26. August 2019
Insect-based protein is sprouting wings in Asia
Are bug burgers the way to go?
By Joe Gan*
“It’s a dead fly, in your chardonnay,” sang Alanis Morrisette. But what’s ironic is that in a few years, we might not be too opposed to swallowing the poor insect for extra protein. Too dramatic? Read on to find out why the dialogue is shifting towards including insect-based proteins in diets for both humans and livestock. Interviews with the Singapore Food Agency & Asia Insect Farm Solutions.
In 2030, the Asia Pacific region will make up nearly half of the world’s population. There will be 4.5 billion people, up from the current 4.3 billion, projects Euromonitor. The world’s most populous countries, China and India, will take up most of the real estate on that pie chart.
Snapshot: An impending food crunch
- The APAC region to be home to 4.5 billion in 2030, up from 4.3 billion today
- Indonesia’s arable ground to dip to 5% in 2025 from 12% today
- World to have only 60% of water it needs “without significant global policy change”
Source: UN, TaniHub, Euromonitor
That’s nearly 200 million more mouths to feed; 200 million more daily dietary requirements to meet. That means current food production needs to be ramped up to keep up with demand. But arable land is depleting rapidly, especially in land-rich Indonesia. Farming tech startup TaniHub tells AFN that it predicts useable ground will dip to 5% of the total land area in 2025. That’s a drop of 7% from the World Bank’s current estimate of 12%. That’s a loss of 28 million football fields worth of arable land alone.
Souring the outlook for livestock producers and farmers further, the UN has warned that the world will only have 60% of the water it needs in 2030 if it doesn’t make a significant change in global policy.
The clock’s ticking to fix this impending food shortage
How can we grow more food faced with less land and less water? Perhaps the solution is maximizing the efficacy of what we feed animals, by turning food waste into farm chow. That’s the ace up the sleeves of agritech start-ups Nutrition Technologies and Protenga. They make insect-based protein for fish and animal feed out of black soldier fly larvae (BSF). These baby insects have gained popularity for breaking down food waste much quicker than other organisms, making the composting process a lot faster.
“My vision has always been to produce a high-quality insect protein powder that can reduce the pressure on wild fisheries, and minimize the impact of industrial fleets on traditional fishing communities,” CEO & Founder of Nutrition Technologies Nick Piggott tells AFN. And it seems he’s steering his company towards being a part of the insect-as-feed future.
UPDATE: “Using Black Soldier Larvae helps tighten the foodloop” – Singapore Food Agency
The larvae has gotten the attention of the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), which has approved their use as fish food. It also recognizes the insect’s practicality in the food chain. “Using black soldier fly larvae as animal feed are ways to tighten the food loop, improve circularity and for farms to become more environmentally sustainable,” the agency tells AFN. The SFA was formed to oversee food safety and security in the city state.
Protenga’s founder, Leo Wein, explains that his tech tackles food wastage, which he calls one of the biggest problems towards sustainability globally. “We simply cannot afford to lose over 30% of our nutrients (30% of food grown is wasted somewhere in the supply chain). We believe that insect farming can be the answer to recapture those ‘lost’ nutrients and return them to our food system in the form of quality proteins, oils and fertilizer,” says Wein.
Snapshot: What are black soldier fly larvae, or BSF?
- They break down food waste much quicker than other organisms
- Used to compost waste or convert it into animal feed
- Harvested pupae & prepupae are eaten by poultry, fish, pigs, lizards, turtles, and dogs
- They can be stored at room temperature for several weeks
Nutrition Technologies recently secured a $8.5 million Series A led by Openspace Ventures and SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore (ESG), in yet another sign of growing support in Southeast Asia for innovation in the alt-protein tech space. The funds will be used to set up the largest high-tech commercial-scale insect protein production facility in Southeast Asia, which aims to produce over 18,000 tonnes of insect-based feed ingredients and organic fertilizers every year.
Speaking on behalf of OpenSpace Ventures, Nicole Tee tells AFN it was the leading local venture capital firm’s first investment in the alt-protein space, which they recognize is “commercially very challenging to produce at scale and at profitable unit economics.” But she says the team at Nutrition Technologies have the skillset and tech to “take advantage of low-cost Southeast Asia.”
“Insect protein is a global market”
“APAC is where a big part of the world’s aquaculture, swine, and chicken rearing is, so there’s definitely a large market right in Nutrition Tech’s backyard. But at the end of the day, insect protein is a global market, so we’re not limiting our sights on APAC,” says Tee. Singapore-based Protenga also got the attention of ESG, winning S$50,000 ($36,100) in grants at the Indoor Ag-Con Asia 2018, which is supported by the agency. It’s looking to branch out across the region in the midterm, expanding on its operations from its current insect farm in Johor Bahru, the Malaysian city just across the border from Singapore. “Our vision is to enable food production in balance with nature – this includes both livestock farming as well as plant-based nutrition (through our organic fertilizer product). Both farming of animals and plants are important contributors to our nutrition as well as the natural ecosystems and nutrient cycles,” adds Wein.
