Insects: an emerging protein source for animal feed

The world is continuously looking for alternative protein sources. The FT’s Paris Bureau Chief Victor Mallet discovers how insect protein is reinventing the food chain and alleviating pressure on feeding the animals that feed the world. His journey takes him to two French companies, one embracing vertical farming, while the other focuses on resourceful recycling.


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Insect protein’s big push

To serve a global population that is expected to reach almost 10bn by 2050, food production needs to increase by about 70 per cent, according to UN forecasts, with demand for animal protein in particular increasing the strain on the environment. Analysts at Barclays, the UK bank, estimate the insect protein market could be worth about $8bn by 2030, up from less than $1bn today. 

Given that growth, it’s no surprise we’re seeing an increasing number of companies specialising in the manufacture of insect protein. 

One of these is NextProtein, founded in 2015. The company has its offices and a research lab on the outskirts of Paris, and a production facility in Tunisia. Its goal is to create more sustainable industrial farming practices, using the life cycle of the black soldier fly, fed largely on organic waste. By doing that, as well as creating protein, the company aims to reduce food waste. 

As NextProtein’s head of strategy and business development, Etienne Raynaud explains, 70 per cent of what the flies are fed is fruit and vegetables that were going to end up in landfill. 

“We’re taking waste, taking something that's unused, to make it something valuable for the industry, and something that's highly nutritious and sustainable”

The black soldier fly is a popular creature among insect protein producers. 

“The larvae have very high protein and oil. 40 per cent protein, 30 per cent oil. And it's able to increase its size by 10,000 times in just three weeks. So, its growth rate is incredible,” says NextProtein’s senior researcher Heather Fallquist.

The flies are also extremely resilient and adaptable to different environments, and the company is constantly testing and refining its production process, says Fallquist, which includes finding the best form of nourishment for the flies.   

“The ultimate goal is to have a high protein meal, with very low fat and low fibre as well. And testing helps us know which feeding substrates are best that lead to the highest protein.”

Earlier this year, NextProtein closed $11.2m in Series A funding to scale up production in Tunisia, and funding for the industry is increasing. 

Several hundreds of millions of dollars have also been invested in other insect technology companies, including Enterra in Canada, AgriProtein in South Africa, and Protix in the Netherlands, which breed black soldier flies on a mass scale to produce protein powder and oil.

“We have barely scratched the surface of insect potential,” says Raynaud. “Essentially, we started with the black soldier fly but there's so much more that we don't know. And there are so many other insects that can have equal potential to address other important challenges that humanity faces.”

One company that sees the potential in the black soldier fly itself is recently launched Fly Genetics, a joint venture between France’s Groupe Grimaud and Bulgarian start-up Nasekomo. The goal is to supply the insect-based bioconversion industry with improved black soldier flies.

“It's traditional animal genetic selection. We breed the insect and then we select by measurement, the more efficient insect for the industry” says company board member Etienne Duthoit. 

Duthoit says the company’s creation is another sign that Europe will be a key player in the industry.

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