Aussie tastebugs: the unlikely business success of breeding edible insects

Skye Blackburn, founder of the Edible Bug Shop, is easing mainstream Australians through the “ick factor” of entomophagy – eating bugs. Partnering with celebrity chefs such as René Redzepi, Matt Stone and Kylie Kwong, she ships 400 kilograms of insects a week and is in discussions about supplying health food stores and major supermarket chains.

As far as business opportunities go, edible insects wouldn’t seem to be a winner, at least in Australia. After all, when is the last time you saw anyone based in this part of the world nibbling some salted, roasted ants?

So, it’s no surprise to learn that for a long time Australia had no edible insect industry at all. What most people would find astonishing is that a young female entrepreneur is singlehandedly creating one.

Skye Blackburn has been fascinated with insects since she was a child and studied entomology at university. Suspecting she would find it hard to make a living in entomology, she also studied food science.

A couple of years after graduating, Blackburn launched a part-time business breeding butterflies. To promote that business at an expo she made some novelty lollipops containing small, edible bugs to hand out.

“I had the idea because I’d just been to Thailand, where the locals eat a lot of insects,” Blackburn remembers. “To my surprise, they were incredibly popular. I had people ringing me afterwards wanting me to stock them in their shops.”

And so, after doing some research, Blackburn launched another part-time business in 2007. It was called the Edible Bug Shop. Soon enough she was shifting enough bugs that it became her full-time focus.

Currently, she ships 400 kilograms of insects (mainly crickets and mealworms) a week and is intending to scale up. She’s in discussions about supplying not just health food stores but also the major supermarket chains.

Will Australia be bitten by the edible bug craze?

All of which suggests that culinary adventurous Aussies are more relaxed about entomophagy [bug eating] than might be assumed. On paper, that make sense. After all, plenty of communities, including Indigenous Australians, have eaten insects throughout history. Plus, bugs are packed full of goodies such as protein, calcium, iron and Omega3 and are an environmentally-friendly food source.

Nonetheless, Blackburn is aware she’s still got some work to do if entomophagy is going to enter the mainstream down under.

“I compare it to sushi. It wasn’t that long ago that Australians would have considered eating raw fish weird. Now it’s everywhere, my three-year-old daughter begs me for it,” she says. “Consumers are becoming more concerned about where their food comes from. They’re interested in sustainable options, in buying local and unprocessed food. Bugs tick all those boxes.”

One of Blackburn’s most popular products is Chilli Garlic Snack Crickets. It’s a low-fat, crunchy alternative to nuts or chips and beloved by body builders and Paleo diet enthusiasts. Blackburn notes the product is also bought by those who identify as vegetarians and vegans. “Some people who’ve given up meat for health or environmental reasons, rather than ethical ones, don’t have a problem eating insects,” she says.


Teaming up with celebrity chefs

Blackburn currently has two strategies in place to ease mainstream Australians through what she labels the “ick factor” of entomophagy. Firstly, she’s partnered with celebrity chefs such as Anna Polyviou, René Redzepi, Matt Stone and, in particular, Kylie Kwong.

“Kylie is interested in using local and sustainable ingredients. She’s put various dishes using our insects on her menu,” says Blackburn. “My favourite is her mealworm fried rice. Chefs are now using insects not because they are a novelty ingredient but because they have great texture and taste and are healthy.”

Secondly, she’s serving up insects in a non-confronting form. “We make a cricket powder,” she says. “The crickets are dried and ground up. The resulting fine powder can be added in when people are making biscuits, bread or curries. That way they’re still getting all the health benefits and helping the environment. But they’re not looking at a bug.”

Blackburn doesn’t expect Australians to start chowing down on tarantulas or scorpions anytime soon. But she’s confident that there will be a thriving domestic edible bug industry by the end of the decade.

So confident, she’s now advertising her services as a consultant to other farmers who want to get into the bug-breeding business.

“I’ve got more demand than I can meet,” Blackburn says. “Over the next five years, Australians are going to be consuming a lot more insects. In future, people will go to the local supermarket and expect to find insects, or insect-based products, on sale there.