Are bug burgers the way to go?
But why not skip a few rungs on the food ladder to imbue our diets directly with some insect protein magic? Take Ento in Malaysia, for example, which is working on helping consumers get over the ick factor when it comes to munching on bars made of cricket powder for our daily 50 grams of protein.
“We are developing new and more familiar product lines to introduce insects in the diets of consumers. We’re currently working on our granola protein bites to disguise the look of crickets and to put emphasis on their nutritional information,” says lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Kevin Wu, founder and CEO of the country’s first ‘artisanal cricket roaster’.
Ento also plans to take on the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat with a burger recipe, Wu tells AFN.
“80% of the countries around the world are already regularly consuming insects as part of their diet,” adds Wu, demonstrating the potential of tapping into the global insect-eating population. “Insect based products have been popular in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos for many centuries. The problem is, insect-based products have always been street food.”
NEW: Keeping up with regulators
Although the sale of insects for human consumption is allowed in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the regulatory bodies of more bug-conservative countries, like Singapore, haven’t moved to give it the green-light. “The SFA has yet to allow the import of insects as food for human consumption. Various food safety issues may be associated with the consumption of insects, and SFA will assess if it is safe for consumption before import or sale is allowed,” says the agency. “Companies intending to import insects (into Singapore) for human consumption are required to submit an application with supportive evidence of food safety. This is to safeguard food safety and consumer health. The SFA’s assessment covers food safety issues that may be associated with human consumption of insects, such as toxicity or allergenicity.”
“The perception of food can change over time”
Addressing the hop from street food and into the refrigerators of the APAC population, Ento’s first made sure it had regulations covered, to give its would-be consumers peace of mind. “We’ve registered our company and facilities under the national Ministry of Health. We’ve also taken additional measures such as obtaining lab reports for nutritional facts and microbial samples to ensure the quality and safety of our products,” says Wu, who adds the company is the process of applying for GAP, GMP and HACCP to be in line with international standards. “Of course, there is consumer resistance to adopt insects for food but I am convinced that the perception of food can change over time. Think about the history of the lobster, back in the East Coast of the US around the 18th century; it used to be fed to peasants and prisoners. Fast forward to today, lobster is a prized delicacy.”
UPDATE: GETTING OVER THE ‘ICK’ FACTOR
The founder of Asia Insect Farm Solutions (AIFS), Raavee Shanker, has an admission for us at AFN. There is a struggle for consumers to get over the ‘ick’ factor. And his startup’s hatched a plan to help us go from “yuck” to maybe… “it’s pretty good!”
“We offer insect protein in the flour form. This way, we have a functional ingredient that can be used as a partial replacement in any meal, snack or beverage product that is flour or powder based. We are talking about staples such as bread, pasta, pizza, chips, cookies, cakes, pastries, smoothies and protein shakes,” says Shanker. “We have also endeavored to develop an end-product with a mild color, taste and aroma. This is so that consumers can use the cricket flour in existing recipes and still enjoy the tastes and flavors that they are familiar with.” AIFS currently has production tie-ups with three farms in Malaysia and Thailand, and plans to open four more by year-end.
MAYBE CRICKET PATTIES MEDIUM-RARE ARE JUST FOR FISH, FOR NOW.
But what about the rest of us who won’t ever get used to eating bugs? Some don’t see the 20%, or even humankind on a whole, including them in our diets on a day-to-day basis in the region. Wein sticks by animal feed as the greater opportunity. Echoing his sentiments, Nutrition Tech’s Piggott tells AFN he sees more promise in the animal feed sector. “For humans – honestly, I think it’s limited, and will stay limited, particularly in APAC. As nations develop and their populations become wealthier, new middle classes aren’t going to start buying bags of crickets – they’re going to buy chicken & fish,” opines Nutrition Tech’s Piggott. “And in the West, while people will start to eat insect bars & snacks, I don’t see families sitting down to insect-based meals anytime soon.”
The company’s looking to move into industrial-scale production in early 2020, with demand already coming in from big feed manufacturers in Malaysia, and repeat orders from South Korea & Japan. Ento also aspires to expand its operations into animal feed, tapping into the BSF business within the next 3-5 years. Though Protenga is not looking to branch into human consumption at this point, their founder says edible insects “have great potential, perception barriers can be overcome quite easily once the right timing and story come together,” citing the example of how salmon has become synonymous with sashimi.
We’re not really looking forward to cockroach milk taking off though.
*This article has first been published at AgFunder News