We talk to company co-founder Katharina Unger about eating bugs for better personal and environmental health.
To satisfy the 20th century’s explosive population growth and (of course) to make a nice profit, an enormous, complex industry has developed around raising cattle, chicken, and pork. It’s an industry that contributes heavily to climate change, is now a powerful political lobby, and whose large-scale mistreatment of animals is ethically problematic, to say the least. That’s why a growing chorus of voices is pushing humanity toward other sources of protein that don’t carry the weighty moral questions or industrial priorities of raising traditional livestock for food. And an increasing number of those voices are advocating for people to just get over the stigma and start eating bugs.
What if we raise edible insects at home, learning how to cook nutritious meals with them while helping to create a sustainable environment, all in one go? This is the idea behind the Austrian company Livin Farms, which bills itself as “the world’s first desktop hive for edible insects.” Created by Katharina Unger and Julia Kaisinger, the desktop Hive is just 24 inches tall, allowing it to fit conveniently anywhere in a home, including the kitchen. Unger and Kaisinger successfully financed the project through a Kickstarter campaign, and are gearing up to ship units later this year.
Unger and Kaisinger with the Hive
When someone receives a Hive starter kit, it comes with what Livin Farms calls “micro livestock”—in this case, mealworms, which have a neutral taste but are high in protein, like other meats. These mealworms are placed in the “pupation compartment” in the Hive’s top drawer, where they are fed vegetable scraps from an individual’s kitchen along with some oats. A button triggers a controlled microclimate, ensuring that the mealworms are given enough fresh air and the right temperature to grow, then activates the harvest.
The mealworms mature into adult beetles in only a few days’ time. When the beetles begin breeding, the Hive’s built-in vibration technology separates the insects by life stage. Every week the insects are lowered by the Hive’s mechanisms until they reach the bottom drawer, which is when they are ready to eat.
Unger tells GOOD the idea for Livin Farms came to her gradually after she left her hometown on the border between Austria and Hungary. She was beginning her career as an industrial designer and ended up in Hong Kong, where she realized that most of that country’s food was imported. Even worse, almost no one knew where it came from.
“That’s why I started to investigate the current food system and looked into alternatives,” Unger says. “Insects were one of the future proteins that were very promising and perfect to create a solution for people to grow their food independently at home.”
Unger’s first effort in designing an edible insect hive came in 2013 with Farm 432. In this project, she raised black soldier fly larvae. Her efforts took her around the world as she learned about insect breeding in places like Africa and Hawaii, leading to a number of experiments and hive design prototypes along the way.
“After more prototyping and a beta manufacturing trial for a research institute in Malaysia earlier this year, I founded a new company, Livin Farms, dedicated only to growing edible insects,” Unger says. “My longtime friend and design partner Julia Kaisinger joined the team permanently, and the redesign and development of the Hive followed.”
Unger says different insects have different flavors and nutritional profiles. She and Kaisinger love mealworms because they can be quite neutral, but when roasted they taste “slightly nutty.”
“They also don’t have legs like crickets that sometimes scratch in your throat,” Unger explains. “Mealworms have similar protein content as beef but also have lots of fiber and vitamins (B5, B12).”
In fact, mealworms contain more B12 than eggs, have the amino acid profile of tofu, and offer more fiber than broccoli. Mealworms also contain phosphorus that contributes to healthy teeth, choline for a properly functioning liver, and potassium to help maintain stable blood pressure. And of course, raising these insects doesn’t require vast tracts of land or feed. Given that livestock account for 15 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, cutting back on meat consumption and eating insects could also help mitigate climate change.
And for anyone who doubts that insects could possibly be tasty, Livin Farms offers users a number of recipes. Mealworms can be sautéed and added to salads or used to garnish soups, and there is plenty of room for culinary experimentation. Unger and Kaisinger have even used these insects in a wild mushroom risotto.
“We are providing a manual and a few recipes with the Hive, and also we offer a hard copy of a book with the process and recipes,” Unger says. “At the same time we are working hard on an online community platform to develop and support this growing movement where people will be able to share their experiences.”
Encouragingly, the Hive project’s backers and buyers aren’t just from Unger and Kaisinger’s native Austria. The product is already global in a sense, with the majority of buyers in Europe and the United States, followed by Canada and Australia, and then some Asian and South American countries.
Autumn salad with mealworms
“There is a need to find solutions that make the current model of producing meat obsolete—insects will be one of these [solutions],” Unger tells GOOD. “Food is about perception and cultural associations. Within only a short time and the right measures, it can be ‘rebranded’ easily and accepted as a normal food.”
“Growing insects in our Hive at home is the first measure on our way to make insects a healthy and sustainable food for everyone.”