Geopolitics

French Food Startup Aims To Sell "Insect Meat" Around The World

Can bug by-products help satisfy the world's growing appetite for animal proteins? The French founders of Ynsect think so.

Insect cookies du jour, courtesy of Ynsect
Insect cookies du jour, courtesy of Ynsect
Dominique Nora

EVRY â€" With one hand, he holds a container crawling with beetle larvae: 2 centimeter-long, thin, brownish maggots. With the other, he proudly shows three others containing his products: flour packed with protein, oil rich in lipids, and chitin powder, a precious molecule derived from insect exoskeletons.

"Every part is good in mealworms. Even their excrement makes excellent compost," says Antoine Hubert, who talks about the "breeding, slaughter and transformation" of his Tenebrio molitor beetles as a farmer would talk about his prize chickens.

Hubert isn't a farmer per se, but he does have a background in agriculture as an agronomist engineer. He is also CEO of a startup called Ynsect, based southeast of Paris in a town called Evry. His goal is to cover the planet with "ento-refineries," factory-farms where insects will convert food waste and plant by-products into animal protein. Why? To feed this mealworm to pet dogs and cats, to aquaculture fish, to poultry and pig stocks, and even â€" where it’s authorized â€" to human beings.

“Fish naturally eats insects, and yet we now essentially feed them soya flour. And we feed chicken with fishmeal, even though prices keep increasing. It’s absurd!,” says Hubert.

He says the farm-produce system used now has a devastating effect on the environment and will lead to a future shortage of animal protein. “With 9 billion mouths to feed in 2050, the planet will lack agricultural land and fish resources. There won't be enough meat either. Global meat consumption increased twice as fast as population growth between 1961 and 2009.”

Could beetles, flies and grasshoppers help solve this devilish equation? Yes, say Hubert and his three associates, who have nothing but positive things to say about their bugs. Insects are already the natural nutrient for fish, birds, reptiles and 2 million humans. There are more than 10 million species, rich in protein, lipids, amino acids and vitamins. They feed on waste and crops residues. Some can even digest wood. Their production cycle only lasts a few weeks. Better still: it’s possible to breed them both intensively and frugally, with very little energy and water.

Chasing a dream

Hubert wasn't always an entrepreneur at heart. “I had a steady job at the consulting agency Altran, where I carried out missions on soil decontamination, then on biofuels,” he says. But he was also very involved in ecology with Worgamic, an association that promotes vermiculture and urban vegetable patches. Then, in 2010, the young professional discovered a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization recommending insect farming.

From there things just fell into place. "I talked about it a lot with my friends Jean-Gabriel Levon, Fabrice Berro and Alexis Angot," Hubert says. "We imagined a model to produce insect proteins in an industrial and sustainable way … and we made the move!”

Between them, the "four musketeers" brought a diverse set of skills to the table: Levon studied at the prestigious École polytechnique; Berro is a bio-computer engineer; Angot graduated from the ESSEC Business School. They all left lucrative jobs to pursue their goal, which is to invent tomorrow’s insect farming.

Their pedigrees, professional experience and enthusiasm worked wonders. Ynsect was able to collaborate early on with the public incubator Agoranov. Together with some of France’s most prestigious labs, it put together a research and development project that was financed, to the tune of 1 million euros, by France's National Agency for Research. Ynsect also benefited from various tax credits that are available specifically for young innovative companies. “We don’t talk enough about how France is a real haven to create a technology startup,” says Hubert.

Ynsect gained further momentum by winning numerous contests, including the Cleantech Open, Innovation 2030, and MIT Technology Review award, which boosted its finances and its visibility. Finally, in early 2014, two venture capital funds (Emertec Gestion and Demeter Partners) invested 1.8 million euros. An additional 5.5 million euros were added when the Asian fund New Protein Capital made its entry last December.

Finding the right bug

But the entrepreneurial adventure hasn't always been smooth sailing. To make ends meet in the beginning Ynsect had to sell his apartment. The young company is also having to chart its way past various technological, commercial and regulatory obstacles of an insect agro-industry that, until now, was nonexistent.

The first challenge is to find the perfect bug and diet. The Tenebrio molitor beetle is particularly promising. "It’s herbivorous, it doesn’t fly â€" except in situations of extreme stress â€" it enjoys promiscuity, doesn’t pose a health threat and can be slaughtered after 50 to 60 days,” says Hubert.

In the Evry labs, the agricultural engineer's beetles and larvae are testing diets based on soya, wheat, barley, rapeseed, beet, as well as waste from biscuit factories, breweries and ethanol producers. “The aim is to understand in detail their nutritional needs at each stage of their growth, in order to recreate this diet on various soils, based on the local biomass,” Hubert explains.

Ynsect is also developing new surveillance techniques for its “livestock.” Sensors are placed in larvae-filled trays to monitor various parameters: gas emissions, humidity, temperature, mass, motor functions. The idea is to determine the “signature” of a perfectly healthy mealworm so as to detect any potential illnesses at an early stage.

“Norway took more than 40 years to go from 0 to 1.2 million tons of farmed salmon," says Hubert. "With insect farming, we’re at the dawn of a revolution like aquaculture was, but which could be faster.”

Ynsect's next big project is build a 3,500 square-meter facility capable of producing several tens of thousands of tons per year. Construction is set to begin later this month in the town of Dole, in eastern France. The team will also have to invent robots capable of handling the larva stress-free, perfect the autoclaves for slaughtering and sterilization, the construct press rooms for separating the meat and oil.

“The aim is to offer our mealworm for 1,000-1,500 euros per ton, which is cheaper than fishmeal, which costs around 2,000 euros per ton,” the CEO explains.

“It smells like cereal”

The company will also, of course, have to find buyers, which is easier said than done given restrictions regarding the use of insect-derived material. In France, for example, it can only be used so far in pet food.

Hupert opens a flask to smell a dog biscuit sample made with mealworm. “It smells like cereal, with a hint of undergrowth. Mmmm… we even tasted them. It’s very tasty!” he says. Industrial buyers are also enthusiastic, particularly about the high protein content of Ynsect's sample products.

But what the company really hopes to do is convince regulatory authorities to allow the use of "insect meat" in the aquaculture, poultry, pig farming, and maybe even human nutrition markets. In the meantime, Ynsect is exploring the Asian markets, which are more tolerant. “We want to act fast, like Blablacar did with carpooling, to reach an annual revenue of 1 billion euros (1 million tons of mealworm) within 10 years,” the audacious entrepreneur explains.

The day after our visit, Antoine Hubert dashed off to Singapore â€" the regional hub for biotechs â€" to find partners that could help him set up a production sytem adapted to the Asian ecosystem. His aims are the fish, prawn, poultry and pig food markets. He is also eying the agribusiness milk powder substitute market in China.

Hubert then plans to focus on the United States, where half a dozen startups have already begun commercializing cricket-flavored cookies and cereal bars. The entomophagy revolution is only beginning.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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