How a London, Ont., cricket plant found itself at the heart of an international conspiracy theory
7 days after the factory was built, it was falsely implicated in a global conspiracy
A London, Ont., cricket factory that produces insects used as pet food has found itself at the heart of a sweeping international conspiracy theory whose purveyors claim a cabal of shadowy elites are trying to force the population to eat insects as part of a sinister totalitarian plot.
The conspiracy theory has been circulating for months, amplified and published by hawkers of online misinformation in Canada and elsewhere in English and Chinese, often with the falsehood growing more sweeping or outrageous with each iteration.
Those spreading the myth aren't just online bloggers and anonymous social media accounts. The falsehoods are also spread and tweaked by a number of political operators to suit their agenda, including the Alberta separatist movement and politicians like a sitting MP and a Conservative Party of Canada leadership hopeful.
CBC News charted the history of how this conspiracy theory grew, from a single tweet by an Ontario construction company to being used as rhetoric in the Conservative Party of Canada leadership campaign.
The timeline of the theory's growth
The entire thread begins simply enough with a tweet on June 10 from the Toronto-based construction company Ellis Don, announcing it had just completed work on the world's largest cricket production facility.
The world's largest <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cricketproduction?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cricketproduction</a> facility is officially complete! 🦗Aspire Food Group's new plant in London, Ontario, is ready to produce 9000 metric tons of crickets annually for human and pet consumption. Learn more here: <a href="https://t.co/8YLPkScWKV">https://t.co/8YLPkScWKV</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cropscience?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cropscience</a> <a href="https://t.co/SlfsIV9mys">pic.twitter.com/SlfsIV9mys</a>—@EllisDon
The information was picked up a week later by Awakening Canada, a Facebook group that posts misinformation about the pandemic and conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum.
The June 17 post was published shortly after midnight, asking: "Are you guys ready to eat some crickets welcome to communist Canada." It got 10 shares among the page's 4,600 followers.
Eight hours later, the false information was repeated by Mike McMullen, a London, Ont., political candidate who ran for the People's Party of Canada in the last federal election, and a candidate for city councillor in this October's municipal elections.
He posts the same Ellis Don tweet on his Facebook page with the caption, "Klaus Schwab and the WEFers must be pleased..." The post gets 29 shares among his 1,900 followers.
"There's a growing number of people who think our country is messed up and our politicians are puppets," McMullen told CBC News when asked Thursday about the post. "A lot of people are concerned that they're going to get them to eat bugs."
When asked for evidence, McMullen was unable to proffer anything except for the biographies of a few prominent Canadian politicians on the WEF website, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
"I think that is the plan," McMullen said. "This is my opinion I'm giving you."
CBC News reached out to Aspire Food Group, which owns the cricket plant. Mohammed Ashour, the company's chief executive, was unavailable for comment at the time of publication. Reached on Sept.16, Ashour said 10 per cent of the product is sold for human consumption. The rest is sold to the pet food industry.
"It's quite remarkable how normal insect consumption can be in some of these countries," Ashour said.
"For many of us here in Canada, the idea of eating insects is anything from strange to outright disgusting. That's because we did not grow up with insect consumption. Taste is very much a social phenomenon."
The World Economic Forum (WEF) has also published reports, as recently as 2022, that look at insects as an alternative protein source that could slow climate change.
There's nothing like a home cooked meal (worm). Submit your solution for the future of protein: <a href="https://t.co/0XsRqLNCkf">https://t.co/0XsRqLNCkf</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/WEFUpLink?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@WEFUpLink</a> <a href="https://t.co/afWvLSAnqJ">pic.twitter.com/afWvLSAnqJ</a>—@wef
False info persists
Back on June 17, information about cricket consumption for humans continued to be shared on Facebook in Chinese on this page. According to Facebook's translation algorithm, followers are told the cricket factory is part of the "'Great Reset' agenda to stop the people from owning everything and implement the major food chain."
On June 18, a similar post appears on Black Sheep Truth Media, a Facebook group that features numerous conspiracy theories with the caption: "The planned food shortages now offers a solution. Not to worry now, there will be plenty to eat folks."
