In the dystopian sci-fi series Snowpiercer, a nuclear winter forces humans to seek warmth and survival aboard a self-sufficient train that circumnavigates the globe. Among the food source for all passengers — from the ticketed elite in the front to the 3rd class workers and stowaways in the tail — are protein bars that are made partly with cockroaches. Easy to cultivate in tight quarters and nutrient dense, the insects provide sustenance where crops powered by the sun cannot thrive without abundant soil, freshwater and sunlight.
This apocalyptic series, however entertaining, doesn’t get our insect-powered future quite right. Instead of a crop of last resort, insects will flourish in our food supply because of unique advantages.
At Astanor, we’re bullish on insects. We think the time is ripe for entomological enhancement of the food chain. They hold the potential to provide a sustainable protein source to feed humans, pets, livestock, fish and even reduce our dependence on petroleum-based fertilizers.
We glimpse this path by looking at Ynsect, the world’s largest producer of insects for the food industry. Astanor is an investor in Ynsect and we will be speaking with Alain Revah, Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer at Ynsect, on stage at Future Food-Tech at 2:15pm (PST) on March 24.
Here is how to think about Ynsect’s developing market, and why we are bullish on insects becoming a bigger part of our collective diet.
1. Ingredients not whole bugs.
Just as rockstar ingredients like oats are more likely to show up as oat flour in a gluten free bread or the base of oat milk than in their original form, insects will show up as protein in nutritional bars, smoothie mixes or any number of foods and beverages. “It’s an omnichannel platform,” says Revah. “The applications are almost endless.” Ynsect’s own studies have shown that mealworms added to a chicken’s diet can reduce illness and mortality and boost egg production. Mealworm protein has similar absorption as whey protein, widely considered the industry standard, while it has been shown to lower cholesterol up to 60%. In other words, the real play isn’t whole insects — although cricket tacos and sauteed silkworms are all incredible delicacies. Rather, it is insects as a versatile ingredient that is more digestible and carries a fraction of the ecological impact of beef, milk, pork or soy.
2. Insects will be fed to animals before they are fed to us.
The market for insects in animal and pet feed is considerably larger than the human market, especially in the short term. While Ynsect is already present in the human food market in Northern Europe, the focus remains on pet food and as a replacement for fishmeal, soymeal and other increasingly scarce ingredients for animal feed on a global scale. “If we are going to reinvent the food chain, we have to start with feeding the animals that feed the humans,” said Revah. The animal feed market is $350 billion worldwide, with particularly strong demand for fish feed as aquaculture now constitutes a growing majority of the seafood we eat. “We are going to see salmon, shrimp, chickens that are raised on mealworms.”
3. The tailwinds for insects are too strong.
“It’s inevitable, unstoppable and indispensable,” says Revah of the insect market. Climate change is shrinking the ranges of protein staples like soy, while overfishing makes fishmeal scarce, volatile and pricey. The ecological and dietary footprint of more common protein sources (anchovies, beef, dairy) have grown too large for the world to bear. At the same time, food and beverage manufacturers are desperate for novel food biodiversity. In contrast, the resource use of insect farming is superior to livestock and many plant crops: raising a kilogram of insect protein uses 98% less land, 45% fewer resources, and 200x less GHG emissions than 1 kilogram of beef protein. Governments and business are excited about the development of insect farming as the entire process is highly resource-efficient and easily adapted to vertical farms (insects thrive in dark, tight spaces), meaning that insect farms enable countries to meet national protein needs while reducing dependence on international supply chains and fossil fuels.
This inevitability may be hard for many of us to stomach. Eating insects isn’t a part of the food culture in America or Europe. But remember we are the exception on a planet where 80 percent of people live in nations where insects do show up on the table occasionally and 25 percent of humanity eats insects on a regular basis.