Skye Blackburn: Founder of Circle Harvest – Ep. 84

About Skye Blackburn & Circle Harvest:

Skye Blackburn has made an enormous impact in her native Australia with a truly innovative idea: edible insect-based foods.

Skye Blackburn has made an enormous impact in her native Australia with a truly innovative idea. She combined a lifelong passion for insects with a degree in food science to create a groundbreaking edible insect company.

Today, Skye’s educated over a million people about the future of food and the importance of adding new sources like insects to our diets. Her products are already in grocery stores and her insect farms are a marvel of AI, solar power, and general awesomeness. She’s proof that the thing that makes you different might just be your greatest asset. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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1:41 – “I was the weird kid that had little bugs on their desk at school. And I’d be fascinated by all the creepy crawly things. I’d be in the bush, going out and catching scorpions and praying mantises and stick insects and things like that. So when I went to university, obviously I wanted to study entomology because I was a big bug nerd. But there’s not really a lot of jobs in entomology in Australia so I actually did a degree in food science at the same time…So I accidentally ended up with a degree in food science and entomology and a couple of years later actually started my own business farming insects for human consumption.” 

8:18 – “We made a thousand of these lollipops that had real bugs on the inside. So they had crickets and mealworms and scorpions and ants and things like that. And we sold out within a couple of hours, which was really amazing. But the weeks after I was actually getting calls from the newspaper, marketing companies, lolly shops that all wanted to stock these edible insect lollipops. And being a food scientist, there was no information about the nutritional content of these kinds of foods. So I sent away some cricket and mealworms for nutritional testing in a food laboratory, and when I got the results back, I was actually shocked that no one was eating them as a source of food. They were just so nutrient dense.” 

9:39 – “We’re Australia’s largest insect protein farm. We started farming them in 2007, so quite a long time ago now. Our products are on shelves at the moment…And we’re seeing consumers perception change over time. So when we first started doing this, obviously there’s a little bit more of a stigma attached around insect proteins. And if we were doing a food expo or something like that, there was this huge forcefield around us – people didn’t want to come and engage with us because they didn’t know what we were doing. They didn’t really understand. Now we actually get invited to come to all these amazing events.” 

13:08 – “Food science is actually a really awesome career and there’s so many different things that you can do in food science. So there’s a lot of maths involved, engineering, and chemistry, as well as food process engineering. And there’s so many different careers in food science that it’s really, really hard to describe it very succinctly, because there’s so many different things that you can do, but there’s so much science that goes behind food…think of an Oreo, the science that goes behind making an Oreo and the maths that goes behind making an Oreo and making each individual Orio exactly the same every single time, and make a million of them, is absolutely amazing. So if you’re looking for a new career, a career in food science is very diverse.” 

15:34 – “Consumers perception about what is okay for food has changed over time. So we’re definitely moving more towards flexitarian diets where we’re eating natural, healthy, local, nutrient-dense foods…what food scientist are doing at the moment is they’re actually future-proofing our food system, making sure that the types of foods that are coming into our food system now are going to be able to feed our future population because the way that we produce our food at the moment, we’re really not going to be able to have enough food to feed everybody.” 

17:08 – “The cricket protein powder was 68% digestible proteins – we actually have enzymes in our guts that are there to digest the types of proteins that are found in insects – it had four times as much calcium as cows milk, three times as much iron as spinach, three times the amount of omega 3 as salmon. It was super high in B12, it had all nine essential amino acids and all these essential micronutrients as well…things like phosphorus, potassium and zinc and magnesium and manganese. So really it had everything that your body needs. It was low in fat and low in carbs as well in this tiny little package. And it was all natural, which is a bonus. We don’t need to add any chemicals into the food because we can naturally get everything our body needs from all these proteins and micronutrients that are found in the insects”. 

19:27 – “We can include insects as part of a balanced diet. So we wouldn’t be telling people that insects is your only source of protein. We’re looking at this more as a holistic approach where you can have a little bit of red meat, you can eat other sources of proteins, including plant proteins or proteins made from algae and seaweed and things like that. But insect proteins are definitely a piece of the puzzle that you should be including.” 

21:12 – “We started as an education business. So as soon as I learnt about the amazing benefits of insect proteins, I actually included a program called Future Food in our school program. So we run that from preschools all the way up to universities. I go and lecture at universities for their animal science students and food science students now. And in the past 15 years, we’ve actually seen over 1.3 million students come through that program. And all of these people actually have a better understanding of our food system than their parents and their grandparents did.” 

