It’s not just a challenge on Fear Factor anymore. Charlie O’Mannin talks to locust farmer Malcolm Diack about farming locusts for human consumption, doing it within city limits and doing it ethically.
Malcolm Diack loves animals. As we enter his suburban house in Caversham we’re greeted by a beautiful deaf Samoyed, two cats, and a tank of frogs. At his house Malcolm Diack also farms locusts for human consumption.
The frogs are what got him into insect farming in the first place; he used to feed them huhu grubs, but decided to farm locusts when foraging for grubs every week became unsustainable. Finding he was skilled at rearing locusts, he tried one and liked it, then he fed some to his friends, and they liked them too. Nine years on, his company, Otago Locusts, is the first insect farm in New Zealand to be registered for human consumption.
Diack is currently in the process of moving his locusts from a couple of garden sheds to two shipping containers squatting in his driveway, to reduce his heating cost. He showed us his insects, although he kept his breeders and other secrets in his shed while we were there as safeguards against industrial espionage. The locusts are kept in styrofoam crates, each of which contains a light bulb. The tops of the crates are open, but the locusts are so attracted to the light that they don’t feel any inclination to leave.
Locusts are crickets that have the ability to swarm at extremely hot temperatures. The locusts Diack farms are native to New Zealand, but as it is generally too cold for them to swarm, they are effectively just large crickets, although Diack notes that “maybe we’ll see some [more swarms] with global warming”.
Locusts only eat grass, which Diack hand harvests from 50 – 80 “wasteland” sites – semi-wild areas not being used for anything – around the greater Dunedin area. He deliberately avoids grass that might have been sprayed, as part of an effort to keep his farming as organic as possible. Diack also has to be careful to feed his locusts enough food, as they’ll start eating each other if they get hungry enough.
Diack also dabbled with farming crickets, but “never really got the knack,” and doesn’t think they taste as nice. Ever open to the possibility of farming other insects, he regularly samples the live insects he encounters on his grass collecting missions, just in case he stumbles on something that tastes amazing. These tasting experiments don’t always turn out well. Once he popped a large white caterpillar into his mouth, only to discover it had “the texture of a used condom”.
Diack fried up some of his locusts for us to try. Looking at them was difficult; they were big insects, complete with mandibles, wings, and long, ridged legs. Eating them was a different story; they tasted like a crunchy, delicious fried chip. “Locusts don’t really have much of a taste of their own,” Diack explained, “they tend to take on the flavour of whatever they’re cooked in.” So if you fry them in oil and salt, they taste like oil and salt, “if you cook them in salmon oil, they taste like salmon.” My locust eating experience was overwhelmingly positive, although ten minutes later I did find a leg in the side of my mouth.
To Diack his locusts aren’t just bugs; he gets fond of them. “It’s the same as any other farmer; they’re your animals and you take care of them.” He gives his locusts a day-night cycle, not out of breeding necessity, but because “they like having a sleep”. He also keeps all the “special” locusts from every batch; if they have an interesting colour or do backflips, he removes them and puts them in the breeding box. We asked Diack whether he was worried about selectively breeding a race of super locusts, but disappointingly he hasn’t noticed any significant alterations yet.
Insect farming produces a fraction of the environmental damage of cattle and other traditional meats. No farmed insect species (except termites, but fuck them) produce methane gas, and compared to cattle, farming crickets produces 5 times more meat per kg of feed consumed, and 100 times less greenhouse gases. On top of that, insect farming uses way less water and produces way less agricultural waste than beef farming.
Diack’s aim is for his operation to be entirely self-contained: using zero resources and producing zero waste. He plans to grow his feed grass with the carbon dioxide given off by the locusts, simulating a simple ecosystem. Using solar panels to power the lights and a dehumidifier, which currently provides water for both the insects and the plants, could make his zero resource vision a reality. However, he has to be careful about growing food in the same space that he farms the locusts. If a single locust gets into his feed grass, as once happened, it can eat through most of his store.
Beyond earthly environmental applications, Diack is hopeful that insects could help us get off-world. Black soldier flies, “the next big thing” in the insect farming world, eat feces, converting waste into food. On long space missions, like the one to Mars, having a food source that survives by eating waste could be advantageous. In the end, says Diack, even if the prospect of basically eating your own shit with an extra step in between doesn’t sound enormously appealing, “What would you rather eat? Some protein from Earth or some red dust?”
One of the striking things about Diack’s setup is that it takes up a fraction of the room that conventional farming does, and is in the middle of human habitation. Instead of eating something that was farmed on the other side of the country – or world – and transported to you with a weighty environmental price tag, you could potentially eat a locust that was farmed ten minutes from where you live.
But while the potential for every suburb to be sustainably farmed meats sounds appealing, the level of dedication is a hurdle. “You’ve got to be prepared to go feed them drunk on New Year’s and get up to feed them again hungover the next morning.” Missing even a single feed can result in mass cannibalism. However, Diack is considering producing a locust farming ‘box kit’ for people who do want to give it a try.
Diack also spoke passionately about the importance of ethically killing insects. His preferred method of freezing locusts is comparable to putting them to sleep. If you’re going to eat them alive, he says, be sure to “crush the head between your molars straightaway”.
The only insect he would have qualms eating would be one that hadn’t been ethically killed, like tarantulas in Thailand. “You ride to the forest where the tarantulas are, on the whipped elephants, and then the tarantulas are defanged, which is like pulling their faces off.” The tarantulas, harmless and in pain, are then made to crawl down the arm of some squealing Westerner who can later brag about how brave they were. For Diack, it’s about respecting the creatures you kill to eat. Just because we’re talking about creatures far down the ladder of consciousness, doesn’t give us the right to be cruel.
The insect revolution probably won’t come in the form of whole locusts. A UN report on insect farming said it is important that insects move past being merely “novelty snacks”. Part of this move to incorporate insects into our everyday food is turning the insects into ‘flour’ – grinding them down to a fine powder that is then used as a protein-rich staple.
Adding locust flour to a recipe doesn’t noticeably alter the taste; Diack made brownies with locust flour and fed them to his unsuspecting 5-year-old daughter, who enjoyed them (she normally refuses to eat locusts). He’s also had increased interest in the flour from bodybuilders; insect protein shakes are apparently particularly good for muscle gain.
Another step forward would be the adoption of insects into the menus of low-mid range restaurants. Eating insects is currently confined to high-end restaurants who, as Diack notes, “are always more likely to experiment with new foods”. But until places like McDonald’s are incorporating insects into their food, insects aren’t going to reach the majority of the population.
Of course, getting insects into that strata of food depends on public opinion. In 2017 Hell Pizza introduced a pizza topped with whole insects, which was then pulled from the menu due to negative response.
Diack still thinks real progress is being made, however. “We are seeing a slow change; nine years ago, when I started, no places in Dunedin served [insects], no one even mentioned them.”
Diack’s insects are almost all eaten locally. He sells his locusts to five restaurants in Dunedin, including Vault 21, and one restaurant in Timaru. The locusts at Vault 21 have proved wildly popular, selling out within their first week on the menu. Executive chef Greg Pine said that “we can’t keep up” with demand.
Insects are eaten in the majority of non-Western cultures, and on every continent apart from Europe. In the end, as Westerners, eating insects is still a bit weird for us. For the good of the planet, we seriously need to just get the fuck over it.
This article originally appeared in Critic Te Arohi, the student magazine of the Otago University Student Association.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.