Operating in the Dark: Bug Ranching and Regulations

We get a lot of questions at Farm Commons. But there is one question no one has asked us yet: How do I start a bug ranch? We have to believe it’s coming. Globally, nine species are currently farmed for food and feed. With the global market for edible insects valued at $0.5 billion for 2021, with projected increases to $1.8 billion by 2028, someone will be raising more of these critters. Let’s get a jump on the legal logistics.

There are plenty of good reasons for considering an entry into the insect production business these days. The expanding market share is attractive, and sustainability is a big factor. Edible insects are highly efficient at converting feed to protein and produce less carbon in the course of production, as compared to traditional meat and poultry sources. Crickets, for example, are being turned into flour, protein bars, and other packaged goods that serve a health- and environment-conscious consumer.

Right now, if a prospective bug rancher wants to look up the regulations around their care and feeding, not much is going to pop up. This is because emerging industries generally have to reach a critical capacity before they attract the attention of regulatory authorities. If we think about artificial intelligence (AI) and drones, we see the same thing. After we see drones flying over our houses and pictures created by AI, we can better grasp our feelings about that happening. People can’t imagine how bugs are raised at scale right now; we also can’t imagine how the process should be regulated.

As understandable as that is, it’s of no help to those who want to get a head start on emerging markets. How do edible insect producers and other innovators move forward in uncertain markets? Currently, there are a few standards folks will want to pay attention to. Nearly any food manufacturer, restaurant, or retailer has to comply with specific standards outlined in the food code. These licenses generally require that products be purchased from approved sources. This can feel tricky. Cricket farms don’t have an approval process, right? For that matter, how does a zucchini farm become an approved source? For the purposes of the food code, if the product is in accordance with state and federal law, it’s approved. That brings us back to the situation where there are no state and federal laws controlling the production of bugs (and, in some cases, zucchini).

Where there are no controlling laws, farmers and ranchers are generally considered an approved source as long as it wasn’t created in a home kitchen. Does this mean that a restaurant can buy crickets from any old bug ranch (as long as the ranch isn’t the kitchen counter)? Maybe. We can also assume that the buyer should be taking common-sense steps to confirm that the operation is producing food suitable for human consumption. Now, our notions of food suitable for eating involve excluding insects, which gets a little tricky. Common sense itself is driven by the particular culture and norms a person operates within. Reasonable minds can disagree. And we’re sure they will! In a nutshell, that’s the regulatory process for an emerging market.