SINGAPORE: Betting that eating insects will become mainstream one day, a home-grown venture capital (VC) firm is going big on bugs – by investing in grasshoppers as a food source.
Managing director of Sirius Venture Capital Eugene Wong explained: “A piece of steak only gives you about 40 per cent in protein source. Grasshoppers, on the other hand, gives you about 70 per cent protein with no fats and is healthy.”
With global demand on the rise but resources thinning out, there’s been a revolutionary hunt for more sustainable food sources, as the programme Money Mind discovers (watch episode here).
Together with a Dutch investment fund, Sirius led a US$600,000 (S$803,000) round of seed funding in Hargol FoodTech, an Israeli start-up that farms grasshoppers on a commercially viable scale.
CREEPY CRAWLIES ARE THE FUTURE
With one able to potentially farm grasshoppers in large quantities, investing in this insect – not a typical investment vehicle for VCs - does make financial sense.
“Grasshopper has about 15 per cent more protein than cricket. So for the same amount of so-called food feed, you get better yield in terms of protein,” said Mr Wong.
The company is not missing out on the cricket trend either – it also has a strategic placement in Chapul, a US-based maker of cricket protein bars.
“There is a revolution going on to change the way we produce food, to change the traditional ingredients of food and make sure that the food supply is sustainable into the future,” he added.
WATCH: What the future tastes like (2:53)
The United Nations has warned that the Western taste for diets rich in meat and dairy products is unsustainable as the global population moves towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050.
“General disposable income is growing. As people grow richer, they want to have protein, they want to have more food. And because of that, we are in need to feed the world,” said Mr Wong.
Eating insects may be a solution – in fact, about two billion people worldwide, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America, eat insects, estimated the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office.
Professor William Chen, director of the Food Science & Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), pointed out that the nutrition profile of an insect is very similar to other animal sources in terms of protein content, lipid content, micronutrient and vitamins.
But not much is known about the long term impact of insect protein on consumers.
“Much more studies need to be done to establish whether there is any toxic effect on human health,” said Prof Chen.
GROW MEAT INSTEAD
An alternative protein source may lie in plants where 100 per cent plant-based meat products such as burgers are concocted in laboratories.
Some of these “beef” burgers are made of natural ingredients such as wheat protein, coconut oil, heme – and tastes like the real McCoy.
Beyond Meat, for example, successfully launched its Beyond Burger in 2016. Impossible Foods also introduced its plant-based meat burgers to restaurants in 2016.
However, not all plants are able to provide all the amino acids that one needs, said Mr Wong.
“For protein to be recognised as a good protein, you need nine amino acids. Only soya or chia seeds and certain plants give you that full range of ingredients,” he pointed out.
Another way is to grow meat in the laboratory where cells are painlessly extracted from an animal and grown to “edible” size in cell cultures. So, instead of slaughtering livestock for the meat, we may end up with “meat-making” factories.
Memphis Meats has already successfully produced beef, chicken and duck from animal cells, while Israeli clean-meat start-up SuperMeat hopes to replicate that success by growing real chicken meat in the lab.
The latter is confident it will have a product on the shelves in three years - it recently raised US$3 million in seed funding from investors which include Germany’s PHW, one of Europe’s largest poultry producers, and Sirius Venture Capital.
But, there are challenges such as costs and the issue of consumer acceptance.
A few years ago, the cost of a stem cell-based burger was US$30,000 a piece, recounted Prof Chen.
Although it’s promising, how (can one) scale it up while reducing the cost such that it will be something that consumer can afford?
Mr Wong acknowledged that for some, growing meat in a laboratory is pretty revolutionary.
“When you get a cut and your muscle gets injured, actually your muscle grows. So conceptually, growing meat in a lab may not be that scary,” he countered.
"We all remembered the time when we had bird flu. And this kind of alternative technology actually helps us in times of crisis."
Research is also being done to produce food that is higher yielding, has better quality and is resistant to diseases and climate change.
Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) has come up with enhanced selective breeding techniques where genetic markers are used to identify young fish with desired traits that they want for cross-breeding.
This is done by taking samples from the fish skin, examining the molecular markers, and determining if these fish have the traits that they want for cross-breeding, said Dr Azlinda Anwar, assistant director (Grants & IP Admin) at TLL.
The process is entirely natural and different from genetic modification where one alters the genes of the organism or adds to it.
“So this is absolutely not a genetically modified organism because we do not alter the genome of the fish. We simply enhance selection of a natural process,” she explained.
Using this method, TLL has been able to grow a more hardy variety of rice, Temasek Rice, that is already commercially available.
It has also applied the same process to develop its own variant of the Asian sea bass which is commercially available at seafood retail boutiques and selected restaurants.
The laboratory has identified markers that they want for this sea bass - fast growth, good quality meat and resistance to diseases.
“We combine this molecular breeding with selective breeding. And from one hundred mass-crossing events, we come up with lead lines of fish that grows faster – with 30 to 50 per cent faster harvesting time compared to normal fish - and are resilient to diseases,” she added. “So they therefore they survive better and have more meat.”
Watch the episode here. Money Mind airs every Saturday at 10.30pm.