Inside the cutting-edge farms, companies rear squirming masses of crickets, mealworms and fly larvae within temperature-controlled plastic vats designed to help them grow quickly. They Image Credit: AFP file

Paris: The world's largest insect farm - a high-tech facility that sprawls across 35,000 square meters and will produce 15,000 metric tons of protein from fly larvae each year - opened in April in Nesle, France. If all goes to plan, it will be upstaged in December by a 45,000-square-meter farm outside of Amiens capable of producing over 100,000 metric tons of mealworms per year.

That record stands to be tied or broken by at least two more fly hatcheries slated to open in 2024 and 2025.

The race is on to build the world's biggest bug farm. A nascent drive to cut greenhouse emissions from animal feed has spawned a new industry, flush with venture capital, that promises to one day produce vast amounts of protein with fewer greenhouse emissions than traditional suppliers.

Inside the cutting-edge farms, companies rear squirming masses of crickets, mealworms and fly larvae within temperature-controlled plastic vats designed to help them grow quickly. They process the insects' feces into fertilizer and their bodies into protein and nutrient-rich oil for pets, fish and livestock.

The bugs feed on food waste, often piped in from nearby farms or food processing plants. They're tended to day and night by human handlers and AI-powered robots that keep the factories churning out protein 24/7.

Although humans have been eating insects for millennia and billions of people still do today, insect start-ups are not, for the most part, marketing bugs for human consumption. Instead, they're looking to wriggle into the market for animal feed.

If insects are reared on food waste and grown close to the farms or food processing plants that will eventually buy them, they can be a more sustainable source of nutrients than standard alternatives such as soybean feed or fishmeal, scientists say.

"We're not proposing that we're replacing any of the food on your plate," said Christine Picard, a biology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who does genetic research on insects farmed for protein. "What we're proposing is to hopefully make some of the food that shows up on your plate more sustainable."

Farms multiplying like flies

Insect start-ups have raised over $1 billion in venture capital since 2020, and they're now vying for dominance in the small but growing market for bug protein.

"It blows my mind not just how the industry is exploding but how the research behind it is growing at the same level," said Jeff Tomberlin, an entomology professor at Texas A&M University who founded a fly farming start-up called EVO Conversion Systems.

Some of the wind beneath the insect industry's wings has come from Big Agriculture. Last month, meat titan Tyson Foods invested in Protix, a Dutch start-up that raises black soldier fly larvae. These bugs are favoured by farmers because they'll eat almost anything and grow quickly.

Food processing giant ADM signed a similar deal in 2020 with another soldier fly start-up called Innovafeed, based in Paris. Tyson and ADM each bought a stake in their partner company and announced plans to help them build large new farms in the United States.

Insect start-ups hope large facilities will help them get their foot in the door with big buyers in the market for fish and livestock feed, pet food and fertilizer. "If you are just [producing] a few tons or tens of tons you don't exist," said Antoine Hubert, co-founder of Ynsect, a French start-up that specializes in mealworms. "This is why we have to design something pretty massive, because you need thousands of tons if not tens of thousands of tons to exist for a single buyer."

Bigger operations also mean the industry can have greater environmental benefits - so long as it follows practices like feeding insects food waste and building facilities near existing farms and food processing plants. If companies raise their bugs on processed feed that could otherwise have gone directly to livestock, insects can be worse for the environment, according to a 2021 meta analysis from researchers at the University of Helsinki and LUT University.

"We really want to be able to drive down carbon emissions in food chains and replace ingredients that put pressure on natural resources, and the way to do that is through scale," said Maye Walraven, who leads North American operations for Innovafeed.

The quick growth of big, sophisticated facilities also signals that the industry is maturing beyond its larval state, according to Protix founder Kees Aarts. "It means we're well beyond this start-up phase," he said. "In the start-up environment you have a couple of machines in a test bed, but now we're truly an operating company with a large facility and 24/7 operations."

The endless quest to build the biggest bug farm

The bug farming boom began in 2014 when a now-defunct South African start-up called Agriprotein raised $11 million to build a black soldier fly farm outside of Cape Town. Agriprotein opened the farm, then the world's largest, in 2015 and promised to open 99 more by 2024. Although the start-up collapsed six years later, it sounded the starting gun in the race to build bug farms at monumental scale.

A series of record-breaking farms followed, sometimes holding the top spot for mere months before being supplanted.

One behemoth bug farm, built by Protix in 2019, opened to royal fanfare in a ceremony attended by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. Aarts insists that factory floor area isn't the most important metric of business success, but admits he "did take part a little bit in that sad, male behavior" of trumpeting a new size record.

The current record-holder, Innovafeed's Nesle plant, snatched the crown after an expansion finished in April. The company is already planning an American fly farm that would quadruple its output as part of its partnership with ADM.

The heir apparent is a 45,000-square-meter facility built this summer by Ynsect and funded by a $224 million investment from venture capitalists including "Iron Man" actor Robert Downey Jr. It will officially take the record when it begins full operations later this year, but for now, the facility is focused on growing its flock of flies.

Ynsect co-founder Hubert, the latest insect farmer to sit atop the burgeoning world of bug protein, is humble in his triumph. After all, Innovafeed is set to retake the record when it expands its Nesle farm again next year.

"We are not really in competition with our colleagues," Hubert said. "What matters is that we're better compared to existing incumbents and we're all together to reduce the carbon footprint" of the food supply chain.

He did, however, point out that Ynsect is already preparing to expand its not-yet-operational facility at Amiens, which would potentially reclaim the record.