SUPERHUMAN Q+A: Robyn Shapiro, Founder of Seek Food & 42 Birds, cricket evangelist & planetary entrepreneur

Curiosity: the future of sustainable protein & the future of food

Photo courtesy of Seek-Food.com

Photo courtesy of Seek-Food.com

We sat down with Robyn Shapiro, Founder of Seek Food, a sustainable snack foods company that creatively utilizes cricket protein. Seek was launched as a way to celebrate real food, along with the pride, joy, and connectivity that comes with eating the delicious things that nature provides. Although crickets may be small in size, they are big in possibilities. Crickets and other insects are not only rooted in ancient tradition and gastronomy, but they offer insight into a better way forward. And while the race is on to find alternative proteins, we need to discover that the answers are already here. Now is the time for us to return eating to crickets, the densest protein-rich food on earth.

Q+A:

  1. WASN: Let's begin with getting a 101 on Crickets, why have they been chosen as the basis of Seek to be built?

    RS: The world population continues to grow exponentially and the appetite for meat is growing along with it. We simply don't have enough land, feed, and water to support such a large increase in livestock production. Crickets are a smart alternative. Crickets use 15x less water, 12x less feed and 14x less land than beef. They also emit virtually no methane gas and do not experience pain as with mammals. Comparatively, livestock production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging industries contributing more greenhouse gases than than cars, planes and all other forms of transportation combined. Crickets and edible insects are the food of the future -- this movement has been endorsed by everyone from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to the former-CEO of Pepsico, Indra Nooyi. By increasing the supply and options of edible insects, we can decrease our reliance on meat as the leading protein source and offer a sustainable, nutritious and affordable alternative. We don't have to sacrifice taste or nutrition for sustainability, and in fact, crickets rank right up there in terms of nutritional content. They’re have 3x more protein than beef, 2x more iron than spinach, 1.6x more calcium than milk and are high in B12 and omega 3’s. Additionally, they come with a long culinary history, which also acts as an extended set of data on how they can support a healthy human body and planet.

  2. WASN: Can you share with our community some of the biggest challenges facing our global food system right now?

    RS: This is a very loaded question and also a controversial one as there are different view points about what is wrong and how we make it right. I will try to synthesize this here based on my years of research and work in the space. I will also say that everything is connected so if you trace things back, one small action can have ripple effects. Additionally, things are constantly changing so, although this seems exhausting, we constantly need to educate and re-educate ourselves. With that said, one of the biggest issues is our level of consumption and the waste that naturally follows. Today, consumers have been trained to expect convenience, but there is a price for that in terms of the waste and use of chemical-based materials that goes along with it. Next, the amount of resources that going into raising livestock has long been a focus of environmentalists and rightfully so. These staggering statistics which I mentioned above are what led me to launch Seek. The next set of issues on our horizon are fresh water usage of which we do not pay the real cost for as well as our unattainable appetite for ocean wildlife. We need to move from a culture of getting what we want, when we want it to actually seeking out food that is local, in season and water ever our farmers and fishermen say we should eat. This might mean eating a certain type of fish that is invasive or a type of greens that are particularly abundant one season. If we can adjust our appetites accordingly, we can actually make a difference. The consumer is king/queen, and if we stop wanting what is unsustainable then producers will stop selling it to us. 

  3. WASN: What are some accessible everyday solutions we can start implementing for a more sustainable life? 

    RS: Again, this is a very big question, but a highly important one. We continue to be hit with disheartening statistics of environmental issues - 35% of food is wasted annually in the USOnly 9% of plastic since 1950 has been recycled, 2/3 of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas by 2050at current rates we will drain our ocean of seafood by 2050, and rising sea levels will lead to a new generation of climate change refugees and more deadly and damaging storms.  It is extremely hard to comprehend this information, let alone understand how you can help. However, there are a number of things which people can do daily that will collectively make an impact. I like to practice what I preach so here are some things which I have incorporated into my lifestyle. Avoid single use plastics at all costs - this means taking your water bottle with you or bring a coffee mug to your local coffee shop to be filled. Cook your own food and compost vs. getting take out or frequenting restaurants. Use re-usable containers vs throw away plastic bags and take your own bag to the grocery store. Take a look at your consumption and look across all areas to see where you can minimize, from fast fashion to the water from your sink. I also recently participated in a clean up from Corre.gir, they are a Mexico City based organization that combines running with street cleanups. With the slogan reduce, reuse, recycle, I think they are a brilliant example of how you can combine a fun physical activity with a larger mission to empower individuals with an achievable action-oriented solution.

  4. WASN: What does a more sustainable diet for you look like today and what do you think it will look like in the future?

    RS: The first way in which I maintain a sustainable diet is by cooking the large majority of my meals myself. Many people think they can’t do this because they are too busy or don’t have time, but like any new habit, once you practice it daily for a consistent period of time, it will stick. By cooking my own meals and ideally shopping at the farmers market, I am able to avoid using excess packaging and sending uneaten food to rot in landfills, not to mention eating healthier and saving money. I try to get the maximum use from every ingredient I use which might mean making stock from the bones after I roast a chicken to making a quick ricotta cheese from milk that is about to spoil. For any food that I can’t put to use, I will compost it in my building's new GrowNYC compost bin. I am also going to come out and say it - I am not a vegetarian, although I have greatly reduced the meat that I eat. This has been seen a one fix solution for many on how to solve environmental issues, and it is true that raising livestock is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases, not to mention animal rights issues. However, that is not the full story, and I encourage people to look at the full picture when deciding how it is best for them to eat sustainability. This means considering the water, land, transportation, packaging and chemicals associated with the foods you eat. When taking all this into consideration, I cannot think of another food that is more sustainable than eating insects. 

  5. WASN: Ok spill, some of your favorite Cricket recipes?

    RS: Well, 32 of my favorite recipes are featured in Seek’s new, The Cricket Cookbook.  We collaborated with award winning chefs from across the country to showcase the deliciousness and diversity of cooking with crickets. In the cookbook, you’ll find recipes for every meal of the day, and a guide on how to use our new set of cricket protein flours. For me, I love adding our cricket protein to my morning smoothie. It gives an extra protein boost and added B12 and omega 3’s, which are hard to near impossible to find from typical whole based smoothie ingredients. 

  6. WASN: Tell us what gets your creative juices flowing every day and how you best tap into your curiosity and creativity? 

    RS: Definitely daily meditation and yoga. For me to do anything creative I need to start with a fresh and clear mind. I am also a lover of efficiency and yoga checks all those boxes as it is physical, mental and spiritual. In fact, I also founded a sustainable yoga company, 42 Birds. The sustainability element comes from our use of materials where we focus on cork, which is not only the most sustainable type of forestry on the planet but it is also a 0% waste product. It is the only natural resource where the more you use, the more you help save vulnerable forests. Previously, 90% of cork sold was used by the wine industry but as they have shifted to more cost effective plastic and screw tops, corks forests are not being replanted and cared for, which is disrupting the entire eco system. The corks forests have the 3rd highest bio diversity in the world behind the Amazon rainforest and we actual get our name, 42 Birds, as that is the number of bird species which are indigenous to these magical forests. Back to the question at hand, I will also add that by spending time with people and in places that are different than me allows me to tap into my creativity. As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results, so I try to push myself outside of my comfort zone which allows me to look at the world and necessary solutions from a different perspective.