Are insect farmers today’s new entrepreneurs? And will their insteaks – made from insects – soon replace the meat in our plates? The insect market is being taken increasingly seriously by investors, and perhaps leading to a change in mentalities in the western world.
Although insects are so tiny, the insect market is growing bigger by the day. Since the end of 2017 – early 2018 – the European Commission has authorised the use of insect proteins in the feed for farmed fish, and regulates their consumption by humans. To date, 50 insect farms have raised $480 million, mainly to build large-scale infrastructures in Europe. In France, Ÿnsect, the start-up specialised in insect proteins, had even raised $125 million by the end of 2018, exceeding the record $105 million raised by AgriProtein last June.
Using insects to feed fish and cattle
The start-ups that have received the most funding are those involved in producing feed for animals. This is the case of the French company InnovaFeed, which raised $63 million in 2018 on the aquaculture market, valued at $150 billion. This is also the case of the Canadian Enterra Feed, which plans to build three new farms in North America. It should be noted that the ratio of food to body mass produced by entomoculture is profitable: one kilogramme of insect eggs provides six tonnes of larvae in under two weeks. And it takes just over two kilos of fodder to produce one kilo of insects, whereas it takes 25 kilos to obtain as much beef. In the Beta Hatch pilot farm in Seattle, results have also proved that farmed salmon grew as quickly with a diet of mealworms as with a mixture of standard fishmeal.
it takes just over two kilos of fodder to produce one kilo of insects,
whereas it takes 25 kilos to obtain as much beef.
The large majority of insects are processed in the form of powders and oils, although an increasing number of companies are tending to diversify. The Canadian Enterra is engaged in making animal delicacies and produces larvae and insects for poultry. Along the same lines, the start-up Protix has introduced insects into petfood by transforming insects into dogfood with the help of the start-up Yora since early 2019. Could feeding pets be an attempt by these companies to gradually work their way into meals for humans. This is perhaps the ambition behind the Dutch Protix Biosystems, which has diversifed by marketing chicken eggs and salmon fed on insects.
Will we all be entomophagous tomorrow?
Considering entomophagy – the consumption of insects by humans – as a new, or even future, phenomenon is to forget that 4 billion people already consume insects regularly, and 2 billion on a regular basis. Some 1,950 species of insect are consumed regularly and in certain countries like Thailand, there are as many as 40,000 insect farms. In the western world, we even consume insects without realising it, since cocheneal extract – made from mealybugs – is used as colouring in numerous food products, such as salami, chorizo and even orange and lime Tic Tac sweets and certain Starbucks drinks before they were withdrawn in 2012.
Rethinking the western food model is not only possible, but also urgent. For despite the growing success of alternatives to animal proteins and the overall drop in the average consumption of red meat (52.5 g/d on average for an adult in 2013 against 58.8 g/d in 2007), there will be 8.5 billion people on the planet in 2030, which represents a 40 % increase in the demand for proteins.
To sweeten the entomophagous pill for westerners, certain companies – like France’s Jimini’s – assume the unusual and playful side of the practice, while others make tiny animals disappear in the flour of their favourite food. And it works: the US companies Six Foods and Bitty Foods have already raised thousands of dollars with their crisp-shaped cricket-based snacks, Jimini’s has already won over major French outlets such as La Grande Epicerie and Nature & Découvertes, while Auchan Retail has signed a partnership with InnovaFeed...
Even IKEA has made an entomophagous version of its famous meatballs. In the United States, the All Things Bugs start-up has raised millions of dollars from the Bill et Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture and the research institute DARPA and has since become the greatest provider of cricket powder in the United States, for farming, medicine and the private consumer market. However, for the moment, high production costs – six to seven times more than for cattle – prevent companies from selling their products at affordable prices, which means that insect consumption is still only occasional. Not to mention the change in mentalities required to encourage humans to eat invertebrates.
Ikea’s insect-based “Neatballs”
A win-win economy
If the phenomenon still seems to be marginal, its development is nonetheless crucial. For in addition to producing very low CO2 emissions, the production of insects will contribute to processing food waste. This is the case for the Malaysian company Entofood and the start-up Mutatec, both partnered by Veolia, which transform organic and restaurant waste into proteins using the larvae of the black soldier fly. Thanks to this “bioconversion”, one kilo of black soldier fly eggs, fed on waste, is sufficient to produce six tonnes of protein in ten days. More and more companies are following suit, like the Singapore-based Insectta or the UK’s AgriProtein, based in Cape Town.
Another trend that is having a positive environmental impact for entomophagy is the production of fertiliser using insect waste collected during breeding. This activity costs little for companies already on the market, and enables companies such as Ÿnsect and InnovaFeed to diversify their income while at the same time optimising the necessary waste processing. Certain companies even specialise in certain types of waste. This is the case for Entocycle, which concentrates on pre-consumption waste, such as used grains in breweries and coffee-roasting companies, at a local level, and feeds them to their insects.
Insects and cutting-edge technologies
There are many newcomers in the sector, but numerous too are those companies that leave, as shown by the list drawn up in early 2019 by the Swedish blog BugBurger. The sector remains young and its health fragile: the industrial start-up Entomo Farm, based on an innovative cooperative model, had to close its doors in late 2018. The failure reflects a gap between a model that was as innovative as it was costly (a partnership system with farmers, and innovative industrial production processes) and a sector that was not yet mature, and which the banks regarded with caution. Interviewed in the French daily Les Échos, Entomo Farm’s founder Gregory Louis summed up the situation: “We lacked funds given the market’s lack of maturity. Our weekly turnover stood at €20,000, while our expenses reached €70,000.”
The leader in the sector, Ÿnsect, showed that to win its place, it had to be innovative and play on its industrial property. Its strategy? With over 20 patents filed in more than 40 countries, the company retains control over its current – and future – processes, and reassured its investors. Ÿnsect uses a whole range of cutting-edge technologies such as sensors, data analysis, predictive modelling and instruments measuring temperatures, insect growth and CO2 emissions.
Just like R&D, digital innovation is rarely an activity restricted to insect farms: in London, Entocycle combines automation, artifical intelligence and machine learning, and in Texas, the Aspire Food Group uses connected objects, data and robots.
The challenge remains: to optimise production to make it as profitable as possible, and to recommend rethinking our eating habits on a large scale. Today, the ball is in the companies’ court, and relies on their ability to adopt and see that consumers adopt this new resource, so that the insect, which was yesterday synonymous with a threat for farming and competition with our sources of food, tomorrow becomes the new ally of human beings and their environment.