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An interview with … Anteater

Known as disruptive technology or ‘ag 2.0’, viable meat substitute products are becoming a very real thing as entrepreneurs, farmers and scientists alike work towards a common goal of alternative food sources. Anteater of Christchurch is a young business dedicated to just that. We sat down to talk to Bex and Peter from Anteater about how eating insects may just be the change we need to see.

Lincoln Hub (LH): How did Anteater come to be?

Bex: We met at the Christchurch Start-Up Weekend. Peter pitched insect farming. There  were a lot of great ideas in the room and I thought Peter’s was insane.

Peter: I had read an article about insects and their health benefits – how they use 2000 time less water 100 times fewer emissions and 10 times less land than conventional farming. I thought “how about I give this a crack at Start-Up Weekend and see what happens.”

Anteater

Bex and Peter from Anteater

LH: What is your background?

Bex: Operations and logistics for live events and theatre, so I’ve been running gig venues and production managing. It’s funny because I thought I’d done this huge career track change and it turns out I’m doing mostly the same thing, just in a different context. Peter is all sales and science and I’m all logistics and operations, and it’s great because it means he loves doing the stuff I hate and vice versa.

Peter: I’ve got a very ocean-based upbringing, I studied marine biology and commerce at Victoria University and have just done a post graduate paper in insect biology. But straight out of Uni I also worked three and a half years for NZ Kelp where I learnt a lot about running a small business. And it sounds a like a bit of a weird transition, seaweed to bugs, but it makes sense because the applications of the seaweed were food. We’d harvest it out of Akaroa harbour, dry it, crush it down and it was used in high end restaurants and as health supplements, as well as on barley crops to increase the yields and soil health.

LH: Going by your initial success, people have obviously been pretty receptive to the idea of eating insects?

Bex: We realised early on that our best clients were chefs. People who get really excited about new ingredients and flavours that they haven’t encountered before. So we started targeting that market quite exclusively and found that the support was overwhelming. Chefs love having new products, especially local – and our core product, wild ants, are harvested by us in Canterbury. The ants do have a beautiful flavour, unlike anything you’ve ever tried before.

Thankfully the chefs we are working with are good at getting their end users excited so momentum has built from there.

The fine dining angle is a big push for us in terms of expanding our pool of early adopters. If we get the best chefs in the country working with these products then it normalises them and gives us more scope to try a wider range of insect products. Once the public realise it’s just food and it’s tasty food then we’ll get a lot more scope to play around with other things.

LH: Why did you switch from cricket (flour) to ants and locusts?

Peter: We quickly found out that cricket flour doesn’t taste good enough. It’s been pitched as a flour substitute – flour is quite a sustainable thing to produce. You can produce huge amounts of wheat on a small amount of land. We are after products that have the potential to substitute meat. They’ve got to taste good first of all for people to be interested. If they have health and environmental benefits then it helps to spread the story.

Bex: We tried all the conventional advice around cricket flour but just didn’t find that they were anything more than a supplement. So there is no way we could ever replace a beef burger with cricket flour, and for our clients, the high end chefs, the flavour was just not interesting or exciting enough to get them on board. So we pivoted pretty quickly off of that – we’ll still get it for clients if they want it.

The reason most people are working with crickets is because they’re incredibly efficient and cheap. They’ll eat anything but as a result they’ll taste like what you feed them, so if you feed them fishmeal then that’s what they’ll taste like. Not a core part of our offering, not to mention there’s a thousand other people having a battle in that market.

Bex cooking with locusts

Bex cooking with locusts

LH: How do you work with each insect?

Bex: On the menu for a few festivals coming up is flash fried locusts with manuka chilli salt, and a white chocolate citrus popcorn with lemongrass ants. I’m not a chef, I’m just a foodie, but I’d like to say I’m now the most experienced bug chef in all of New Zealand. Preparation is such a big part of what we do, people ask us all the time to sell them raw products for use at home, but that just can’t happen yet (it will, eventually!) because we’re so aware that we only get one shot. We just really want the first experience people have with these products to be overwhelmingly positive, because otherwise they’ll just write it off and never try it again. Going through high-end dining just gives up that added level of validation.

Peter: The ants are a garnish / seasoning with a very potent flavour so we likely wouldn’t make those into a flour but the locusts are actually quite mild so they could definitely be used for that application in the future if the flavour profile is good enough. Our focus is initially on whole foods, but we can see ourselves branching into value-added retail products down the line.

LH: What is your long term goal for Anteater?

Peter: We are working towards a truly compelling meat substitute product. The population is going to reach 10 billion by 2050, maybe more if technology and medicine keeps accelerating. We need to come up with alternatives to beef and lamb because they’re not efficient animals. I think it’s going to be a mixture of insects, lab grown meat and  plant-based meat alternatives. New Zealand is a great agriculture nation. We’re very good farmers, innovative and creative. I think people will be converting to locust and insect farms in the future.

Bex: Beef is going to become more of a niche market so it’ll be very high end beef (added value beef products) instead of commodity beef where you have steak or a burger for dinner every night. It’s not viable so there are going to be a handful of other options which we will probably look at like lab grown meat – there’s huge movement in that sector globally so there is definitely a lot of scope there for what can be done in New Zealand.

LH: Who is your market?

Bex: People want a meat-based product but that has traceability that lab grown meat doesn’t. They understand the ingredients, can look at it and tell what it is and it doesn’t seem like “crazy science” to them.

Peter: At this stage, there are four main groups. ‘Experiential Diners’, who dine for the experience and the story. The ‘Environmentally-Conscious Diners’, who consider the environmental credentials of the food they buy. The ‘Ethnic Diners’, who already eat bugs or have done in their home countries. And the ‘Thrill seekers’, who buy for entertainment value.

We will be targeting traditional meat-eaters when we get into our insect-based meat substitutes which will be better in every measure – taste, experience, health, environmental, price. But to get to that stage we have to build the industry.

Peter: There’s a portion of people that will just never do it (eat insect protein), the conservative eaters, they’ll be eating something else instead. Typically one third of people are massively excited, can’t wait to try it, one third are curious and the other third are absolutely ‘no way am I eating a bug.’ I think New Zealand has got some amazing agricultural smarts and skills, and now should be the world’s leading producer for edible insects. It’s so hard to be told what you’ve been doing for years is now wrong and irrelevant, and destroying the planet, no-one wants to hear that you know? But the truth is you can produce ten times more bugs than beef on the same amount of land.

Locust salad

Locust salad

LH: What have other countries taught you about bug culture?

Peter: We went to South East Asia to experience the bug world over there, because they’ve been eating them for thousands of years, so it seemed insane to start a business like this without visiting the ‘bug capital’ of the world. We met a whole bunch of potential suppliers and people who had been in the industry for years, went tarantula and scorpion hunting..

Bex: 80% of the world are eating insects as part of their core diet and it’s just because we haven’t grown up like that that we don’t seem to understand it’s a totally viable option.

Peter: It’s difficult to make people see, that actually it’s just another food group. You cook it wrong, it doesn’t taste good. You cook it well, it tastes great. The flavours are all different, just like how diverse the flavours are in vegetables – insects behave the same kind of way.