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Are Insects The Future Of Food?

The European Union and the United Nations have long recognized the importance of finding sustainable protein sources for animal feed.

Currently, more than three-quarters of the world's arable land is devoted to producing livestock feed. Shifting from plant-based to insect-based protein for animal feed could free up significant amounts of agricultural land for human food production.

Innovafeed, a leader in this space founded in 2016 in Northern France, has emerged as a significant player, securing €450 million in funding from institutional investors like Temasek and Qatar Investment Authority as well as strategic partners like Cargill and ADM.

And now they are shifting their focus to include the US market.

We spoke with Sean Madison, their Director of Global Pet Food & North American Growth to discuss Innovafeed's impact, and the broader food challenges ahead.


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👤 Interview with Sean

Dunya Jovanovic: Sean, could you start by telling us more about Innovafeed and the specific challenges you're aiming to tackle with your work?

Sean Madison: InnovaFeed is a French-based biotechnology company, and we're at the forefront of insect ingredient production globally. Our journey began in 2016, initiated by three innovative French engineers. They saw the pressing challenges in our food chain, particularly around food security, with the looming need to sustainably feed 9 to 10 billion people by 2050. Additionally, the environmental impacts from the agri-food chain, such as climate change contributions and biodiversity loss, particularly from practices like fish meal harvesting and the broader impacts on ecosystems, were areas we wanted to address head-on.


DJ: Why focus on insects as a solution? What makes them a more sustainable choice for feed and agriculture?

SM: Insects have a unique place in nature's cycle, acting as efficient upcyclers. In their natural environments, they transform low-grade organic material into high-value nutrients. What Innovafeed aims to do is harness this natural process but on an industrial scale. This not only allows us to produce high-value proteins and oils from low-grade agricultural byproducts but also helps in tackling the significant issues at both ends of the agricultural spectrum. Our processes lead to zero waste, with all outputs being utilized beneficially, making insects an incredibly sustainable option for the future of feed and agriculture.

DJ: Can you dive a bit deeper into the types of waste you're using and how you're achieving this circular model in your production processes?

SM: Our main feedstock comes from grain byproducts. We've embraced a model of industrial symbiosis, where we co-locate our production facilities with existing industrial plants to efficiently use local resources. For example, our facility in Nesle, France, which is currently in its third phase of ramp up, illustrates this model perfectly. We're directly connected to our neighbor, Tereos, a wheat processing company, via a pipeline that delivers their wet byproducts to us as feedstock. This direct connection eliminates the need for transportation and the drying process of the byproduct, significantly reducing environmental impact. The insects, specifically the Black Soldier Fly larvae we cultivate, thrive on these wet byproducts, converting them into valuable proteins, oils, and even organic fertilizer, further emphasizing our zero-waste approach.


DJ: How do your insect-based products compare with more traditional feed options nutrition-wise?

SM: Our insect-based protein and oil products not only match but in many cases, surpass traditional feed options in nutritional value. They offer a sustainable and efficient alternative with a fraction of the environmental footprint. Our products contain antimicrobial peptides beneficial to animal health, and the chitin in their exoskeletons acts as a prebiotic fiber. Moreover, our insect oil is rich in lauric acid, similar to coconut oil, known for its antimicrobial effects. These qualities make our insect-based ingredients incredibly valuable for animal nutrition across various industries.


DJ: There's a growing interest in insect-based foods, yet some consumers might still need to be more confident about incorporating insects into their diets or even their pets' diets. How do you navigate these perceptions?

SM: Education and transparency are key. We're actively working to demystify insect-based ingredients through clear communication about their benefits and sustainability. For instance, we've launched "Hilucia" as a consumer-friendly brand for insect-based products. It's about meeting consumers where they are and gradually building acceptance and understanding of the value these ingredients bring in terms of nutrition and environmental sustainability.


DJ: With your expansion plans, especially into the US market, how do you tailor your marketing strategies to address different consumer bases and regulatory environments?

SM: Expanding into the US is an exciting step for us, and we're applying lessons learned from our experiences in Europe. Consumer education and engagement will be at the forefront of our strategy. We understand that market dynamics and consumer perceptions vary greatly across regions, so our approach will be nuanced, leveraging local insights to inform our strategies. Our partnership with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for a facility in Decatur, Illinois, is a prime example of adapting our model to local resources, in this case, utilizing corn-based byproducts.

DY: Lastly, Sean, what do you see on the horizon for sustainable nutrition and InnovaFeed's role in shaping that future?

SM: The future of sustainable nutrition is bright, with increasing awareness and demand for transparency and environmental accountability in the food supply chain. Innovafeed is poised to play a significant role in this transition, offering scalable, sustainable solutions that not only provide nutritional benefits but also contribute positively to our planet's health. Our goal is to continue innovating and expanding our reach, ensuring that sustainable nutrition is accessible and becomes the norm rather than the exception.

