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Crickets on the Chopping Block in Senate Spending Bill

Jeff Flake not too keen on bug-based food development

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., doesn’t want federal funds going to the development of crickets as a food source. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., doesn’t want federal funds going to the development of crickets as a food source. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Arizona’s junior senator has a beef with crickets, and the use of federal funds to develop easier and more delicious ways to eat them.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has submitted an amendment to the four-bill spending package (HR 6147), under consideration on the Senate floor this week, that would prohibit funds “to support the development of insect-based foods for human consumption, including cricket farming and taste-testing of insect-based foods.”

You may have seen packets of crunchy barbecue or honey-mustard flavored crickets — or mealworms — at specialty food markets like MOM’s Organic Market on New York Avenue in the Ivy City neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Some view it as a tasty treat while others consider it a sideshow. But scientists — including ones funded by the grants Flake is targeting — have a broader goal of developing insects as a viable protein source that can be produced more cheaply than traditional animal livestock to address future global hunger challenges.

Flake said his amendment was based on fiscal concerns: “Well, it’s just, I’ve been troubled by a lot of wasteful spending at the USDA, I hear they’ve got a program to try to get Americans to enjoy bugs, crickets,” Flake said just before leaving the Senate chamber around lunchtime Wednesday.

Flake is “not a fan of crickets” overall, but said fiscal concerns prompted his amendment: “Why in the world? I think the best they can do is about $38 a pound and you can buy beef or pork for you know, $3.80. So I just don’t see the sense,” he added.

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It’s true that cricket meal is currently more expensive than most cutlets at the butcher shop — in part because of small-scale production and other issues. But the federal government has been funding bugs-as-food research for several years now. The grants Flake refers to are Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants, run by the Small Business Administration and in the case of the cricket research, done in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

According to the Small Business Administration, Federal agencies with research budgets above $100 million are required to allocate a certain percentage of their budget to the small business innovation grants.

Aaron T. Dossey, president, founder and owner of All Things Bugs, LLC., praised a $100,000 SBIR grant he received related to studying how to make crickets and other insects a viable protein source — which he said was essential to starting his business. All Things Bugs was awarded a grant on studying insect protein that ran from Sept. 2014 to August 2016.

“It really created a career, and created my business,” Dossey said, who said Wednesday that while production of crickets for human consumption is currently more expensive than other meats, certain qualities of insects including being cold-blooded, using less water, and being able to consume biomass inedible for other livestock are all positive attributes. Dossey said since the company started manufacturing and selling in 2014, he’s sold conservatively $300,000 in cricket powder and also sells his product wholesale to other businesses.

Dossey, a biochemistry PhD at the University of Florida, also received another SBIR grant to research using mealworm powder as an industrial food ingredient at the university in 2017.

“All of these efficiencies mean that insects, once technologies applied to automate and mechanize the farming and optimize the feed…they’re certainly going to be the cheapest source of protein available — animal based protein that you can’t get from plants,” Dossey said.

As to the substance of Flake’s amendment? Dossey said: “I mean there’s obviously a political philosophy behind it, but in general I think wanting to cut research is extremely shortsighted, period.”

Flake’s not sure about the prospects for his amendment, though: “I’m talking, but I’m hearing crickets,” he said.

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