworm larval protein content for dried or live larvae. Many tout high protein content but do not elaborate how dehydrated the larvae were; it is more suitable here to calculate fresh weight protein.... For the purpose of a specific estimate I will use the live larval 24.3 - 27.6 % total protein determined by (2009) Am.J. Agri. & Biol. Sci.;4(4):pg 319-331 which fed a diet of 95% wheat + 5% brewers yeast (by ingredient weight); with a photoperiod of 8 hours light + 16 hrs dark. It is worth looking at just for their closing recipes for mealworm "appetizers/cookies/canapes/sui mai".... That research data shows the mealworm larvae gain their weight fastest when they are at the stage where an individual weighs 78-85 mg. But, once an individual weighs more than 121 mg their growth rate declines & it actually will lose weight - & by extrapolation possibly total protein.... Authors state that it is ideal to harvest the larvae when weigh 100-120 mg. each. If let go to 139 - 182 mg each then 10% of those can die off.... TinyFarms grow bag trials gave an average production of 1 Kg total fresh weight in larvae after 30 days. Assuming, for the basis of a simple calculation, that all had 25% protein (anyone who wants can work up the range for 24.3 -27.6% protein).... OK, 25% of 1,000 gr (1 Kg) would mean the grow bag provides 250 grams of protein a month. For a 100 pound adult that is minimal protein for 5 days; thus, the 100 pound person's monthly requirement of minimum protein would require 6 Kg of mealworm larvae (1,500 gr. total).... Elsewhere, if not mistaken the team said each grow bag would use U$15 in worm meal. And please correct me if this an incorrect feed cost, or misleading because based on buying the feed in small packages.... At U$15 feed/Kg larvae this brings the monthly raw materials cost to U$90 a month for a 100 pound individual's total protein (1,500 gr.). Again using only 25% protein larvae as basis of ratio.... Someone here may have a basis cost for a 100 pound adult's 50 grams of protein a day for 30 days when purchase eggs/poultry/livestock/dairy/pork/fish/soy. And it would be instructive to know a primary producer's feed cost to get 1,500 gr. of protein.

  • Edit: "The Yellow Mealworm as a Novel Source of Protein" is title of 2009 study referenced above. It is available as a free full pdf download - but don't have link.

  • For orientation of bulk prices (delivery extra) Amazon lists 25 pounds of oat bran for sale at U$70 & 25 pounds of yellow soy bean at U$42.... If one wanted to get 50 grams of protein per day for a 100 pound adult for 30 days that 1,500 grams would be the equivalent of 3.31 pounds. Dry soy beans are touted at being close to 40% protein by weight; so will use that as convenient cipher....To get 1,500 grams protein from soy would require 8.5 pounds of dried beans (40% of 8.5 =3.4). So, a 100 pound adult's minimum protein cost per month using soy ($1.68/pound in bulk) would cost roughly U$5.70 (per month).... Let's revisit how 6 Kg fresh mealworm a month provides 1,500 gr. protein & assume an idealistic 100% feed conversion for a quick calculation. The above bulk oat bran cost works out to U$2.80/pound.... If could feed mealworms just 13.23 pounds (6 Kg.) to get the 100 pound adult's minimum protein per month then the bulk purchased oat bran would cost U$37 per month....Now, if one were in the countryside there may be cheaper mealworm feed. If, for example, they could be fed rice hulls these are really very cheap at the mill in my experience.

  • @gringojay, thanks for the quick fact checking and sharing these numbers! I think Dan may have posted $15 feed somewhere, but it was a quick and extremely conservative number based on grocery store prices - even small volume bulk prices come out to closer to $5/batch retail like you found and as you point out the potential is to dip much lower utilizing waste streams or lower cost bulk feeds. We use a conservative 2-2.5:1 FCR for our internal calculations for mealworms assuming an imperfect feed, although a carefully balanced diet should yield a better ratio than that! We pay ~$0.75/lb USD for both organic wheat bran and organic carrot and cabbage from the local market, so we expect to pay ~$4.13 to produce 1kg mealworms at a 2.5:1 FCR.

