Best friends Búi Bjarmar Aðalsteinsson and Stefán Atli Thoroddsen have been tight since they first met up in secondary school. All grown up now, the duo are getting ready to commence mass production of what they call a “Jungle Bar,” which is basically your run-of-the-mill protein bar, albeit with one key difference. It’s partly made of bugs. Crickets, to be exact. This is interesting, right? We thought so, so we sat them down to ask some serious, hard-hitting journalist questions. Like, why, exactly, do they feel a need to convince folks to go around eating compressed, chocolate-covered insects?
What was your initial inspiration for this project?
Búi: Several things. At one point during my second year of studying design, I almost gave up. I was working on a project and suddenly just thought to myself, “Do we really need more stuff? Isn’t there something else in this field that would be more beneficial to the environment, to society?” So, I created a concept around using insects for recycling organic matter in food production.
In this process, I had a lot of breakthroughs in terms of what kinds of insects would be best to use, but at the end of the day, my conclusion was that the biggest problem wasn’t finding mechanisms for food design; it’s basically overcoming the inevitable stigma. How do we get people to eat insects? That, to my mind, is the greatest question on how we can kickstart this revolution.
What did you think, Stefán?
Stefán: I was studying marketing at this time, and my personal opinion on insects was probably like the opinion of every other person in the Western world who hasn’t had the opportunity to eat insects: that I needed to hear the benefits before I would have a taste. I had a hard time taking that first taste, but once I did there was no problem.
With you coming from a marketing background, it seems like selling this idea to the public would pose quite a challenge.
S: It does. But it’s probably every marketer’s wet dream, trying to sell the unsellable. It is a hard sell, definitely. Food is such a conservative culture, because any approach involves actually asking someone to take something, put it in their mouth, and digest it.
What changed your mind?
S: Discovering that it actually tasted good. That’s the biggest part. It needs to taste good if it’s going to be a business opportunity. And then there’s the benefits. Insects are so high in protein and minerals compared to other animals we are depending on.
The environmental benefits are one of the main selling points of insect farming, right? Can you break down for us how crickets and cows compare in terms of how much feed and water they require, and how much they actually produce?
B: Generally speaking, insects are twenty times more sustainable than beef. To put that in real terms, you need eight litres of water to produce one kilo of protein from crickets—to produce the same amount from beef, you need 8,532 litres. Likewise, you need one and a half kilos of feed to produce a kilo of protein from crickets, while beef requires ten kilos.
Farmed fish maybe comes closest to insects in terms of this kind of sustainability, but then you have to consider how much space you need for the operation. Insects, apart from being much smaller than traditional sources of protein, also have a natural tendency to pack themselves together in groups. They also produce less waste, and what they do produce can actually be used as fertilizer—it’s pretty much soil. They also emit fewer greenhouse gases. But even that’s hard to measure, since a lot of insects feed on bacteria that produce greenhouse gases. So there’s a level of carbon offsetting there.
What were some of the initial reactions you got when you brought this up with others?
B: We’ve been extremely fortunate in that a lot of people who happened to be visiting Iceland for a short time were directed our way. “Here’s a couple of guys taking something most people think is disgusting and trying to make a food product out of it,” they’d say. I think a lot of people got inspired by that, and when people hear the benefits, they get even more sold on the idea that what we’re making is not just another protein bar, but a chance to change something for the better.
S: We live in a time when it’s so easy to get information, and people are so used to learning about new ideas. They’re willing to try new foods. I mean, the best restaurant in the world—Noma in Copenhagen—they’ll serve ants. So this is a seed that’s already been planted in people’s minds. They tend to understand why we’re doing this.
Where are you at now in terms of production in Iceland?
S: We’re actually not producing in Iceland. We’re producing the bar in Canada. We tried working with people in Iceland who are making bars, but they ultimately didn’t have the machinery that we needed.
B: At the beginning, we were actually looking into having our own insect farm here in Iceland. But that process would have probably taken some five to ten years. Because it’s never been done before, and navigating the bureaucracy would have been complicated.
So there’s bureaucratic obstacles to getting this started in Iceland?
S: Yes. Crickets are a foreign animal; they’re not native to Iceland.
B: We have rules and regulations in place for food products, and these rules have been created around what we’ve always been doing—cows, pigs and chickens. So this raises the question of whether you need to create new rules for insects, or find a way to apply the existing rules.
S: But in answer to the question, “Can we import insect-infused food products?” the answer is yes.
So where does that leave you—have any retailers approached you about putting these products on their shelves?
B: We’ve talked to retailers in Iceland, who are on board.
S: We haven’t signed anything, though. We haven’t begun production. That will commence at the end of October. We pitched the idea to these retailers, and they were very positive about what we’re doing and want to help. Something like 20,000 Jungle Bars wil hopefully be hitting the shelves here in Iceland at the end of the month. We have the licensing, we have their declaration of interest, so now all we need to do is wait and see what happens.
I understand you’re also hoping to market the product abroad.
S: Yes. I mean, we don’t think of Iceland as a big market for us, although the market for start-ups here is very good at the moment. We’ve been able to secure enough funding to pay ourselves a little salary and continue to focus on the project. We want to experiment here, see what works and what doesn’t, and then apply what we learn to other markets. The most promising markets we’ve seen are in the US, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal…
B: We’ve been contacted by very big parties from within the food industry in the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. The smallest retailer has 112 stores, and the biggest one has thousands. We get scores of emails from journalists and consumers, producers and retailers from all over the world. That’s been very inspiring.
S: That’s what keeps us going.
If you could have your way, what would be your dream situation?
B: That the Jungle Bar becomes a gateway to accepting insects as food. That it helps change people’s opinions about an entire aspect of food production. Not only regarding the food itself, but in terms of engineering and responsible use of resources.
S: I’ve always said that money is a byproduct of doing something great. This is why we’re doing this. I love the idea of being able to change culture in a way that’s good for humanity.