Insects Are Decarbonizing Our Food Chain Whether We Eat Them Or Not

In the early 21st century, the race to reduce the environmental impact of our food supply led industry innovators to zoom in on insects. After media hype, the insect protein market appeared to be primed for growth. Then, roadblocks began to slow the momentum. Consumer interest fizzled and headlines followed. By 2020, it was rare to see insect protein in the news. 

Which begs the question: What happened to the promise that insects could save our food system and the planet? 

The Rise & Fall of Insect Protein

Insects aren’t a new protein source for humans, but they are foreign to Western consumers. This market barrier didn’t concern Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban. In 2014 he invested in Chapul, a producer of protein bars made from cricket flour. Almost overnight, insect protein, especially cricket protein, jumped into the spotlight.

Cuban’s eye for insects led him to invest in another cricket protein company in 2019. Chirps is a female-founded company producing chips, protein powder, and baking mixes made with crickets. 

Several more insect protein startups hit the scene. Most, if not all, educated consumers about the light environmental footprint of insect protein compared to animal-based protein. Some leaned into the ethics of insect farming versus raising livestock. Nutrition benefits were also at the forefront. Altruistic benefits attracted and hooked some cult consumers. However, in the end, the masses simply didn’t flock to this alternative protein source. It seems that eating bugs is just too weird for most people. 

Mark Cuban may have been partially wrong about insect protein investments—but not entirely. While insects didn’t disrupt the alternative protein market as experts once predicted, there’s a burgeoning demand for insect protein elsewhere in our food supply. 

Insect Protein Burrows New Niches

Humans don’t want to make the switch to insects for protein, but Chapul saw an opportunity to pivot toward a less discerning consumer base: fish, poultry, and pets. The company, which is now called Chapul Farms, swapped its insect of choice from crickets to black soldier fly larvae. Their black soldier fly farms are designed to close the loop in agricultural production with biofertilizers made from frass (insect excrement) and by using organic waste as feedstock. They call the unique culmination of the benefits of their insect agriculture model “an impact unicorn.” 

Listen to Bigger Than Us #95 with Pat Crowley, Founder & CEO of Chapul Farms

Chapul isn’t alone in their venture into insect animal feed. Beta Hatch has focused on the unique environmental and food system benefits since the company’s inception in 2015. If you’re keeping a timeline, that’s right around when insect protein started creeping into our snacks and shakes. 

The ethos of Beta Hatch is rooted in the opportunity to use their insect-rearing technology to reduce the cost of meat, the volume of crops that feed livestock, and the amount of food and feed that’s wasted. Multi-faceted problem-solving through Beta Hatch and Chapul models represent the potential of a more circular and regenerative system through insect farming.

Listen to Bigger Than Us #69 with Virginia Emery, CEO of Beta Hatch

With various market segments such as aquaculture, livestock, and domesticated animals, the insect animal feed market likely won’t be overcrowded anytime soon. But is this a viable long-term solution for decarbonizing our food supply? 

Is Insect Animal Feed Sustainable Enough?

Cricket farming is 75% less carbon-intensive and 50% less water-intensive than poultry farming, according to a 2017 study. Looking at statistics like these, the environmental advantages of switching to insect protein for humans are clear. When it comes to pushing this potential into the animal feed sector, the benefits become fuzzy. 

Researchers at the University of Helsinki and LUT University set out to determine how different types of food consumption could impact global warming in various ways with an emphasis on insect protein and soybean protein. Through a quantitative review focusing on Global Warming Potentials (GWP), they determined that eating insects directly was the best way to reduce the environmental impact of our diets. This may be true, but as we observed in the rise and fall of interest in cricket protein in the West, it’s unlikely that enough consumers are going to swap their beef and tofu for crickets anytime soon. 

The University of Helsinki and LUT University points out the limitations of their work, such as limited data and a single impact category (GWP). As the first review of its kind, it can be used as a stepping stone to developing holistic solutions for insects in our food chain. In fact, it may have already lit a step in the right direction. 

Insect Farms Fill Gaps & Improve Circularity

“If wastes were allowed to be used in insect production, insects could enhance food security with limited environmental impacts as part of novel circular economy strategies,” the insect protein review points out, highlighting a major opportunity.

The fact is that there’s a massive amount of value in our waste. Waste-to-value projects look to keep this energy and potential in circulation, which has clear ecological benefits. Most waste-to-value processes require careful consideration of feedstock for efficiency, which makes some waste streams, especially those which contain high volumes of moisture a no-go. This is where black soldier fly farms have an advantage.

Unlike the feedstock needs of anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis, and other waste-to-energy facilities, the black soldier fly is happy to feed on high-moisture inputs. Spent brewer’s grain and potatoes from distilling vodka are prime examples of feedstock that would otherwise be hard to handle from a waste-to-value perspective. Building insect farms near incoming and outgoing waste streams can reduce the carbon footprint of the farms even further. 

Insects are Here to Stay

It turns out that insect protein has a place in our complex food system in more ways than one. With a clear need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, it makes sense to try to close the loop on agriculture with insects. Designed and deployed correctly, insect farms can reduce carbon emissions from transportation and put waste to work. We may not be quick to invite insects onto our plates, but they have a place in the low-carbon, circular economy.

At Nexus PMG, our mission is to help you build a better world. Learn more about our waste-to-value and food and beverage projects.

Raj Daniels

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