Decade of the mealworm: can we eat our way to sustainability?

Our global food system contributes 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the demand for food in a low-carbon world, insect protein may be the answer.

Paris-based Ÿnsect aims to reduce the environmental impact of our food chain by transforming insect protein—specifically Molitor and Buffalo mealworm — into food for pets, fish, plants and, most recently, human beings. Launched a decade ago, the company’s vertical farm platform goes above and beyond many sustainable practices and does not threaten endemic insect populations.

Speaking with Katerina Elias-Trostmann, BNP Paribas’ Head of Sustainability for Brazil, at the recent French Founders Business Rebound event, Ÿnsect CEO and co-founder Antoine Hubert touched upon the interdependence of food and how Ÿnsect seeks to address a number of interlinked sustainability issues, among them animal welfare, land use and health.

Declaration of Interdependence

Ÿnsect was founded under a premise of providing a balanced and holistic solution because the entire food ecosphere is interconnected, said Hubert.

“If you’re doing something that controls greenhouse gases but at the same time increases water consumption, that is counter-productive,” he said. “This is why we do lifecycle assessments on all our products and technologies, with the goal of addressing a multitude of sustainable challenges.”

Through its alternative protein protocol, Ÿnsect has been successful on a number of sustainability fronts, helping to reduce mortality among farmed fish by some 40%, driving non-fertilised crop yields by nearly 35%, while also using 98 times less agricultural land per kilo of protein when compared to livestock production.

While Ÿnsect relies on sophisticated solutions to fully integrate and automate its farming systems, Hubert insists that technology is just one part of a larger story.

“It’s really more about addressing the value of the food chain,” said Hubert. “When we create a vertical farm, we’re helping to alter the ecosystem, which in turn connects fish farmers with plant farmers, suppliers with customers, and so on. It’s also a big savings for the environment — in addition to fertilizers, feed represents the main ecological cost for animals. So the idea is doing more, but using far fewer resources.”

Embracing the Circular Economy

Although one-third of the global population already consumes insects one way or another, getting Westerners to bite on a worm or a cricket could be a tougher sell. Hubert, however, sees plenty of upside, particularly among early adopters such as the sports-nutrition and health-consumables industries. Insects are a sustainable and healthier alternative to animal protein as they have a high concentration of protein, without the fat.

“We’re continuing to educate Western consumers about the value proposition of using insects as an alternative food source,” said Hubert, “and are constantly working on new products as a substitute for meat and other animal proteins.”

Given that food production is responsible for an estimated 30% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the circular economy that Ÿnsect has embraced is key to achieving long-term carbon sequestration, says Hubert, while also fostering growth among plant and animal species. Some large meatpackers have started to diversify their protein portfolios as part of their sustainability transitions: JBS, one of the world’s largest meat companies, launched its own meatless protein in June 2020 and agreed to purchase Vivera, Europe’s third-largest plant-based food producer, in April 2021. The same goes for fishmeal powder, also a mainstay among animal feeds, which accounts for almost one-fourth of all fish caught globally.

“Various independent studies have shown that replacing fish meal with insect-derived protein can lead to an array of health and growth benefits,” said Hubert, “and the elimination of traditional fertilisers represents a significant benefit to the farming industry as well. Here is where our process directly addresses biodiversity problems by helping to prevent over-fishing and ensuring adequate stock within our oceans.”

Future of Food

Ÿnsect is not alone in these endeavors, as the momentum in sustainable food production continues worldwide.

“We’ve seen a lot of innovation around farming and food production happening across Europe and other regions,” adds Hubert. “From our perspective, it’s very exciting to watch the movement continuing to grow, and the positive impact that it is likely to have on agricultural ecosystems going forward.”

Insects have already made their way into fine dining menus from top chefs across the globe in recent years. Now companies like Ÿnsect are pushing for insects to become a mainstream staple to save the world.

Insects are big business

While it’s estimated that 80% of the world’s population already eats insects as part of their staple diet, going forward the business case for insect protein—including among Western countries—is impressive. Keeping pace with global population growth will require a roughly 70 percent boost in food production over the next three decades. As an offset to non-sustainable animal protein, insects clearly fit the bill—so much so that recent analysis pegged the market for insect protein at around $8bn by decade’s end, a more than eight-fold increase through the period. As a pet-food ingredient, insect protein is likely to reach 150,000 metric tons (165,000 US tons) globally by 2030, according to Ÿnsect, which is currently building its third production unit, the largest vertical farm in the world, in Amiens, France, complimenting existing sites in both France (since 2016) and the Netherlands (since 2017).

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