  • I'll revise the mealworm feed cost for a 100 pound adult's monthly total minimum protein need (1,500 gr) based on andrew's data to U$25 (6x U$4.13= U$24.78; instead of my U$37 calculated from Amazon's price of oat bran, ). This is still using WHO quick method of protein need's determination & that size adult would harvest 6 Kg of fresh mealworms a month at 25% protein; anyone with higher fresh worm protein content experimental data & we can rework the calculation.

  • That's really great, thanks for running through the numbers again. I think the $15 came from a pessimistic review of the price of wheat bran available online, since mail order might be the only option for some people. I'd personally love for us to find a good bulk supplier and offer feed at near cost in the Open Bug Farm store.

    It's interesting to note that chicken comes out at $7.19 per kg (taking the US retail food price for boneless chicken breast). Since chicken has an approximately equivalent amount of protein, feeding yourself on mealworms is around 57% cheaper (6x $7.19 = $43.14).

    It's going to be great to have more data points as more people start growing!

  • edited March 2014

    That $7/kg for chicken is retail price, not cost of production. I think you'll find cost of production being somewhat lower, though maybe not as low as mealworms.

    Backyard chickens are produced at a much lower cost than that, because they use waste streams as a significant portion of the chicken's feed (which could also be done for mealworms). I'm not sure how eggs compare cost wise, but most backyard farmers keep chickens for eggs, not meat. That may affect the cost comparison a bit.

  • Whole (plucked, gutted) chicken at USA port 26 Mar. 2014 commodity price = U$1.06/pound. source & links for 1 - 30 yr. data is http://www.indexmundi.com/commodities/?commodity=chicken.

  • Feed conversion for chickens is only slightly lower than for mealworms, so the raw input cost of production should be pretty close (assuming you're harvesting the chicken as soon as it's reached size, rather than keeping it for eggs as @VelaCreations points out). The main benefits for insects over chicken include reduced emissions (ammonia and methane), lower space requirement per yield (bigger benefit for urban growers), and minimal additional water requirement. The rate of reproduction is also a huge benefit and is closely tied to the space requirement. This can be hard to notice at a small scale, but the impact is huge at the kind of scale that poultry is currently farmed!

  • What area does the prototype 1 kg./month yielding mealworm grow bag occupy? .....Meat (not egg laying) chickens raised in cages after 1st week old need minimum of 1 sq. ft. each, by age 8 week need min. 2 sq. ft. & if breeding 3 sq. ft. minimum each; this is floor space only. Approximately 1 sq.mt. floor space is needed for 4 chickens by their 8th week; plus dedicated area for feeding/watering/perching. Source = http://www.merckmanuals.com/vet/poultry/nutrition_and_management_poultry/management_of_laying_chickens.html.....As for water, when hot, at age 8 weeks each meat chicken needs about 200 ml of water/d. & they'll require 50 gr. (or more) feed daily. Source = http://www.fao.org/docrep/008/y5169e/y5169e05.htm.......One estimate suggests that up to 53% of a chicken is meat. Some believe they are 70% meat, however once cooking renders out the fluid in the meat this percentage seems way to high....A raw chicken can weigh 3+ Kg (~7 pounds) when culled, however it's more likely to be in the (USA) classification of a "roaster" chicken & they need 9 weeks to grow from the egg.... Even a "broiler" classification chicken will need 6 weeks to grow from the egg & then weigh in at about 2 Kg (~4+ pounds). The "frier" chicken classification grows from egg in a month to 1+ Kg (~2.5 pounds)....Recalling the example of a 100 pound adult needing a minimum of 1,500 gr. protein month means they'd need close to a minimum of 3 kg (6.6 pounds) of chicken every 30 days. Which means it would take the meat from a single "roaster" chicken to supply their minimum protein requirement for a month....However, to get that single "roaster" it takes 2 months, ~12 liters of water, ~3 Kg feed, 2 sq. ft. of floor space (not including obligatory air space) & temperature/ventilation control. The comparison remains to be calculated of how many mealworm grow bags fit in 2 sq. feet....If an array of at least 6 mealworm grow bags (assuming, for purposes of a rough estimate, bag's filled dimensions are 2 feet across x 1 foot deep) can be arrayed vertically so they are fully productive above 2 sq. feet of floor space then that means mealworm protein production is 2 X more efficient in space utilization than caged chickens are for the same amount of protein.... I envision 6 or more levels of mealworm grow bags hanging one above the other, held in place at each corner to it's own level on 4 cables/chains that hang from the ceiling. Each set of 4 chain/cable lengths is attached to it's own individual support plate that can be moved along a set of tracks mounted in the ceiling....A visual similarity might be to how a dry cleaner has the hanging garments hung from a rack that lets the store move the items from the back of the store to the front until find what they choose to take off the carousel. A carousel allows for just harvested 6 grow bags to give it's leading off space to next scheduled batch & by rotation room for the newest load of cleaned grow bags to be installed at the beginning of the track's run.

