Numu Burgers combat climate change, address hunger and encourage responsible consumption

From left to right: Anish Ajay Kirtane, Olivia Burgner and Abdulrahman Hassaballah receiving first place in UB's World Challenge Challenge

By Peter Murphy

Published April 9, 2019

“For every 100 beef burgers we eat, that’s around 750 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s a conservative estimate,” says Abdulrahman Hassaballah, a PhD candidate in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, “for every 100 insect burgers, that number is 10 pounds.”

Sustainable burgers as a beef alternative

Our agricultural land needs to double, just to sustain the population growth that will occur in the next 20 years, and that’s probably not going to happen. Changing our diet and the land it takes to grow insects is nothing compared to the amount of land we consume, the amount of trees we cut down to make space for pastures for cows to eat.”
Abdulrahman Hassaballah, PhD Candidate
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering

Hassaballah, fellow graduate student Anish Ajay Kirtane and Business Administration junior Olivia Burgner earned first place in UB’s World’s Challenge Challenge (WCC), and $3,000, for their work on a sustainable beef alternative addressing three of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The sustainable beef alternative, Numu, would address climate action, responsible consumption and production, and zero hunger.

“Beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars in the world combined,” according to Kirtane, “it takes a lot of land to grow food and there is a lot of deforestation. The maintenance associated with it is huge, and we don’t really notice it.”

Insects are part of a regular diet in other areas of the world. Both Hassaballah and Kirtane traveled to different countries where people were not “repulsed” by the idea, and instead, embraced it. “I was traveling to China and Vietnam, and for me, at the time, it was more of an adventure ‘look, I’m eating insects,’ but when I realized how terrible beef is, I looked at this as a sustainable alternative we are not using,” Kirtane says.

These dishes are not just a staple in eastern countries, either. “Recently, I ate insects in Mexico,” Hassaballah says, “This is a global thing, it isn’t just a faraway eastern phenomenon.”

There are different ways to prepare insects for human consumption, and the team is cognizant of the fact that people in the United States are used to eating processed beef, or meat that looks appealing. Anish, Hassaballah and Burgner use mealworms and different seasonings in their patties to make them look like what one might expect from a quinoa or veggie burger.

“People tend to associate physical appearance with disgust, and that’s why you don’t eat a cow, you eat a well-seasoned steak,” says Kirtane, “that’s the end product, and that’s what we want to do with our product.”

Most people do not see the process of turning the cow into the “well-seasoned steak,” and fewer realize what goes into housing and feeding the cattle used to create beef or steak. Instead of a typical ranch, raising insects would require a micro-ranch or micro-farm, a space no larger than an average conference room. Developing and maintaining these smaller spaces instead of large ranches, will lower consumption and production, says Hassaballah.

“Our agricultural land needs to double, just to sustain the population growth that will occur in the next 20 years, and that’s probably not going to happen,” he says, “Changing our diet and the land it takes to grow insects is nothing compared to the amount of land we consume, the amount of trees we cut down to make space for pastures for cows to eat.”

Transitioning to Numu burgers would reduce the consumption of other finite resources like water. According to Hassaballah, approximately 1500 gallons of water go into making a steak. Numu burgers would require a fraction of that amount. The burgers can be transported at room temperature, and would not require the large and costly frozen trucks and shipping containers.

Fewer resources associated with Numu means faster food production. These burgers require less land, and the insects take less time to mature than cows. “There is a lot of environmental cost associated with beef. A cow needs to grow for four years before we can eat it,” says Kirtane, “an insect needs to grow for two months, and they reproduce much faster.”

The rate at which insects reproduce, and the process of creating Numu burgers allow for a greater quantity of food to be developed in a shorter period of time. With more food to go around, this alternative can help address the hunger crisis in the U.S. and around the world.

“Hunger is not like a ‘third world vs. the west’ concept. A malnutrition problem does exist here,” says Hassaballah, “I think the number globally was one in nine people expirences food insecurity. The number in the rural U.S. is one in six, this isn’t a farfetched thing. We think if we can have an alternative protein source that is also affordable, we can help alleviate hunger.”

Six mealworm burgers on buns with toppings - they look like normal cheeseburgers.

Numu burgers with traditional toppings at the team's bug banquet.

The first step in trying to expand Numu will be working on product validation. The three students held a “bug banquet” with some friends and UB colleagues in order to test how people react to the burgers. They plan to hold more bug banquets, and they are also working with the group’s mentor, Zach Schneider, founder of Ru’s Perogies.

“One of the ideas is to have a sustainable food truck with our burgers, veggie burgers and other sustainable foods to see if consumers are going for it,” Kirtane says, “if it piques curiosity and if people are coming back for seconds, we may have something.”

If the production validation phase goes according to plan, the next step is to manufacture Numu at a larger scale and distribute the burgers to restaurants, so restaurants could serve them.

The team will travel to Canada to participate in the international World’s Challenge Challenge competition this summer, and they are utilizing some of the support services at UB. “Blackstone Launchpad is offering a lot of help like coaching sessions with mentors,” Hassaballah says, “we’re very appreciative for the opportunity to do something like this. Anish (Kirtane) and I work with the same advisor (Lauren Sassoubre), and she is really supportive.”

The group will compete at the international level to receive funding to progress the Numu burgers, after developing this idea based on a lab discussion between Kirtane and Hassaballah. “We just happened to meet in lab one day and discussed the advantages of eating insects and Anish mentioned WCC and it snowballed from there,” says Hassaballah, “we spent a lot of Sunday afternoons, the three of us together, experimenting with recipes and poking our fingers into patties asking ‘is this good?’ we went through the experimental phase together.”

The recipe the team settled on could vary depending on who the cook is. Hassaballah describes Numu as “better than a veggie or quinoa burger,” in terms of taste. One of their colleagues described the taste as “falafel-y.” Numu is meant to be served with the typical hamburger toppings, ketchup, mayonnaise, etc., and Kirtane suspects why their colleague may have compared the taste to falafel. “I’m from India, Abdul (Hassaballah) is from Egypt,” he says, “it’s inevitable that we add more spices.”

Burgner, Hassaballah and Kirtane will compete at the WCC Global Final from June 2 to June 6 at Western University in London, Ontario, for a chance to win up to $30,000.