Does a bill ending federal funding for insect farming have legs?
- Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is hoping to ban spending on edible insect research and development. He failed to push through an amendment that would have banned such spending in the Farm Bill. Now, with the co-sponsorship of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., he’s hoping to achieve the ban through the REDUCE Government Waste Act. As drafted, the bill states, “no federal funds may be used for the development of insect-based foods for human consumption.”
- The bill targets spending where there isn’t much, according to Food Navigator. Few funds have been allocated to support small businesses for research and development to turn insects into edible, appealing food. Research grants totaled less than $1.5 million in the past 10 years.
- But the bug business is booming. Analysts predict rapid growth in the market for edible insects, with some putting the market at $522 million by 2024. Consumers are getting used to the idea of eating insects, particularly as they seek out protein options with a lower environmental impact than livestock.
The federal government supports most kinds of agricultural production to the tune of billions of dollars a year. Flake does not want to see insect farming benefit from any of those resources, which range from data collection to subsidies to block grants.
Industry opposition to the bill is strong. Insect farmers and advocates alike want to see their work treated as a valuable piece of the American agricultural economy — and thus eligible for the numerous kinds of support the USDA provides.
“Insects have long been excluded from the same consideration as their warm-blooded peers by the US,” Kevin Bachhuber, a former insect farmer and current industry consultant, wrote in a letter to the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The funding that Senator Flake wants to prohibit is minimal to begin with. Currently, the maximum available funding for research into edible insects is $100,000 a project — not very much money in the grand scheme of government spending on food and agriculture.
Flake said in a floor speech over the summer that he just doesn’t understand why the government would support a still young, still-expensive industry.
“A pound of cricket powder produced by All Things Bugs, which boasts ‘the most affordable wholesale price’ in the industry, sells for $35 per pound. By comparison, the average retail price of 100 percent ground beef is about $3.80 per pound," Flake said in his remarks. "The U.S. has more than 2.5 billion pounds of beef, pork, poultry, and turkey being stockpiled — a record level! Clearly a new source of protein is not needed, and in this case, likely not wanted."
The proposed ban comes at a time when consumers are eager to explore alternative sources of protein. Robert Nathan Allen, president of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture said in a statement he thinks the senators don’t understand the potential the industry holds.
"The insect agriculture industry has grown tremendously in only a few short years — creating jobs, starting American businesses, and fueling economic growth,” he said in the statement. “All signs point to that growth not only continuing, but accelerating.“
The environmental, human, and animal risks of traditional livestock farming concern more and more consumers. Whether through cricket flour chips, dry food for dogs, or protein powder to toss in a morning smoothie, entrepreneurs are eager to figure out how to bring edible insects to consumers. Darrin Goldin, co-founder of Canadian insect supplier Entomo Farms, told Food Dive this summer that in a few short years, the market and interest in the ingredient has opened up.
"I think the focus is shifting to health, but people who care about health also care about sustainability side," Goldin said.
Actually eating bugs, however, remains a barrier for many. Memories of playground challenges to nosh on ants or tall tales of deep-fried crickets may haunt consumers hesitant to try cricket flour snacks. Edible insect companies rely on the desire for sustainable protein to market and brand their products, hoping a sense of environmental responsibility will outweigh any negative initial reaction to crunching bugs.
Regardless of consumer sentiment, it's unlikely this legislation will go anywhere. It was proposed weeks before the end of this session of Congress. Flake is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, so it may not resurface in the future. Even if several members of Congress support cutting federal funding from insect farming (and robot bartenders, which are the other target of the bill) the last days of the 115th Congress are likely to be spent on bigger matters, like averting a government shutdown.