North Carolina’s edible insect revolution – Are we ready for it?

Although North Carolina loves to boast about its booming agricultural industries and chart-topping records as producers of sweet potatoes, hogs, and turkey, too many North Carolinians will struggle to put food on the table this holiday season.

The extent of this problem runs deep through the state. Approximately 1.5 million North Carolinians live in a food desert – defined as a lack of geographic access to health food options. A 2013 report from the Budget and Tax Center in Raleigh reported that North Carolina is ranked No. 5 for prevalence of food insecurity and 25 percent of children in the state are food-insecure, or without reliable and consistent access to healthful foods. Solutions are clearly needed to increase food access for these families.

The typical response to how to fix food deserts is the cry, “We need more grocery stores!” However, the answer is not that simple. Grocery stores have a slim bottom line and are highly risk-averse. States that wait for grocery stores to feed their citizens should likely not hold their breath.

North Carolina needs to look elsewhere for solutions to solving food insecurity by combining the state’s growing local farm movement with an unlikely partner: insects.

Insects, and the farms they are grown on, fit right into the local-focused farm movement in North Carolina and provide an environmentally friendly, healthy food source.

The humble cricket outclasses pork in nutritional benefit. According to a United Nations report, insects contain a hefty amount of protein and a variety of vital micronutrients not contained in meat.

Will this work in North Carolina? The edible insect industry is growing – just last year the insect lobbying group North American Edible Insect Coalition held its first meeting in Detroit. Chips made with cricket flour gained Mark Cuban as an investor after its founders pitched their product on “Shark Tank.” Within North Carolina, edible insect tech startup Bitwater located their newest facility to next door in Henderson County.

North Carolina has the opportunity to embrace this growing industry.

First, funding through local food promotion programs that connect farms to consumers should be expanded to include developing edible insect farms. Funding from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services should be invested in small farms looking to diversify their crops. Insects, unlike other animal crops, require significantly less space to grow, produce very little waste, and can enter a growing industry early in development with minimal competition.

The Department of Agriculture should also work with other campaigns, including the NC State “Growing Together” campaign and the NC Cooperative Extension, to promote this new industry among farmers and build connections between retailers and small farms. These programs should begin providing funding for the up-front costs for farmers to begin growing edible insects and, at the same time, help farmers normalize the consumption of insects to potential retailers across North Carolina.

Farmers are ready to innovate as demand for traditional crops (including tobacco) falls. The founder of Bitwater cricket farming chose North Carolina due to the pre-existing appreciation for and strength of local agriculture. By supporting entrepreneurial farms who want to move into the edible insect industry and use existing programs to connect them to local businesses, residents will benefit from increased access to a wider range of local, nutritious foods while also supporting small farms in North Carolina.

It’s a human-eat-bug world out there – the U.S., and North Carolina, are just behind the times. North Carolinians should step up and bring in a brand-new age of food access. Crickets are coming y’all, and we need to be ready for it.

Anna Leonard is a master’s of public health candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.