The edible revolution: Shaping our food future with insects

In many parts of Africa, Asia and South America, insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, and even termites are not merely exotic snacks; they’re cherished elements of culinary heritage. These insects offer high-quality protein and essential nutrients while exemplifying sustainable farming practices. In the face of global food insecurity, insect consumption is gaining momentum as a viable solution. Antoine Hubert, co-founder and executive vice president of Ÿnsect looks at the enormous potential of insect farming to mitigate global food insecurity.

The urgency of recognising insects as a potential solution to world hunger is immediately apparent when considering the findings of a 2022 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This report reveals a staggering statistic: approximately 9% of the global population – roughly 690 million people – suffer from chronic hunger. This sobering reality emphasises the urgent need to address this issue.

Insects play a vital role in sustainable food systems due to their exceptional efficiency in converting feed into protein, minimising resource usage and environmental impact. Additionally, they offer essential nutrients, contribute to balanced diets, upcycle organic waste, and produce lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional livestock.

In 2011, Ÿnsect chose the Tenebrio molitor (mealworm) for its exceptional properties. Our insect-based products have shown remarkable properties for feed, food & plants, such as:
• 25% reduction in mortality in sea bass farming and  40% reduction in mortality in shrimp farming;
• Reduced skin disease in dogs;
• Hypoallergenic;
• Up to 60% cholesterol reduction (study on mice);
• High protein content (72%) and low ash content (approx. 2%) make it ideal for digestive disorders, among others;
• Contains all 9 essential amino acids;
• Comparable to milk protein in terms of digestion, absorption and ability to stimulate muscle growth (Maastricht University study);
• 23% yield increase in vineyards;
• 35% protein content increase in corn;
• Improved flowering and better resistance to summer  drought for ornamental plants;
• Increased biomass and soil improvement;
• Better disease resistance for lettuces and potatoes.

Remarkably, insects achieve this feat while making significantly lighter demands on resources, particularly in terms of land and water. This natural efficiency in using resources more sustainably aligns with the recent COP28 event in the UAE, the main aims of which were: fighting climate change and making food production more sustainable.

Regarding environmental sustainability, insect farming is remarkably resource efficient. Traditional farming methods are  the primary cause of the loss of biodiversity, not least because they accelerate deforestation. Our current food system represents a real threat to 86% of the planet’s living species, many of which are now endangered. By its very nature, our solution makes up  for these phenomena:
• Our farm requires 40 times less land and emits 40 times less CO2 than a cattle farm, and uses 30 times less water than a pig farm.
• We are working towards a zero-waste process, notably by transforming insect droppings into a high-performance natural fertilizer. This can then be used on wheat crops, for example, the co-products from which we feed our insects. This enables us to operate in a true circular economy.

Food security requires a cultural revolution

The journey toward ensuring food security demands not incremental adjustments but rather a cultural revolution rooted in inclusive sustainability and propelled by the twin engines of innovation and collaboration. By embracing the promise of insects as a source of nutrition, we can usher in a future where hunger is a thing of the past. This trajectory might appear unconventional, but the consumption of insects is far from new and is gaining renewed attention from innovators worldwide in the food industry.

We face two main challenges in our mission to make insect consumption more acceptable on a global scale. The first challenge is legislative: if insects are to be accepted as part of the diet of both humans and animals, laws need to evolve in this direction. In Europe, for example, it is possible to feed insect-based products to pets, pigs, poultry and farmed fish, but not in the United States.

As far as human food is concerned, regulations differ from country to country. It’s still some time before consumers will be able to find insect-based products on their shelves. Our second challenge is somewhat related to this last point, since it concerns consumer acceptance. Although 1 in 4 people around the world now eat insects on a regular basis, they have disappeared from Western eating habits. Ÿnsect is working to reintroduce them in protein and oil form, to provide an alternative to traditional proteins and combat climate change. To meet these two challenges, we work closely with national, European and international politicians to ensure that current laws and regulations are changed. We also carry out numerous awareness-raising campaigns and work hard on our pedagogy to answer consumers’ questions and help them overcome their misconceptions.

Tenebrio molitor or mealworm

Zayed Sustainability Prize

Receiving the 2023 Zayed Sustainability Prize in the Food category was a significant milestone for Ÿnsect, validating our mission to combat global hunger. Our vision revolves around harnessing the latent potential of insects to bring about a paradigm shift in food production – a strategy that addresses the very heart of the hunger challenge. Our bold approach challenges traditional norms, advocating for the cultivation and consumption of insects, an ancient practice known as entomophagy.