24:37 – “Over the past 15 years, we’ve collected all these really awesome recipes. We have our own food manufacturing facility and farm that’s together, so all of our products we make on our own site…Our cricket-protein corn chips is fantastic because it’s a ready to eat product – you don’t have to learn how to use insect protein, it’s a product that already has it in there for you. We’ve got lemon myrtle and saffron pasta. So instead of having your regular white pasta, you can just swap it and have a high protein, high calcium pasta and it looks and tastes the same as you would expect. Or even like a granola for breakfast in the morning and it has half of your daily iron intake in that little scoop of granola…Looking at foods that people already eat anyway and we’re just enriching them with our special invisible little ingredients.” 

25:33 – (Ross) “I was a hardcore vegan for a couple of years and then I had to lax a bit. I found it very difficult practically to keep it up and I was living in Europe at the time. It’s just very difficult from a practical standpoint, living in the world and getting the nutrition that you need. You have to be educated and you have to know what you’re doing. And I think the idea of swapping something out for something better – that’s such a powerful concept because we know that a lot of these things that we eat are just filler or just junk…So anything that you can swap with something that’s better is really good.” 

26:25 – “If you eat a bag of the corn chips that are made using the cricket protein powder, that little 50 gram bag has more protein than an egg in there. It’s got 14% of your RDI of B12. It’s got heaps of your iron as well and it’s got magnesium, and magnesium stops you getting sugar cravings, as well as the amino acids. So when you’re eating that, your body actually feels really satisfied afterwards and it stops you wanting to snack again.” 

30:40 – “It’s actually taken 15 years for people to come around to our way of thinking… I feel like if what you’re doing is a little bit unusual, education is really the key to driving forward your business. So look at different channels that you can use to help educate people about why you do what you do, and why you’re passionate about it. And embrace that weirdness…Having something that’s a little bit out of the box and a little bit quirky is absolutely fantastic.” 

33:36 – “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Be flexible with your ideas. When we first started, we started doing more novel kinds of foods because that’s what the market was ready for: the lollipops and chocolate-coated bugs and things like that. But as the market changed and people became more educated, then we were able to do these amazing food products that we’ve always wanted to do, but the market just wasn’t ready for it. So having that flexibility is really important.” 

35:28 – “We actually farm our insects indoors, so we convert unused warehouse spaces into insect protein farms, which means that we can control the temperature and humidity, we can actually stack our specially designed enclosures on top of each other. So that means that we’re using the space really efficiently. We’re not taking up any farmland to be able to feed them as well. And we actually circle fruit and vegetable waste that would normally go to landfill back into our food system as feed for our insects as well. So that means that if you replace just one meat-based meal a week with a meal that uses crickets as your source of protein instead, you actually save over 100,000 liters of drinking water a year. That’s about four swimming pools full of water. We create 1/100 of the amount of greenhouse gases, we run on 80% solar at the moment, but we’re moving into a larger farm so we’ll be running on 100% solar very shortly.” 

48:00 – “Disgust is one of the only learned emotions. So we grow up knowing how to be happy and sad and angry and all that kind of stuff. But we learn disgust from the people that are around us. So that’s why we focus on educating students at a really young age, because we can get to them before they’ve developed that disgust behavior and that disgust reaction to insect-based foods. And they’re fantastic advocates for us because they go away and they tell their parents and they tell their grandparents about it. And then those adults are then coming back to our website to learn a little bit more because they want to talk about it with their kids.” 

49:42 – “We’re rolling out our cricket-protein corn chips into school canteens, about 6000 school canteens in Australia at the moment, which is very exciting for us because we’ve developed that product specifically for children and then, in the next five years, we will be moving our brand of insect proteins offshore, so away from Australia, and we’ll be establishing cricket protein farms in key locations around the world so that we can supply local food to local communities using their local food waste stream, because there’s no point in us making a super sustainable product and then shipping it all over the world.” 

53:53 – “Everybody thinks that they have to be doing really big things to make a big difference. But if everybody is taking a plastic straw instead of a paper straw then there’s millions and millions of plastic straws that end up in landfill. So what you can actually do is you can make little choices for yourself. It doesn’t have to be big. It can be one or two things a month that you can do. And all these really add up to make a big difference. So we need people not eating perfectly sustainable, but eating imperfectly sustainably.”

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