More farming will be needed to feed the growing wave of interest in insect nutrition, but how can technology help make it work? Paul Gander asks industry insiders
In mature western markets, especially, it is easy to come away with the impression that insect nutrition for humans is something that has only crawled out of the woodwork over the past decade or so.
In fact, certain cultures have always had insects as a part of their everyday diet, tapping into a valuable source of high-quality animal protein that, largely for reasons of sustainability and carbon footprint, the European and North American food industries are only just starting to discover.
But of course, once consumer markets grab hold of a concept, they tend to run it as hard and as fast as they can. Barclays’ investment arm quotes a March 2019 report from Meticulous Research in the US which puts the value of global insect nutrition markets at under $1 billion (bn) and forecasts a value of $7.96bn by 2030. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is expected to average 24.4% by value and 27.8% in volume terms.
As a part of this projected expansion, new insect farming capacity will be required. So how should we assess the opportunity here, whether for existing farmers or new entrants?
Insect Ingredients – A High Growth Area
It is a common misconception that this is a one-dimensional market dominated by a single strand of product; namely, whole insects (typically crickets) sold as a branded snack. While this is predicted to remain a significant component in demand, the use of insects as an ingredient, in formulations of protein bars and shakes, for example, is expected to be the highest-growth area.
There are other openings for insect ingredients. In November 2019, Roberts Bakery became the first major baked goods manufacturer in the UK to produce a loaf made with cricket flour, alongside more traditional bread ingredients. The flour was supplied by insect snack specialist Eat Grub.
Co-founder of Eat Grub Neil Whippey explains to F&FT that the company started out, back in 2013, with the intention of breeding its own insects. “It’s more complex than simply putting a few crickets in a tank,” he says. “Outbreaks of disease may be something you have to deal with, and the site has to be fully enclosed.”
There are other obstacles when setting up an insect farm. “One of the biggest challenges is the need for human intervention,” says Whippey. “There is the alternative of introducing automation and technology, but this can be very expensive.” On top of investment needs, he adds, there has to be in-house technical know-how to ensure these processes work efficiently.
At the simplest technical level, says the company, ambient conditions need to be optimised, both in terms of temperature and airflow. The latter is important, Whippey emphasises, because an insect-dense enclosed environment can otherwise become very CO2-heavy.
Energy Considerations – Geothermal Heating
One business which has found a novel solution to the question of heating is EntoCube, Finland. The company, which launched in 2014, has set up its first operation over 1,400m below ground, in the tunnels of an old mine where geothermal heat keeps temperatures at 28°C.
Asked about the costs associated with insect farming, CEO Jaakko Korpela confirms to F&FT that in a low-tech system, labour will make “absolutely the highest” contribution to outgoings. “If we take this out through automation, the remaining overheads are feed, followed by energy for heating and – for crickets – matrix materials,” he states.
These matrix materials, the surface and space that the insects inhabit, are not an arbitrary consideration – and will be species-specific. Cricket farmers generally use cardboard egg-box material conducive to climbing, hiding and nesting. But this is just one area where EntoCube is showing its wider entrepreneurial spirit. “We will soon introduce a matrix material that can finally replace egg cartons as the most widely-used matrix for crickets,” Korpela claims.
When it comes to automation, EntoCube, for its part, has focused its systems development on those areas which require daily attention during the crickets’ four-week growth phase: provision of water and feed, and maintenance of optimal ambient conditions.
With regard to feeding, Korpela explains that crickets can be pickier eaters than other insects. “To reach efficient levels of growth, we’ve developed a dry feed that is high on nutrition,” he says. Its FCR 1,7 feed can be purchased by other farmers.
Opportunities in Aquaculture and Animal Feed Markets
Of course, start-ups will typically not benefit from economies of scale. The Farmyng project is funded by both the EU and the Biobased Industries Joint Undertaking to the tune of €20 million. This relies on a consortium of some 20 partners at different points in the supply chain, but will see French insect farming and technology specialist Ynsect up its output of mealworm protein from just 30 tonnes now to 1,500 tonnes a month over the next few years.
This leap will involve the creation of a state-of-the-art facility outside Amiens in northern France, due to open in 2021. It is worth noting that Ynsect has no fewer than 25 patents on its various technologies. No less than in other areas, technical innovation in insect farming can create real competitive advantage.
The mealworms produced by Ynsect are not intended for human food but as feed for animals and fish, and this underscores yet another dimension to the insect nutrition market. The Novel Foods status of edible insects within the EU means there is a degree of uncertainty (and potentially fast pace of change) around key aspects of this emerging sector, not least which species are approved for what types of application.
Organic Waste Management
Entocycle in the UK is another company basing its business on the animal-and-fish feed market. It breeds the black soldier fly (BSF), which will consume different types of wet organic waste – in this case, anything from retailers’ fruit-and-veg rejects to brewing residues and coffee grounds. The company calls this fly “nature’s perfect upcycling machine“.
But the choice of which insect to farm is likely to be the result of multiple trade-offs, as government-funded agency Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) explains. The BSF is likely to be better-suited to the composition of typical food waste than, say, the mealworm, says bioeconomy specialist Dr William Clark. “But because they originate from a tropical climate, they have to be kept at 30°C.,” he states. “This can have a huge impact on the efficiency of the business.”
Then again, start-up farms could co-locate with businesses producing heat or energy as a by-product, such as anaerobic digestion facilities, says ZWS. “Here, operators could also use synergies between the processes to ensure higher-value outcomes for food surplus specific to the nature of the material,” Clark points out.
According to ZWS, because insects are classed as farm animals, regulation at EU level is applied in exactly the same way. This could favour livestock farmers which want to diversity, and already know the regulatory ropes. Clark has authored a ‘how-to’ guide to insect farming which gives plenty of advice on this side of the start-up process.
DIY Insect Farming?
Finally, the complexity of the insect nutrition landscape could be further added to by the introduction of do-it-yourself insect rearing for consumers. Just as today’s home cooking can be livened up with herbs snipped from plants growing in the kitchen, BeoBia in the UK is encouraging worktop insect-breeding by introducing its own 3D-printed micro-farms.
“Consuming farmed insects, we believe, will soon be the norm,” founder and CEO Thomas Constant tells F&FT. “On the whole, we believe the most significant gains will be made in domestic breeding.”
That may prove to be the case, and BeoBia’s insect pod may take off. Or maybe the market will follow the logic of other forms of protein, where families are happy to eat fish or chicken, but do not necessarily want to do the farming themselves.