For most of us, grasshoppers are generally icky insects. Not for Singaporean venture capitalist Eugene Wong. For him, grasshoppers are a welcome sight because they promise nourishment. In fact, you might catch him enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc with a side of roasted grasshoppers – delicately crisp with a nutty, earthy and deeply savoury flavour, almost like that of chicken essence. His meals at home could also feature a salad topped with a handful.
Wong, who has special interests in alternative technology and agritech, has a stake in Hargol Foodtech in Israel, a commercial vertical grasshopper farm set up in 2016. The company is positioning these herbivorous insects as the protein source of the future.
In a world with diminishing agricultural land and increasing carbon emissions, vertical grasshopper farming is an attractive alternative to rearing livestock due to its low water footprint, greenhouse gas emissions, and zero waste. And that’s exactly what appealed to Wong’s deep conviction for finding alternative sustainable sources of protein.
Wong, who invested in Hargol in 2016, reveals that the company has moved from research to a mass-growing phase and is in the midst of increasing capacity. “By the end of 2020, we should stabilise the production rate to 10 to 20 tonnes of grasshoppers a year. Once we refine the farming process, we will see the production rate increase exponentially.”
Referencing Barclay’s research, which projects that the insect protein market will grow to US$8 billion (S$11 billion) by 2030, he says his estimate is a more conservative US$5 billion. “Grasshoppers should be able to capture 20 to 30 per cent of the market,” says Wong, formerly a board member of IE Singapore and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, and currently a board member of Enterprise Singapore and an adviser to NTU’s Food Science and Technology Programme.
Another kind of green food
Although insect-eating stills seems a novelty that belongs to the realm of daredevil game shows, Wong is confident of converting consumers – especially the health-conscious. “Before investing in Hargol, I never tried eating insects,” he confesses. “Not because I was squeamish but because I was unsure of the hygiene standards of the insects peddled at street stalls.”
The Hargol grasshopper, however, is a different proposition from bugs caught in the wild.
According to a statement by CEO Dror Tamir, the company focused on four edible species of grasshoppers and shortened the incubation period from 40 weeks to just two by providing optimal conditions that allow for harvesting up to 10 times a year.
Reared in a controlled environment with low humidity, they feed on an abundance of wheat, leaves and grass. Within this facility, exposure to pollution and disease is reduced.
This bolsters the relevance of grasshopper farming. Consider, for instance, how insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s estimates. They range from Colombians roasting ant bellies (their equivalent of popcorn) to Japanese snacking on wasp tempura during Hebo Matsuri, an annual festival in Kushihara. Of the two billion, at least one billion eat grasshoppers harvested from the wild, Wong says.
The next superfood
If Wong has his way, the deepfried ikan bilis in your nasi lemak will be replaced by practically cholesterol-free roasted grasshoppers and your kids will be gobbling gummies enriched with grasshopper protein powder. Indeed, plans to launch said gummies in the US are under way.
Being neutral in taste also means that they can be used in different styles of cooking, but Wong shares that they are generally sold roasted and ready to eat, or as a protein flour.
He also reveals that Hargol is even looking at the grasshopper’s potential as the next superfood because, apart from being composed of 70 per cent protein, it contains a gamut of macro and trace minerals, vitamins, amino acids and unsaturated fatty acids.
“The initial market would be restaurants and discerning consumers who are super health-conscious. We are also researching to prove if eating grasshoppers has health benefits, such as reducing weight or controlling certain diseases, which will help to position it as a superfood,” says Wong.
“The Israeli government is supportive of the start-up and I have also been promoting it to Singapore food agencies. I hope that in years to come, we can set up a grasshopper farm in Singapore which can improve our food security. Urban cities of the future need to plan for food production to supplement the normal supply chain.”
“I have seen models of five-storey factories with cows going up and down. I don’t think that works [in the long run] but it can certainly work with grasshoppers.”