Carnivores and vegans can argue about a lot, but one thing is fairly undisputed: the environmental impact of meat is not incredibly palatable. Reports from the UN and other bodies show that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the global transportation infrastructure.
Though many still want that juicy burger, there are substantial reasons to search for more responsible agricultural alternatives.
The unprecedented success of plant-based “meat alternative” brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger show one route that search could take. Another, says entrepreneur Akissi Stokes, is taking advantage of a source of animal protein that is delicious and nutritious, but still uncommon in the Western world.
Stokes is referring to insects; specifically, mealworms. After seeing and hearing accounts of famines caused by natural disasters, Stokes and her partner (who originally hails from the hurricane-fraught Virgin Islands), sought out a nutrition- and protein-rich food that could be grown with little resources and low upfront cost.
Stokes has a background in finance and IT, but her roots in food run deep. She grew up in rural Thomasville, Georgia, where as a child she worked on her grandfather’s farm.
After much research, they landed on the humble mealworm, or grub. After going through four stages of growth, the mealworm reaches an adult phase where it can be roasted and ground up to form a protein-rich food.
“I was really fascinated by the 360 degree way that you can use this animal,” says Stokes. Eager to experiment, she ordered 10,000 mealworms, started an insect farm in their home, and began testing recipes.
What was it that had Stokes so fascinated? When you look at the nutritional breakdown, the mealworm is actually a health-conscious individual’s dream.
Calorie for calorie, grubs have more protein and less fat than chicken, beef or pork. They have all nine required amino acids, along with B12, phosphorous for strong hair and skin, and Omega 6 and Omega 3.
Half a cup of grubs is about 100 calories, less than higher fat animal proteins.
Meanwhile, the insect farm has a tiny fraction of the environmental impact of any cattle or poultry farm. For the equivalent amount of protein, grubs require 10 percent of the land when compared to traditional livestock, 1 percent of water, and produce zero methane.
Once Stokes and her family began cooking with the grub, they started to see its potential far beyond a food to relieve communities battling natural disasters. In wealthy markets where consumers increasingly seek healthier, organic, allergen- or pesticide-free options, the grub could be something special.
“We realized this shouldn’t be limited to a famine,” she says. “This could just be an everyday supplement for protein. So we asked ourselves how do we introduce this to people, and we landed on a health cookie.”
Stokes began selling products like the grub-infused cookie, flatbreads, rice balls and more at local farmer’s markets and festivals under the name WUNDERGrubs. She went through the Emory Start:ME accelerator program for socially-conscious businesses in 2016.
“My daughter loved the chocolate chip cookies that I was making, but she doesn’t want to see the mealworms. So I started studying the psychology of food,” she says.
“We don’t want this to be a novelty food, only for elite athletes or a small percentage of the population. We want this to be an everyday food.”
Last year, Stokes began to look at the economics of becoming a grub supplier, of which there are very few in the region. She took a break from cooking and selling food to explore scaling her insect farm operation.
She settled on Internet of Things (IoT) technology and robotics, to collect data about the insect farm as it operates and then partially automate those operations.
Now, WUNDERGrubs is one of only nine startups testing a pilot in “living lab” containers along the Atlanta BeltLine. The “AgTech Challenge” is run by a group called IoT. ATL, made up of public and private stakeholders exploring different ways that IoT technology can improve city living.
The container, which will be operational later this summer, will hold a micro-insect farm supplemented with IoT sensors and robots. They will collect data points on heat, weight, output and more from the farm, as well as test different vertical applications of the grubs such as livestock feed, waste management, and fertilizer.
For example, one data point they will watch is the weight of the trays the insects live in.
“If the beetle lays eggs, there’s going to be a certain weight to that shelf. The weight is going to shift from a certain number of pounds to a higher amount of pounds. We want the sensors to be able to indicate that the density has changed, so we then know to shift the tray,” she explains.
Eventually, they’ll get to the point where a robot will detect the change and shift that tray, although Stokes only wants to “semi-automate.”
“We don’t want to totally eliminate the human touch,” she says. To involve the local community in the project, Stokes has enlisted high schoolers from Atlanta-area Paideia School and The Life School to work with her as an “extended science project.”
The container lab will be in testing for 12 months, during which time Stokes plans to gather sufficient data to inform their business moving forward.
To have the maximum impact on communities, she envisions a cooperative model to spread the insect farms.
“We’ll have managing partners who will manage their own farms,” she tells Hypepotamus. “Whatever they make, we’ll take it and manufacture it into our product. Then, we’ll split a part of the dividends from those goods with the managing partner of that farm.”
“We don’t want people to have to come up with $20,000 to buy a franchise. We’ll start you off, we’ll kickstart you. You can only ever own X percent, but you work this farm, we pay you out on a regular basis.”