Among rolling vineyards in the south of France lies a farm like no other. Forget cattle and crops, this flagship project from French company Ÿnsect is home to billions of Tenebrio molitor – mealworm beetles and their larvae. Nurtured from eggs until fully grown, the beetles are eventually harvested for their protein and processed into a nutritional powder or oil ready for sale as animal or plant feed.
Various insect species have featured as a staple in global cuisine for centuries, and more recently as quirky meat-free alternatives on eco-restaurant menus. But Ÿnsect’s founders hope that using insects to feed animals and plants will help to solve a huge sustainability crisis. By 2050, the World Resources Institute forecasts a 70 per cent human calorie gap, meaning our ability to produce food will need to expand rapidly to meet the needs of the growing global population.
“We are competing with animals for nutrition: livestock consumes 20 per cent of global proteins; meanwhile we have dwindling fish stock, water, land and soil resources,” Antoine Hubert, Ÿnsect’s co-founder and CEO, says. “It seems obvious and natural, therefore, that we should be focusing our attention on alternative proteins for animal feed and plant nutrition.”
Founded in 2011, Ÿnsect has grown to become a world leader in molityculture. The team was initially inspired to develop an alternative food source for aquaculture in response to the protein gap created by overfishing in recent years. Its flagship site near Dole in Burgundy is the world’s first vertical insect farm: at 17 metres high, it has the capacity to produce 1,000 tonnes of insect produce per year while using 98 per cent less land and 50 per cent fewer resources. The company has two flagship products: ŸnMeal, a powder derived from farmed mealworm larvae which can be turned into pellets, and Ÿnoil, an oil rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both are specially adapted to suit the diets of farmed fish and shellfish.
In June 2020, Ÿnsect became the first company in the world to obtain market approval for its insect-based plant fertiliser, which Hubert believes will be a game-changer in terms of both human health and environmental sustainability. “On vineyards, compared to traditional chemical fertiliser, plants were found to grow 25 per cent faster with insect protein – less input, faster results and all while using no chemicals or fossil fuels,” he says.
A second vertical farm is currently under construction in Amiens, one hour north of Paris. At 35 metres high and a total surface area of 40,000m2, it will be the largest insect farm in the world, and will use robots with machine-learning software connected to embedded sensors to ensure the T. molitor are kept at optimum conditions for growth. The new site is expected to produce up to 200,000 tonnes of protein per year.
It was during a trip to the Scion research centre in New Zealand in 2007 that Hubert first became fascinated by insects as an organic resource. “I was amazed by earthworms,” he says. “These soil engineers were providing a solution for organic waste treatment. It seemed to me pretty obvious that we could benefit from their natural behaviour in other ways.”
Then an active volunteer and spokesperson for several environmental groups, Hubert went into schools to talk about the need for alternative and sustainable food sources. “But we felt increasingly that there was a gap between what we were teaching and the reality – at this time there were no insect products on the market that were competitive and safe.”
In sketching out a business plan to make insect-based products for aquaculture, Hubert’s team met with a lot of resistance – “It was like a fun thing, just a joke that nobody wanted to take seriously.” But the world is catching up; the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed, a monthly committee which Hubert chairs, began with four members in 2014; today it boasts 75 members from across Europe.
In December, the European Commission confirmed after many months that a vote will go ahead to member states to propose opening up the pig and poultry markets to insect protein-based feed from 2021. “Insect proteins cannot solve all of our environmental problems,” says Hubert. “We are just part of the story. But in finding more resources and increasing nutrient diversity, we will solve the crisis and make for a fairer world.”
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