The information has been reaching more people, with at least 292 shares and 164 comments among the page's 30,000 followers. It is also flagged as false information by Facebook after being singled out by independent fact checkers.
Next, on June 22, the conspiracy is repeated by Tanner Hnidey, the vice-president of economics with the Alberta Prosperity Project (APP), a provincial separatist group.
Hnidey posts a video to his personal Facebook titled "We're going to keep eating Alberta Beef!"
"I do not intend to eat crickets or bugs for breakfast," Hnidey says in the video, falsely claiming the federal government is trying to replace beef with insect protein.
CBC News received an email statement from the APP on Thursday, saying, "The video link you provided appears to be from his personal Facebook page and he is entitled to his opinion.
"We will forward this to Mr. Hnidey and the media team for their response," the writer said, signing only as "the APP Team."
Hnidey did not respond Thursday or Friday.
Story makes the rounds
On July 3, a story was published in the Calgary-based Western Standard in a column titled, "If Canadians wanted to eat crickets, we wouldn't be forced to subsidize the cricket farm." The column has been shared at least 450 times to 130,000 followers.
On July 5, Cheryl Gallant, the Conservative MP for Renfrew–Nipissing–Pembroke, creates a Facebook post linking protests against sustainable farming practices in the Netherlands to February's Canadian Freedom Convoy protest with the caption, "Trudeau wants us to eat crickets."
She published the false information again in a link to the Western Standard column on Aug. 7, with the caption, "it's interesting that Trudeau invested millions in cricket farming to fight a food shortage long before Putin invaded Ukraine."
Gallant did not respond Thursday or Friday to a request for comment from CBC News.
On July 9, federal Conservative leadership hopeful Leslyn Lewis wrote a blog post with the heading, "Is animal meat being phased out?" that hints the cricket plant is part of a larger plan by the federal government to phase out meat.
The post has been shared thousands of times on social media, including among groups that share fake news and conspiracy theories, such as the Druthers Community Group.
Lewis did not respond Thursday or Friday to a request for comment from CBC News.
Prof links falsehood to anti-government feelings
CBC News shared the timeline of the conspiracy theory's growth with Alison Meek, an associate professor of history at King's College at Western University in London, Ont., who studies conspiracy theories.
She said the false information taps into a growing anti-government sentiment, playing on the fear and isolation many felt during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic when authorities were imposing sweeping lockdowns and health restrictions that upended many people's daily routines.
Conspiracy theorists can put their own stamp on it and use it in the way they see fit.- Alison Meek, associate professor of history at King's College at Western
"I think what we're seeing is tapping into the same sort of thing we saw with the Freedom Convoy or mandates," she said. "This real anti-government sentiment has taken hold."
Meek said it's clear from the timeline that the false information was twisted and manipulated by each person who spread it, adding or taking away details in order to create propaganda to suit their own agenda.
"Conspiracy theorists can put their own stamp on it and use it in the way they see fit."
Meek said while conspiracy theories have existed since time immemorial in stories about secret societies such as the Freemasons and the Illuminati, the internet has allowed these theories to quickly flourish by reaching people instantly across borders and languages.
"The Internet has been a real boon to conspiracy theories," she said. "It's free, you reach like-minded individuals and it can be twisted to fit whatever the agenda is, whether it's the 'Great Reset,' or World Economic Forum or state politics."
She said while fact-checking conspiracy theories can be exhausting, it must be done to keep those who propagate the lie from dominating the conversation with false information.
Even then, she said, when confronted with evidence or the truth, conspiracy theorists will hide behind the idea of scientific rigour, claiming they were just questioning the truth or offering an alternative theory.
"It gives those pushing the conspiracy theories an out. They say, 'I'm just asking questions.'
"Of course, you question," added Meek. "But questioning means you have to accept the answers that, 'This is just a cricket factory to make pet food because that's where the evidence points,' as opposed to, 'Just because we can't find the proof for something must mean there's something nefarious going on' — that's not the way journalistic, academic or scientific inquiry works."
- An earlier version of the story said that Aspire Food Group no longer produces crickets for human consumption. CBC was not able to reach the company but has since confirmed that ten per cent of its product is sold worldwide as a human food source.Sep 16, 2022 12:58 PM ET
With files from Jonathan Monpetit