10 February 2022

From UEA to edible insects: Yum Bug

Aaron flipping insect burgers
Aaron flipping insect burgers

As climate change becomes a more burning issue with each passing year, we’re all looking for ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. Perhaps you’ve started using a tote bag for shopping, or have found new ways to avoid driving a car, but have you ever considered eating insects?  

It sounds completely un-bee-lievable, but Aaron Thomas, who studied BSc Ecology and MSC Applied Ecology and Conservation at UEA, and his business partner, Leopold Taylor, have launched an edible insect start-up, known as Yum Bug. Having raised £400k last year to take edible insects into the mainstream, part of their mission is to raise awareness of this undervalued but super sustainable, healthy and, yes, delicious superfood!  Aaron recently sat down to answer our questions.

 

How did Yum Bug come about?

Leo and I came around to edible insects independently. Leo grew up all across southeast Asia and was exposed to them in markets and cultures that eat them regularly, but his passion for them didn’t ignite until watching a documentary in 2013 regarding their sustainability and health benefits. Alternatively, I found out about edible insects through my studies at UEA, reading articles detailing their sustainability and nutritional benefits. I found it surprising that as someone who spent a lot of time studying insects, I wasn’t made aware of how great they are for us and the planet a long time ago. I started ordering insects into my house, dried and also live (from pet food suppliers), which I would then prepare and cook. 
  
Leo and I met through this shared passion, finding each other online, of all places. We used to meet up to experiment and learn how to make delicious insect recipes in his parents garage. After getting messages from people asking us where to find and how to cook insects, we decided to help take others on the journey that we had just been – whilst hopefully making much fewer mistakes!

How can eating insects maintain and promote sustainability? 

Insects are incredibly sustainable. Crickets compared to beef produce around 1800x less GHG (greenhouse gases) to produce, require way less feed, water and they can be vertically farmed. One of the fantastic things about insects is that they can also be fed on waste streams, such as by-products of cereal mills, organic fruit and veg waste.  

As a result, insects when farmed alongside plants can create a highly efficient and sustainable agricultural system. In terms of feed conversion, crickets require less than 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of cricket ‘meat’, meaning that these waste streams from plant-based farms can be utilised incredibly efficiently. 

 In order to try and encourage eating insects, you’ve started   the #YumBugChallenge . Can you tell us more about it? 

Insects are one of the most sustainable protein sources in the world and are an incredible food in their own right. This challenge is all about using the humble cricket to raise money and awareness around climate change and edible insect food sources.

The idea is similar to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge; e.g. someone gets nominated to eat a cricket, they participate in the challenge and upload a video or picture of their completion, tagging the next nominees (or donate to an environmental cause if they chicken out!).  

#YumBugChallenge
Aaron and Leo promoting #YumBugChallenge

 

How do you see the future of insect eating in this country? 

Our goal is for insects to be available wherever meat is an option. We envisage the future of food to be much more sustainable and health-focused than the current menu, with plant-based, artificial meat and insect-based foods all featuring on future menus.  
 
One of the things we are keenly aware of is that insects do not (currently) appeal to everyone. As a result we are laser focused on finding the people that do love to eat insects. Many of these people want to celebrate insects as a unique and tasty ingredient – not shying away from them in their food, they want to see whole bugs!   

Once we have satisfied this initial market of edible insect early adopters, we fully anticipate entering into new product categories, such as meat alternatives, ready-made foods or partnering with restaurants to serve up hot grub. These product types are likely to appeal to a wider range of people, including those who are more squeamish, because the products are likely to be indistinguishable from your everyday meals.

We’re told that vegan diets are a simple way of reducing our carbon footprint, but can eating insects play a role in reducing our emissions? 

Plant based diets are fantastic, but we understand that they are not for everyone. Within plant production it is also apparent that there are heroes and villains. Everyone has heard of damage caused by the production of palm oil, avocados and cashews. So, in some cases, insect production can be more sustainable than plant production.  

As discussed earlier, edible insect farming alongside plant production can provide an extremely sustainable agricultural system. Our vision is a future with a highly efficient farming system that has minimal impact on the planet and provides a range of dietary options, including insects, plant-based products and even artificial meats.  

Handing out insects at Norwich Science Festival
Handing out insects at Norwich Science Festival

You studied ecology at UEA. Did you always envisage that you’d take your studies into the business arena?

Definitely not! As a kid I always thought I’d end up working on a natural park as a warden, chopping down trees and painting bird hides. During my studies I ended up learning that I had less passion for ecological surveillance and research, but favoured working on projects which had more direct, real world applications. It was only after a few years of making recipe videos and exploring business that I really became passionate about using edible insects as my tool to create a positive impact on the world. 

What advice would you give to students looking to start their own business?

Generally speaking, there is no “best time” to start a business. If you are passionate about solving a problem, start thinking about how you might solve it, learn how to test your hypotheses, and reach out to other people who share your passion, you never know you might find yourself a co-founder!


More info on Yum Bug is available on their website.

Aaron Thomas studied BSc Ecology and MSc Applied Ecology and Conservation at UEA.