Christopher Leow - CEO and co-founder of Future Protein Solutions
Photograph: Daniel IskandarChristopher Leow - CEO and co-founder of Future Protein Solutions

Ahead of its time: One man’s dream to make crickets as popular as chicken for eating

Could crickets be the true superfood of tomorrow? Christopher Leow of Future Protein Solutions shares why he thinks they are

Dawson Tan

When it comes to alternative proteins to substitute real meat, much noise is being heard from the plant-based meat industry. But one man seems to dance to an entirely different beat. In this series where we identify everyday people doing not-your-everyday jobs, Christopher Leow, CEO and co-founder of Future Protein Solutions, is one who places his bets on crickets to be the next big thing.

If you haven’t heard, Singapore may soon be stocking our grocery shelves with edible insect products. This comes after the progressive decision by the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to soon allow the import and sale of 16 insect types fit for human consumption. Some of these insects include mealworms, silkworms, grasshoppers, honey bees and of course, the critter of the hour, crickets. And to no surprise, the news was definitely met with much uncertainty – and perhaps even a side of nausea.

But first, a little about Christopher himself. You might find his name familiar, most recently from his high-profile urban farming stint at Edible Garden City’s CapitaSpring Food Forest. The trained aerospace engineer and chef first learnt about sustainable agriculture about eight years ago and since then, it sparked a persistent interest in better ways to grow food. 

Fast forward to a year ago when he stumbled upon cricket farming, he was intrigued by not only the incredible environmental impacts but also how good crickets actually taste.

Chris Leow using cricket frass as fertiliser for his garden
Photograph: Daniel IskandarChris Leow using cricket frass as fertiliser for his garden

So could crickets be the true superfood of tomorrow?

Chris seems to think so as he told us when we visited him at his urban cricket farm.

“Crickets are a superfood. They have more calcium than milk, iron than cows, omega 6 than salmon. Also, the extra high protein content at 76 percent (when extracted in powder form) positions them as an attractive product.”

Nutritional benefits aside, crickets are far more sustainable and environmentally friendly to farm when compared to conventional poultry and cattle farming – utilising far less water, feed and land, while emitting minimal greenhouse gases. Not only that, the cricket waste produced (also known as frass) can be used for fertilisers for plants and even hydroponics, making it a circular economy.

Despite the lofty job title, Chris admits he has to do everything himself and is heavily involved in every facet of the business. Sometimes, he even has to roll up his sleeves and do a bit of farming. To lighten the manpower and labour load of the research facility, he is now attempting to automate its farming processes by exploring the use of IoT (Internet of Things) and robotics. Think automatic feeding systems and temperature regulators.

Chris Leow feeding crickets
Photograph: Daniel IskandarChris Leow feeding crickets

Charting the waters of a nascent industry

Rome wasn’t built in a day and this industry is certainly in its infancy, let alone the startup itself. There is a lack of an ecosystem in this young space where it is hard to find like-minded suppliers and partners, which hinders the company’s goals to expand its area of expertise in cricket farming.

And until the SFA regulations are officially set in stone, nothing harvested can actually be sold yet. Simply put, commercial cricket farming at this stage isn’t conducive. Unlike vegetable farms, we don’t enjoy favourable land rates that make farming at an economically viable price possible. 

“Singapore is too costly to farm at this point, and it will take significant investment in R&D to achieve cost parity in farming. Trying to start is difficult, and scaling up is even more challenging.”

But all’s not lost as Chris shares that the SFA regulations will likely take shape in the second half of the year. While he recognises that it may take time, he feels fairly positive about the progress. “Not many countries have a proper regulatory framework, even in Europe with its rather nascent regulations,” he continues.

Public perception is yet another big hurdle. While there are about 2 billion people across the world who consume insects on a daily basis, many are still sceptical about these six-legged critters. Just like back in 16th-century Europe, potatoes were once considered a disturbing food to eat, much like insects in today’s context.

From his experience, Chris shares that there is a perception that crickets are dirty or spread diseases. Though he believes that with proper farm management, insect harvesting can be done in a hygienic manner by using the right materials along with cleaning their habitat regularly.

Despite all that, the optimistic lad isn’t stopping just yet. During the course of his research, he found a clear divide between people above and below the age of 35. The older demographic is a little more reserved when it comes to the idea of eating insects. He shares a funny anecdote about an encounter with a middle-aged male: “I’m not going to eat it unless Singapore has no more food and I’m being forced to eat it. And why am I eating poor man’s food anyway?”

Ironically, crickets are actually very expensive to produce at this point and are almost often sold at a premium in producing countries. But there is still that negative connotation to being food for the poor – a very first-world problem. Chris understands that it is challenging to try and change an individual’s perceptions and beliefs. Instead, he rather focuses on people who are genuinely open to the idea.

“Gen Z-ers are game to try and there isn’t much prejudice with it. Some of them even enjoy the flavour!”

The younger demographic is definitely a lot more receptive and the openness typically comes with the understanding of the environmental benefits.

With that said, the company is aggressively committed to keeping things exciting in the research and development department. Chris admits that edible insect products must first taste good and that is the bottom line. He also quotes studies that show by changing the form of the insect, the acceptance rate increases. Some methods include removing the legs of the critter or grinding whole critters into powder form.

“Out of sight, out of mind, if you may.”

The company has even engaged local and overseas universities to help with market research on some potential ideas. From stock cubes to fortified protein powder, these projects saw trials of incorporating crickets into everyday foods such as pasta, and sausages to even high-end chocolate truffles. Although the particularly familiar dish of Roti Prata garnered the most desire among the sample size. There are also talks of introducing health-focused products, such as a bloat-free protein powder.

Trying edible cricket samples
Photograph: Daniel IskandarTrying edible cricket samples

A taste of a plausible future

After the farm tour, Chris takes us into the tasting room and proceeds to display a range of ready-to-eat cricket products. Think crunchy wasabi-flavoured crickets (legs removed so it looks like a rice puff), velvety cricket chocolate protein shake, and a cricket tea that tasted oddly reminiscent of a light fish broth. If no one told us those products were made from crickets, we’d probably think they are just the usual food commodity.

Chris then brings a sack filled with whole blanched crickets with all limbs attached. The sight might be a tad gnarly but to our surprise, the taste and texture were pretty approachable. Other than the occasional dry grit sensation left behind, it was pleasantly crunchy, nutty and slightly shrimpy.

Chris confesses that it has been a lonely journey to be so ahead of our time. But he firmly believes that in time to come, more interested players will show up. And this awareness will definitely lead to better support from authorities. As he concluded the tour, we proposed a toast with a glass of cricket tea to celebrate his passionate perseverance and warm hospitality.

Interested in taking up a circular agriculture tour on the cricket farm? Click here for more details about upcoming sessions.

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