Insects have long been dismissed by many as a nuisance, a pest or a danger to human health, but they are steadily becoming the solution to many of the world’s sustainability challenges, in agriculture and as a source of food and animal feed, and as a waste processor.
The importance of insects in pollinating crops is of course huge – University College London says that this activity contributes some $250bn a year to the global economy. And predation by insects – as biocontrol to protect crops – is worth at least $416bn per year worldwide.
But now, a growing number of companies are looking to exploit insects’ industry and sheer numbers to reduce environmental impacts in other ways, while helping to feed the growing global population. With the environmental impacts of meat production – including deforestation, massive water use and antimicrobial resistance – becoming ever clearer, insects are emerging as a promising alternative source of protein for livestock, pets and even for us.
Feeding the problem
In the EU alone, according to the European Commission, around five million farmers raise animals for food production, requiring about 450m tonnes of feed, while 70 million households own pets and buy roughly 10m tonnes of food for them.
Much of that feed is made from soy from Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, a significant proportion of which is produced on deforested land, and more than a third of the fish caught in the ocean are currently ground up to produce animal feed, points out Ignacio Gavilan, CEO and co-founder of Insect Biotech Group
. This is clearly unsustainable and needs to change.
The signs are that this change is already starting to happen, with the European insect protein market forecast to grow by 28.7% a year from $46.75m in 2021 to $826.76m by 2029. But while some cultures happily crunch into a fried cricket or savour chocolate-covered ants, for many there is still a massive cultural resistance to eating insects whole. They can be ground into flour or protein powder, but mainstream products for human consumption at scale remain some way off.
As a result, the obvious first step is to use insects as food for animals – in livestock, aquaculture and for pets.
There are a number of start-ups emerging. For example, Ÿnsect
is using meal worms to produce animal feed and valuable oils – that can be added to animal feed, used in the pharmaceutical industry – from agricultural and food waste. The company is also working to develop products for human consumption. The insects’ excrement – known as frass – can be used as a fertiliser, replacing products made from fossil fuels. Insect Biotech Group plans to produce similar products from black soldier fly larvae.
“Mealworms, crickets, black soldier flies – all sorts of insects have huge potential in dealing with agricultural and food waste, because of their capacity to bio-digest,” Gavilan says.
A third of cropland globally currently grows crops to feed animals rather than humans, while organic waste put in landfill is a major source of greenhouse gases – insect feed could therefore make a significant difference in the fight against climate change.
“The main benefit is the circularity and that you can create value from waste that could end up in landfill or be used less efficiently,” Gavilan says
Another advantage of insect farming is that because this is factory farming in enclosed facilities, there are significant opportunities to optimise production using digital technologies such as AI, machine learning and robotics.
Compared to traditional livestock, insects require less water and space, while producing very few greenhouse gas emissions and being much easier to look after. Because of its relatively low impact, insect farming can begin to help end customers such as major food brands and retailers decarbonise their supply chains and reduce their scope 3 emissions once insect protein is used as animal feed. If and when insect protein becomes more mainstream in human diets the possible positive impacts become even greater.
The industry is at an early stage – and there are many companies focused on providing the hardware to build these factories as well as actually producing the insects.
, for example, is a supplier and installer of black soldier fly larvae farms and has recently teamed up with scientists from the University of Leeds to advance research into the use of insects in circular on-farm feed systems, including the use of pig manure and slurry.
Ÿnsect, which says it is building the world’s largest vertical insect farm in Amiens, France, has also signed agreements to set up production sites in the US and Mexico. Its 40,000 square metre Amiens facility is 36 metres high. The company plans to build 10-15 sites around the world by 2030.
These will be sited close to agricultural processing sites so they have a ready source of waste material as feedstock. Ÿnsect’s US site, for example, will be sited closed to a facility run by Ardent Mills, the leading supplier of wheat flour in North America. Insect Biotech Group will use waste from the olive oil industry in Spain. “This approach can be used for palm oil, bananas, coffee – anything that produces significant agricultural waste,” Gavilan adds.
Big petfood companies are starting to take notice – Mars Petcare has an insect-based petfood called Lovebug, for example. And there are some companies making products for human consumption. South Africa-based Gourmet Grubb makes ice cream from insect milk made from black soldier fly larvae. The company’s co-founder Leah Bessa says that the firm’s product EntoMilk is higher in protein than dairy milk. Black soldier fly larvae also contain significant levels of zinc, iron and calcium.
There is even the possibility of using insects to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste – scientists have identified several species, such as superworm, yellow mealworm and wax moth larvae that can eat plastic.
However, they don’t appear to eat it in sufficient quantities to make a significant difference and this is an area that needs more research. Scientists are working on isolating the relevant enzyme that breaks down the plastic and seeing if they can recreate the process without the insects.
That said, while insects eating plastic may not be part of the waste processing industry any time soon, insects do look set to play a significantly larger role in the food chain over the coming years.