Why companies are racing to build the world’s biggest bug farm

An employee loads larvae into a sorting oven inside the Ynsect insect farm in Dole, France, on May 19, 2020. (Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg)

The world’s largest insect farm — a high-tech facility that will spread over 35,000 square meters and produce 15,000 metric tons of protein from fly larvae annually — opened last April in Nesle, France. If all goes to plan, it will be raised in December on a 45,000-square-meter farm outside Amiens capable of producing more than 100,000 metric tons of mealworms per year.

That record stands to be tied or broken by at least two more fly hatcheries scheduled to open in 2024 and 2025.

The race continues to build the world’s largest bug farm. A recent drive to cut greenhouse emissions from animal feed has spawned a new industry, accompanied by venture capital, that promises to one day produce more protein with less. greenhouse emissions than traditional suppliers.

Inside the latest farms, companies are restocking squirming masses of crickets, mealworms and fly larvae in temperature-controlled plastic tubs designed to help them survive. to grow. They process the excrement of the insects into fertilizer and their bodies into protein and nutritious oil for pets, fish and livestock.

Insects feed on food waste, which is often dumped from nearby fields or food processing plants. They are cared for day and night by human handlers and AI-powered robots that keep the factories churning out protein 24/7.

Although humans have been eating insects for millennia and billions still today, insect startups are not, for the most part, marketing bugs for human consumption. Instead, they are looking to tap into the market for animal feed.

When insects are grown in food waste and grown near the farms or food processing plants that ultimately buy them, they can be a more sustainable source of nutrients than common alternatives such as animal feed. soy or fishmeal, scientists say.

“We’re not suggesting that we replace any food on your plate,” said Christine Picard, a biology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who does genetic research on insects cultivated for protein. “What we’re proposing is to hopefully make some of the food that appears on your plate more sustainable.”

The farms multiplied like flies

Insect startups have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital since 2020, and now they’re vying for dominance in the small but growing market for bug protein.

“It blows my mind not only how the industry is exploding but how the research behind it is growing at the same level,” said Jeff Tomberlin, a professor of entomology at Texas A&M University who founded a startup fly farm called EVO Conversion Systems.

Some of the wind beneath the wings of the insect industry comes from Big Agriculture. Last month, meat titan Tyson Foods invested in Protix, a Dutch start-up raising black soldier fly larvae. These bugs are favored by farmers because they eat almost anything and grow quickly.

Food processing giant ADM signed a similar deal in 2020 with another soldier fly start-up called Innovafeed, based in Paris. Tyson and ADM each bought a stake in their partner company and announced plans to help them build large new farms in the United States.

Insect startups hope the larger facilities will help them get in the door with big buyers in the markets for fish and livestock, pet food and fertilizer. “If only you [producing] a few tons or tens of tons without you,” said Antoine Hubert, co-founder of Ynsect, a French start-up specializing in mealworms. “This is why we need to design something bigger, because you need thousands of tons if not thousands of tons to exist for a buyer.”

Larger operations also mean the industry can reap more environmental benefits — as long as it follows practices like feeding insects food waste and building facilities near existing farms and plants. food processing. If companies raise their bugs in processed feed that may go directly to livestock, the insects will be more harmful to the environment, according to a 2021 meta analysis from researchers at the University of Helsinki and LUT University.

“We really want to lower carbon emissions in food chains and replace ingredients that put pressure on natural resources, and the way to do that is through scale,” said Maye Walraven, who heads up operations. in North America for Innovafeed.

The rapid development of large, sophisticated facilities also signals that the industry is maturing beyond its larval state, according to Protix founder Kees Aarts. “It means we’re beyond this start-up stage,” he said. “In the startup environment you had a couple of machines on a test bed, but now we are truly an operating company with a large facility and 24/7 operations.”

The endless quest to build the biggest bug farm

The bug farming boom began in 2014 when a now-defunct South African start-up called Agriprotein raised $11 million to build a black soldier fly farm outside Cape Town. Agriprotein opened the farm, then the largest in the world, in 2015 and promised to open 99 more by 2024. Although the startup collapsed six years ago, it sounded the starting gun in the construction race. bug farms on a large scale.

One farm after another broke the record, sometimes holding the top spot for just months before being replaced.

A behemoth bug farm, built by Protix in 2019, was opened with royal fanfare in a ceremony attended by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. Aarts insists that factory floor space is not the most important measure of business success, but admits that he “participated a little in that sad, male behavior” in trumpeting a new size record. on.

The current record-holder, Innovafeed’s Nestlé plant, seized the crown after expansion was completed in April. The company is already planning an American fly farm that will quadruple its output as part of its partnership with ADM.

The heir apparent is a 45,000-square-meter facility built this summer by Ynsect and financed with a $224 million investment from venture capitalists including “Iron Man” actor Robert Downey Jr. , but for now, the facility is focused on increasing its population of flies.

Ynsect co-founder Hubert, the latest fly farmer to sit atop the burgeoning bug protein world, is humbled by his victory. After all, Innovafeed is set to take back the record when it expands its Nestle farm again next year.

“We’re not really in competition with our partners,” Hubert said. “The important thing is that we are better compared to the current incumbents and we all work together to reduce the carbon footprint” of the food supply chain.

However, he explained that Ynsect is preparing to expand its unused facility in Amiens, which could potentially break the record.

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