In a box-shaped building in a suburban industrial zone in Burgundy, trays of Alphitobius diaperinus – otherwise known as the little mealworm – are fattened by robots then cooked, dried and processed into protein-rich powder and oil.
This is the headquarters of Ÿnsect, a French company that is building the largest insect farm in the world, which will open at the end of the year in anticipation of what the French company believes will be a strong increased demand for a healthy alternative to meat.
Today, most of the oil and protein powder it produces outside the town of Dole in the Jura is used in pet and fish feed. However, since the European Food Agency (EUFA) gave provisional approval to mealworm-based proteins for human consumption earlier this year, some are being made into “bug burgers” or used in bars. cereals, protein shakes, pasta, granola and other nutrients. -rich foods.
“You can make it look like ground beef and even turn it into sausages,” says Antoine Hubert, co-founder of Ÿnsect. “It’s ethically good, it’s good for the planet and it also tastes good.” Ÿnsect – the dots above the Ÿ are meant to represent insect antennae – indicates that his new 480,000-square-foot, 120-foot-tall farm outside Amiens in northern France will begin the production early next year and will produce over 200,000 tons of insect-based ingredients one year.
The start-up, founded in 2011, expects a workforce of 1,000 people and a turnover of £450 million by 2025. She is looking for partners in the UK with the aim of building an insect farm across the Channel.
Wandering around the Ÿnsect farm, picking up handfuls of wriggling worms, Hubert says pioneering and entrepreneurial thinking is needed to tackle the problem of feeding the world’s growing population, which the United Nations says will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, without destroying the planet or depleting its resources.
Mealworms – fed, watered and cooked at the precise moment before the larvae metamorphose into beetles – are disease resistant, high in protein and low in fat. They don’t require a lot of space. Unlike crickets and flies, two possible alternatives to insect food, they do not jump or fly.
Hubert calls on the philosophers of the Sorbonne to reflect on the ethics of their production and their well-being. Student thinkers concluded that the cultivation of mealworms had more in common with the cultivation of mushrooms and the cultivation of vegetables in hothouses than with the raising of cattle and poultry.
“They don’t have a brain in the strict sense of the word,” Hubert says. it would be. However, what is important is to respect them as living organisms, which we do.
The market for insect protein in the production of food for human consumption is small, but Hubert expects demand to explode over the next 10 years.
Scientists agree that insects are the ecological and economic future of food production. A 2013 United Nations report concluded that edible insects are a “promising alternative to conventional meat production”. planet.”
A more recent study by South Korean scientists looked at ways to overcome European and North American diners’ distaste for eating mealworms and crickets.
Hee Cho, a researcher at Wonkwang University who led the research, said the image problem of these nutritional “superfoods” could be solved by turning them into meat-like products. Cho’s team found that the steamed mealworms developed sweet corn flavors, while the roasted and fried versions had shrimp attributes.
“Insects are a nutritious and healthy food source with high amounts of fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, fiber and high-quality, meat-like protein,” Cho said. She added: “Insect farming requires only a fraction of the land, water and feed compared to traditional farming.”
A final EUFA decision on the use of certain insect proteins is expected next year.
“People are worried about climate change and wondering what they can do. Well, they can eat less and they can eat insect-based protein,” says Hubert. It dispels concerns about the “yuck” factor of eating bugs.
“A lot of it is in our head,” he says. “Of course, the idea of eating a whole insect doesn’t sound appetizing, but we can replace existing foods with what we produce from insects and hope that will encourage people to change their eating habits. It will happen little by little. »