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How Insects Might Help Solve the Looming Global Food Crisis

March 25, 2018, 11:00 PM UTC

Just a decade ago, Antoine Hubert, a French agricultural scientist, was teaching schoolchildren how to create worm farms, by tossing banana peels into boxes of worms and recycling their waste. It was, he says, an entertaining lesson in eco-farming.

Now Hubert’s worms have slithered on to a vastly bigger stage, with the potential to ­impact a global industry worth about $500 billion a year: animal feed. Rather than keeping insects in classrooms, Hubert’s startup, Ÿnsect (pronounced plain old “IN-sect”), mass-­produces mealworm larvae, then turns them into high-grade protein to feed the animals and fish that we humans and our pets eat. “The last time there was this kind of creation was when they invented fish farming in Norway and Asia, and that was 60 years ago,” says Ÿnsect’s CEO and cofounder, as he shows me around his test factory near Dole, a town in eastern France. “This is a totally new value chain.”

The boxy five-level structure, painted a cheery yellow and green, does not look like a location for cutting-edge innovation.

Antoine Hubert, cofounder and CEO of Ynsect, with a handful of mealworm beetle larvae, fresh off the production line.Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie
Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie

But the sight inside is startling and, once past the yuck factor, compelling. Towers of plastic trays containing millions of squiggling mealworms move along an assembly line, entirely controlled by robots. There, they are separated by size, and the mature ones are then steamed, their oil extracted, and their bodies (including exoskeleton) turned into a powder resembling beach sand. “This is super–high protein,” says Hubert, 35, holding a vial of the beige substance. He says tests show that farmed salmon and trout grow 35% bigger by eating Ÿnsect meal than traditional fish feed. “They are in much better health,” he claims.

If Hubert’s idea takes off, the planet might be in better health too. Despite the boom in organic eating, few of us give a passing thought to animal feed—the stuff that cows, chickens, sheep, pigs, and fish eat, before we eat them.

The statistics are deeply worrying. Nearly half the earth’s agricultural land—about 6 billion acres—is used to grow crops to feed animals; about 45% of that goes simply to feeding chickens. And since agriculture emits about 25% of total carbon dioxide, the cost in terms of climate change is significant. Then there are the oceans: About 22% of all fish caught is ground up for fish meal, whose world price has risen about 500% since 2000, as the oceans’ fish stocks decline.

You do not have to be a scientist like Hubert to spot a looming crisis. The growing middle class is eating more and more meat. And the world’s population is expected to increase to about 9 billion or 10 billion people within 25 years, further squeezing land resources. “If we do not change, we’re looking at deforestation and diversity loss,” says Simon Billing, who leads the Protein Challenge group at the London-based NGO Forum for the Future. The group has partnered with giants like Nestlé to explore alternative proteins. “It will be a challenge feeding 9 billion people in a way that is affordable and good for the planet,” Billing says. “We are running out of land.”

Trays of mealworm larvae are automatically sorted on the production line at the Ynsect factory on the outskirts of Dole, France.Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie
Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie

One answer is insects. Hubert believes it will take decades to persuade people to eat the critters themselves. So, the trick is producing insect-based animal feed on a mammoth scale, an idea he dreamed up after studying biodiversity in New Zealand.

In 2012, Hubert tracked down Henri Jeannin, who farmed insects for fish bait, and hired him to help create Ÿnsect’s product. Since then, the company has raised about $43 million in financing, including from the French government’s investment fund BPI. While the test factory makes just 220 tons of worm meal a year, Hubert’s 10-year plan is to open 15 factories worldwide, with total production of 1 billion tons and revenues of around $5 billion a year.

Once the mealworm beetle larvae are steamed, their oils are extracted and their bodies turn into a protein-dense powder.Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie
Photograph by Veronique de Viguerie

Later this year, Ÿnsect will open its first full-scale factory in northern France, and it has begun scouting for a Midwest U.S. location for a factory it plans to open after that; Ÿnsect’s biggest production could ultimately be in the U.S., whose giant animal-feed industry still depends heavily on soy and maize crops. “Very quickly the company will have to go to the U.S.,” says Nicolas Bernadi, an Ÿnsect board member based in San Carlos, Calif. Bernadi, who is CEO of La Boulangerie cafés and Shaw ­Bakers, says Ÿnsect has one key advantage over traditional agricultural businesses: It can produce high-grade products in relatively tiny spaces—a stark contrast to the vast soy and maize farms on which the animal-feed industry depends.

“I have never seen a factory that is that efficient anywhere,” Bernadi says of the Dole factory. As efficient, perhaps, as children tossing banana peels into boxes of worms.