On farms, bugs are making an unexpected impact

Insect farming provides a sustainable and scalable protein alternative for animal feed and organic fertilizers.

The insect industry is buzzing. High in protein, insects offer an economical and lower carbon alternative to soy and meat. While farming insects by hand is relatively simple, technological advancements in automation, sensors, machine learning and system design are taking this ancient practice and scaling it up for a 21st-century world. Excitement is understandable, given the insect protein market is predicted to be worth almost $1 billion by 2027.

There are many arguments for making the switch to insects as food, with their high-protein content and more sustainable farming methods, but with the “ick factor” surrounding eating insects still a tough hurdle to overcome in some cultures leading to slower global acceptance as a foodstuff, its potential lies less in feeding humans and more in feeding animals. They are a whole protein—meaning they contain all the amino acids required in diets—and they are dense in nutrients with protein content comparable to that of beef. Replacing fishmeal and soybean, the traditional feed used in aquaculture and agriculture, means a reduction in greenhouse gases, energy use and land use. With the animal feed market and regulatory environment now far more open to the use of insects as feed, producers are leaning on tech to eliminate the remaining obstacles to bringing the alternative protein to market.

Scaling up insect farming

Modern insect farms resemble factories more than fields, with warehouses packed with stacks of insects growing in crates, which are then fed through various different processing machines assembled in production lines. “The main problem is upscaling,” says Somaya Naser El Deen, a research entomologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “In academia, we are working at an experimental level, or maybe a pilot level at maximum. Insect farming is very expensive, especially with the energy costs, because you need to maintain a certain temperature and humidity 24/7. Then there’s the availability of the feeding substrates—if you need to produce one ton of larvae per week, you will need a huge amount of substrate to feed them with.”

black soldier fly
Photo of black soldier flies courtesy of James Tiono/Unsplash.

The problem of scaling is also an engineering problem: how to engineer a very specific environment for breeding insects that doesn’t cost too much, financially or environmentally.

“You need to maintain a specific temperature and a specific humidity, 24 hours a day,” says Naser El Deen. Breeding insects means creating the conditions in which insects grow, mimicking the natural world of biology inside a factory setting. But the natural world is dynamic and has many different variables which are all linked with optimal insect growth, which scientists needed to first understand before technologists could begin to build.

One startup on the insect-farming scene is Dublin-based Hexafly, which uses vertical farming—stacks of trays of black soldier flies—to produce insect oil and insect fertilizer.

“One challenge is your egg output: getting your daily egg harvest output, the number of eggs produced at a very, very high level, to give you a lot of products that you put in the rest of the farm,” explains Hexafly’s CEO and Founder Alvan Hunt. “The second thing is the environmental conditions, in terms of airflow in the growing section, that’s probably most difficult in terms of getting that technologically right, because you have a lot of heat, you have a lot of larvae, you have a lot of feed… you have a lot of different amounts of heat produced because not all the trays of larvae are at the same stage—some are at day one, some are at day five.”

Hexafly took the approach of building a small pilot plant to learn how to adapt insect farming at scale, using a pretty traditional farming approach—really getting to know the insects and the environment in which they live. It turns out Hexafly’s specialty is creating very good conditions for creating much larger egg yields than their competitors—in other words, designing the perfect romantic setting.

“In the breeding room, where the adult flies are mating, you have a cage that’s been specifically designed: a specific light frequency, a specific temperature, a specific humidity, a specific stocking density, a specific attractant which is made up of a whole number of different chemicals, which is on a timed dose which follows a specific algorithm—there’s a lot of data analytics,” says Hunt.

Hexafly took the approach of working at a smaller industrial scale first: “We’ve spent the last couple of years digging into all of the different problems in our pilot plant and finding engineering solutions to them. Some companies went ahead and built bigger plants without having all those problems fixed and ran into engineering issues.”

Building scale through the circular economy

Another approach is to learn and adapt when in a bigger production setting. One company leading the insect-farming charge at scale is Innovafeed, a French company with their main plant based in Nesle, in the north of France, which has the capacity to produce 16,500 tons of insect protein per year.

Photo of larvae courtesy of James Tiono/Unsplash.

With such a large plant, Innovafeed has had to consider broader engineering and market problems to make insect farming work financially. They have to ensure that the cost of breeding their insects doesn’t come out higher than the cost of selling their products, which is challenging given the large amount of energy required to maintain the environmental conditions for fly breeding, especially with current energy costs being so high.

Not only are they using factory machinery and automation to manage the plant and farming process, but they have also created a model of industrial symbiosis, meaning they take a collaborative approach to exchanging materials and energy between themselves and other companies to further reduce costs and environmental impact. In this case, they’ve located their plant beside a flour factory, which produces a byproduct that they can use, in its pure form, for the insect feed.

“There’s no transportation required; it all comes through a pipe—it’s a huge energy saving, and it’s why we have the protein that is environmentally the cleanest,” explains Cyrille Viossat, vice president of technology at scale at Innovafeed. “Part of the building of the plant’s site was integrating with all the existing systems to make sure it worked with their technology.”

This circular economy approach is also used to help Innovafeed manage energy costs. “The second part of the symbiosis is what we call ‘fatal energy’—we can use the excess heat produced in the plant, air that’s not hot enough to generate steam for energy, but still hot enough to maintain the tropical atmosphere for our flies to live in,” says Viossat.

Building technological systems for biological scale

Farming insects is a biological process, and as such, it’s hard to control and predict. Technology systems that can change and adapt over time – made up of a network of sensors, heaters, motors and more – create as stable an environment as possible so fewer of the flies succumb to ‘poor conditions’ as the industry works to scale up.

Innovafeed, therefore, relies on technology – hardware and software – to manage its plant, in all its complexity, much like any industrial work. The large plant that is scaling up the fly farm resembles a factory more than a field, with its mechanized production line supervised by humans—from the egg collection and the early stages of rearing and feeding to the ‘sieving’ of the larvae to separate the insects from their waste (which gets turned into fertilizer) and their ultimate conversion into insect protein products.

[Insect farming] allows you to use nature’s natural solution to recycling—to upcycle insects into proper sustainable products that provide solutions to problems.

—Alvan Hunt, CEO and Founder, Hexafly

The technology that tends to get the most coverage and interest is the stuff that seems the most advanced or complicated from a computational or engineering perspective. When it comes to insect farming, however, it’s much more a question of how to use existing technologies of various kinds—sensors, robotics, supervised machine learning, air conditioners, heaters and so on—in the most intelligently-designed ecosystem.

“Before, tech companies were all about the software, but the thing is, here it’s real life— it’s not just manufacturing, it’s biology, which is so much more complex than physics, and doing it with something that is inherently valuable,” says Viossat. “The biggest thing for us is to have system thinking—because biology forces you to have system thinking.”

Viossat is optimistic about how tech can continue to advance the insect farming industry: “Things like computer vision, and actually technology that can respond to sounds and smells, that gets you information without someone having to look at it…some of this kind of technology can be used in production, and can certainly take us further.”

“There are plenty of real problems out there that need fixing…we need organic fertilizers, there’s a growing population, protein is expensive. There are a lot of solutions on the table that are theoretical, but insect farming is an actual practical application that can be scaled, and it works,” says Hunt. “It allows you to use nature’s natural solution to recycling—to upcycle insects into proper sustainable products that provide solutions to problems.”

Lead photo courtesy of Oktavianus Mulyadi/Unsplash.