From the high windows of a warehouse in southern Spain a shaft of light falls on the white-gloved hand of insect farmer Laetitia Giroud. She is holding a large cricket, which sits perfectly still above the plastic box that is home to hundreds of its relatives. They are chirping to each other, giving the industrial unit a gently bucolic air. Nearby are another 30 or so boxes, filled with mealworm, black soldier flies and grasshoppers.
“They have a great life,” said Giroud, smiling at the elegantly poised insect. “They just eat and make love, eat and make love.”
Paris-born Giroud unabashedly romanticizes her charges, cooing over how “beautiful” the mealworms are and how they smell like honey. She also has the practical attitude of a farmer and looks amused when I ask how many insects she has.
“How many? I don’t know. A million? They’re not like pigs or cows. We’re planning to raise 15-20 tonnes a year,” she said.
While the world has been fascinated by Mark Post and his team’s 250,000 euro (US$330,000) attempt to make a stem cell burger at Maastricht University, there are many experts who think insects are a more likely protein source for a hungry world. In a 2011 report the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) quoted estimates that the production of 250g of lab-grown “beef” would cost in the region of US$1 million. It cited reports that said even if produced on an industrial scale, it would still cost “￡3,500 [US$5,400] per tonne, approximately twice the cost of conventional unsubsidized chicken meat production in the EU.”
In contrast, Giroud and her partner Julien Foucher launched their company, Insagri, based in Coin, near Malaga, earlier this year with an investment of 24,000 euro (US$32,000). Initially, they intend to grind the larvae of black soldier flies into a high-protein dust and sell it as a replacement for fishmeal to fish farms on the Andalusian coast. In the long term, though, they are more interested in raising insects for human consumption. They already have a client in the Netherlands who, from next month, will sell their dried crickets and grasshoppers as a snack.
Potentially more significant as a rival for both meat and lab-meat is their “protein flour” — dehydrated, ground-up insects — which can be added to everything from cereal to energy bars.
“We have a client in Belgium who’s planning to make a tomato sauce and tomato puree using our mealworms as a base,” Giroud said. “It’s amazing what you can do. The market is huge. In 2020 we hope to open our first insect fast-food restaurant — like a sushi bar — in Paris or Madrid.”
The FSA appears to think “Yo! Grasshopper” is still a distant prospect, but they have already given “protein flour” a cautious welcome.
“Although whole insects may be niche products in the UK,” it wrote in 2011, “the use of purified or partially purified insect protein could have greater commercial viability, if a reliable source could be identified.”
It seems that farms like Insagri could become increasingly common. Anybody who watched the BBC documentary Can Eating Insects Save the World? or who has read any of the many recent articles extolling the virtues of entomophagy (the human consumption of insects) will not need to be told that our six-legged friends are on the march.
The idea is not new: in 1885, amateur naturalist Vincent Holt wrote a pamphlet called Why Not Eat Insects? praising slug soup and moths on toast. Of course, it is not taste that is the motivation now: as Post emphasized in his press conference, the mass consumption of meat is expensive, unhealthy and environmentally disastrous. The livestock industry is estimated to be responsible for 17 percent to 18 percent of greenhouse emissions, through production, transport and digestive gas. Insects are full of protein, have a small carbon footprint and are potentially much cheaper than both meat and lab-meat.