  • The bags we're currently producing for the small kits (up to 1kg each, with 2 required for continuous monthly harvests) are 9" X 23" X ~4"-5" depth (depending how tightly they are suspended) + about half a cubic foot of space for breeders/eggs.

  • 1 Kg. mealworm grow bag needs 1.437 sq.ft. (207 sq. inch) of horizontal area. A growing chicken needs 2 sq. ft. of horizontal area; which is floor space.... To layer 6 mealworm grow bags in a tightly suspended array directly over a 1.4 sq.ft. horizontal area will create a tier of bags ~3 ft. high off the floor (assuming each grow bag occupies 6 in. depth of air space). One can grow 6 Kg. mealworm larvae suspended over 1.4 sq.ft. of floor space 3 ft. off the floor. Roughly 4.3 cubic feet can produce the minimum daily protein for a 100 pound adult every month; this area = 0.1217 cubic meters.... Returning to chicken production comparison the obvious is that even if only go 3 ft. high with the mealworms they utilize the facility floor space 2 x better (as per when chicken takes 2 months to get 6 mealworm grow bags worth of protein)....However, if one assumes there is actually 6 ft. of airspace over the chicken's floor area , say for workers to access the room, then 12 mealworm grow bags in a tier array can be set up in the same area. And, to be fair, if the chickens only had 1.5 feet of air space then only 3 mealworm grow bags could be arrayed & the protein output per space dedicated to production would be somewhat similar to the chickens...However, since the mealworm grow bag need 1.4 sq. ft. & chicken 2 sq. ft. the implication is that there is 25% greater capacity for the mealworms to produce protein than chicken in the same floor space. I refrain from asserting this (25% extra capability) because at their early stage the chickens do not need 2 sq. ft. of floor space & not ready to work out the math....In summary: a stack of 3 small kits' mealworm grow bags reaching 1.5 ft. high in 2 months will give approximately the same amount of protein as a single 2 month old chicken reared in 2 sq.ft. of floor space. For the metric comparison whereby 4 chickens can be reared in 1 sq. mt. of floor space this means 12 small mealworm grow bags arrayed only 1/2 mt. high will produce the same amount of protein as those 4 chickens in 2 months time ....Thus, if confused, 1/2 sq. mt. of floor space raised chickens is needed for the minimum protein requirement of a 100 pound adult a month. In contrast the mealworm grow bags in that same floor space, assuming a 6 ft. high ceiling, can be tiered 6 feet high & provide the minimum protein requirement for four (4) 100 pound adults.

  • I'm wondering a bit about the calculations, since they are apparently based upon the protein needs of a 100 pound adult. Even in very impoverished countries, the average healthy weight of most adults is much more than 100 pounds. And young adults have much higher nutritional requirements, well into their third decade. And pregnant women will have additional needs. So, the current calculations are a significant underestimate of the protein requirements of a normal adult.

    Martha

  • Hi Docmom,

    I purposely did calculations based on a 100 pound individual because that way the cipher can be extapolated without a complicated conversion factor. In other words if one weighs 110 pounds then add another 10% , or for someone like (say) 172 pounds then add another 72% & so on for anyone's particular desired weight. Protein intake that is above & beyond daily needs is not automatically stored in the body; but then alain 2 individuals of the same weight can have different protein utilization patterns. All I tried to adress is the absolute minimum theorizetically needed to sustain cellular life under "normal" conditions.