Receiving this award has also provided us with the financial support we need to continue developing our projects, in line with our mission of producing insect-based ingredients to feed as many people as possible, with as little impact as possible. It has also enabled us to raise our profile and visibility among new populations, and continue our awareness-raising work.

Across diverse cultures and eras, insects have formed an important part of human dietary habits, standing as an enduring testament to their ease of access and nutritional value. It’s not an exaggeration to assert that the consumption of insects encapsulates the very essence of sustainability itself.

Products harvested from Ÿnsect’s mealworms include oil and proteins.
Photo: Eric Garault

A transformative shift in food production

However, as we contemplate the prospect of incorporating insects into mainstream diets worldwide, it is only natural that scepticism and curiosity arise. Recent headlines fearmonger an impending future where some are ‘forced’ to consume insects in the name of environmental sustainability. Nonetheless, it is imperative to distinguish between the apprehension arising from the unfamiliar and the potential of insects to catalyse a transformative shift in food production – a shift that can effectively alleviate the widespread suffering inflicted by hunger.

In 2011, when the company was founded, we chose the Tenebrio molitor (mealworm) for its exceptional characteristics, both in terms of breeding and its nutritional and environmental benefits. What’s more, when we embarked on this crazy adventure, we decided to produce ingredients in the form of protein and oil, which could then be incorporated into products such as pasta, protein bars, shakes, meat substitutes and so on.

Indeed, it’s still too difficult for many European consumers to imagine buying whole insects, but easier to imagine buying pro­ducts based on insect ingredients. To this end, and even if we don’t produce finished products, we work hard to educate consumers about the virtues of our insect and its benefits for health and the environment. In 2022, a study carried out by OnePoll among people in France, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA revealed that 96% of respondents who had already tasted insect-based products said they were ready to repeat the experience.

Today, several insects are bred for consumption: the Tenebrio molitor, the cricket, the grasshopper and the black soldier fly.

The role of innovation and scientific research

When we started the Ÿnsect adventure, we began with five years of R&D to choose our insect, study its properties, the products we could obtain by processing it, and so on. Innovation and scientific research are crucial to our success. Innovation and scientific research are crucial to our development. In fact, we work with living matter, at the heart of a large-scale industrial model: Amiens is 45,000m² and 36m high, and will eventually be capable of producing 160,000 tonnes of ingredients. To make this model a concrete reality and a success, we had to rely on our scientific teams and develop pioneering technology, now protected by over 380 patents. These are indispensable elements. In fact, we recently developed the very first genotyping chip applied to insects. A world first! This chip will enable us to speed up our genetics programme, in particular by enabling us to identify the best characteristics of the adult insects that will give rise to future lines.

Navigating the complex labyrinth of challenges that lie ahead requires an unwavering commitment to a holistic approach – one that embraces innovation, science and unyielding collaboration. The journey toward securing sustenance for future generations must symbolise a cultural metamorphosis, a shift towards inclusive and sustainable practices anchored in ingenuity and propelled by collective will.

Ÿnsect expands production in the United States

Ÿnsect recently announced plans to expand its insect production sites within the United States. Ÿnsect currently runs three production sites, one in Dole, France (commissioned in 2016), one in the Netherlands (2017) and a hatchery in Omaha, Nebraska, and is currently commissioning a fourth site, the world’s largest vertical farm, in Amiens, France.

Ÿnsect anticipates initial construction on the additional production site to begin by the end of 2023. As part of this expansion, Ÿnsect will explore potential synergies with Ardent Mills, the premier flour milling and ingredient company in the US. Antoine Hubert, CEO and co-founder of Ÿnsect noted that “this exploration marks the start of potential collaborations between two key players within the global food industry”.

The company, which employs 360 people, has raised around $450 million from major investment funds, banks and public entities and exports its products around the world.

The company is strategically expanding their business across all continents to establish local relations with wheat chains and limit CO2 emissions, water consumption and biodiversity impact across farming activities. The company has adopted a circular economy model for its new vertical farms to create value chains that are fully compliant with the Paris COP21 agreements.

Founded in 2011 in Paris, France, by both scientists and environmental activists, Next40 and B Corp-certified, the company processes insects into high-end, high-value ingredients to feed the entire food chain: plants, farmed animals, pets and humans.