    As for the accuracy of my basic calculation I am willing to see if I may have made a mathematical mistake if anyone finds that. And in terms of what is the true daily minimum protein requirement that too can be criticized as an arbitrary construct when applied to an indivudual person. I only used it as a basis to, again, produce a standardized cipher because it is based on an old W.H.O. adage on how to estimate protein needed by a human. W.H.O. used it (use?) for developmental project proposals to standardize how closely a program was meeting human protein goals; admittedly there may be a better protein guideline to base the calculation on.

  • I see. That certainly makes sense, and definitely makes the math easy. I guess I'm just used to medicine where we routinely calculate things based on a mythical "60 kg man" so our results end up being close to what you would get for an average human. I certainly did not think there was anything wrong with the actual math involved in tha calculations

  • Allow me to continue referencing a 100 pound person (anyone wishing to use 60 Kg figure then that is equal to 132 pounds). If readers wish to approach protein needs in reference to the fact that we as individual's may weigh the same amount yet have different lean body mass it is 1st good to reference ranges of normal % body fat .

    In young adults "normal" % body fat (normal here meaning not overweight) in males is 8-22% & in young females 20-35%. In middle age adult males "normal" % body fat is 10-25% & in middle age females 25-38%. In elderly males "normal" % body fat is 10-23% & in elderly females 24-35%.

    The level of physical exertion plays a role modifying protein needs in the context of body fat & weight. Below is a link which provides a calculator that you can put different parameters in; this will be the 2nd formated calculator on the website's page (scroll about 1/2 way down the page to box offering "Protein Needs Calculator: Lean Body Mass Method".

    Clicking to select "Standard" will allow putting in any weight as pounds, if so choose; or select "Metric" if prefer. Irregardless of whether enter weight in entered in as pounds or as Kg the protein needed will always read out in grams when using that calculator.

    Let's say we use 20% body fat as a example; since that is the low range normal for young females & every other category of adults also includes 20% body fat as within normal ranges. A 100 pound adult encompassing 20% body fat with an activity level of "light" exertion needs 48 grams of protein/day, according to that calculator.

    My original cited W.H.O. method of rough estimation for a 100 pound adult comes out to 50 gr. protein/day (method does not take into account body fat %). This can be viewed as consistent with the W.H.O. concern for a survival base line allowing the person to daily move around (ie: 48 gr. protein/day is enough for light activity). Presumably organizational development goals are not to just keep people laying around alive, which would be an activity level of "sedentary" in my mind. If one selected "sedentary" acitivity level for a 100 pound adult with 20% body fat the calculator reads out a minimum protein requirement of 40 grams/day.

    For a 60 Kg individual having 20% body fat with a "light" activity level the calculator reads out 63.5 grams of protein daily is adequate. If go back to the W.H.O. method then 50 gr.protein for a 100 pound adult means a 132 pound (60 Kg) adult needs another 32% more protein, which works out to 16 gr. more protein (50 x 0.32 = 16); making the W.H.O. estimate for a 60 Kg individual is they need 66 grams protein daily. Maybe docmom can say if either 63.5 or 66 grams of protein daily jibes somewhat with her reference point for a 60 Kg. fellow.

  • P.S. Link to cited (above) lean body mass protein calculator I omitted; = http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/library/blproteincalculators.htm

  • Just FYI for comparison outside the USA, boneless, skinless chicken meat at my local supermarket in Perth, Western Australia is $14.50/kg (bulk buy of at least 1.4kg) to $18.50/kg (free range). I can't believe how cheap food is in North America!!! (I was gobsmacked by the prices of fruit and vegetables when I visited friends in Canada a few years ago.) ...makes grow-your-own bugs even more cost-competitive here!

    I'd be interested to see rough prices/kg of chicken elsewhere in the world... feedback from others? :-)

    Whole chickens here are $6-$8/kg (non-free range / free range).

    Chicken pieces (with skin on and bones in) are the cheapest way to buy chicken here - sometimes on special at around $3/kg, but I think $4/kg is probably more typical.

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