📝 Full episode transcript

Hello, lovely people, you are watching or listening a brand new episode of the Green New Perspective podcast. Hopefully, you'll go to a place when you want to learn about innovations happening within clean tech, nature tech, biotech and agritech space, and meet the leaders of the companies who are working on creating tech aimed at combating climate change. In today's episode, we are going to talk about the importance of finding sustainable protein choices in animal feed.

And one of the ways of us to do that is to opt for insect-based protein. Now, I know this topic might be a challenging to some, but that's why we invited an expert. His name is Sean Madison.
He comes from a company called Innovafeed, and they're producing pet food with insect-based protein. So he's going to give you the details on how the food is made and why this type of protein might be a better choice for your pet's health. If you want to learn more, stick around, and we'll hear what Sean has to say.
Hi, Sean, welcome to the Green New Perspective Podcast.
Hi, thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
So can you tell me more about Innovafeed, and what's the problem you're trying to solve?
Yeah, so Innovafeed is a French-based biotechnology company, and we are one of the global leaders in insect ingredient production. We were founded in 2016 by three French engineers, and they were looking at solutions to help solve some of the big challenges coming up ahead, things like food security. We have an estimated 9 to 10 billion individuals that will be needing to feed by 2050.
But also climate change. The agri-food chain contributes significantly to climate change impacts. So when you look at how we have to scale over the next coming decades, how do we rethink our ways of doing that in a more efficient way?
And then thirdly, biodiversity. A lot of the impact that we have on our environment actually comes from biodiversity, things like fishmeal harvesting, things like fishing in the wild, our pet food, for example. A lot of these impacts on the overall environment beyond just kind of carbon emissions, et cetera.
So why are insects a more sustainable choice for feed and agriculture?
Well, insects are really nature's most powerful upcyclers. So they do this every day in the wild, in your garden, in the fields, in the wild. They turn low grade stuff, whether it's leaves, dirt, sometimes, sometimes actual feces, dumb beetles, et cetera, into more high valued ingredients via, you know, their efficient systems.
And so what we do at Innovafeed is to do this at an unprecedented industrial scale. So we're essentially taking the natural processes, the natural upcycling abilities of insects and do this at a very large scale. So we're able to turn, we use low grade agricultural by-products and we're able to turn those very efficiently into high-value proteins and oils very efficiently.
And we essentially solve both upstream issues and downstream issues at the same time. On the upstream, we have a large amount of these agricultural by-products or sometimes pre or post consumer waste streams. And there's not a lot of economically or environmentally viable things to do with those.
And on the downstream side, in the markets that we serve, there's this huge demand for an expansion of the ingredient basket to include more high-performance proteins, high-performing oils in the feed markets that we serve. And our main feed markets are the aquaculture space, the livestock space, the pet food space. And then we actually use our insect poop or insect frass, as it's called in the business, as an organic fertilizer.
So we have a zero waste model, and we're able to sell all of those into feed markets across the globe.
And what type of industrial or post consumer waste are you actually using and making it circular?
Yeah, so typically we use grain byproducts. So one of our claim to fames is industrial symbiosis. And we use this term to describe our co-location of our industrial scale facilities in kind of current infrastructure in place.
And so our facility in Nell, France that we opened in 2020 and is completing the third phase of ramp up as we speak is kind of like this inaction. And what we mean by this co-location model is that the two key inputs of our production process, which is the feedstock actually required to feed the insects, in our case, that agricultural byproduct, as well as the energy required to both breed and process in our controlled access facilities. This actually comes directly to us via pipelines that connect our facilities to our neighboring facilities.
And so how this looks like on the feedstock side is there's a company called Terrios in France. They do wheat processing in a town called Nell. And we co-locate our facilities and we are connected via a direct conveyance pipeline.
And so in that pipeline, we convey all of the byproducts that we use then as feedstock. And there's two really major benefits by doing it this way. One, there's obviously no trucks required for transportation.
We're using hundreds of thousands of tons of these grain products per year. And so thinking about how much that would cost and how much environmental impacts trucking that would require, it's quite a bit, quite astounding. And then the other thing is that the insect that we've chosen, the black soldier fly or Hermitia elucens, it's able to eat still wet byproducts.
So we don't require any drying of those byproducts. It actually comes through that pipeline still wet. And we just put them in a tray.
We essentially add in our freshly hatched black soldier flies, which are called neonates at that time. And they eat their feedstock over the next 11 to 14 days. And then we harvest them into their proteins and oils.
And you know that the cycle continues. And on the energy side, we actually tap directly into our energy source as well by capturing what we call waste energy. So waste energy is heat that would have dissipated into the atmosphere.
We're able to capture that via hot water and use that to power about 60% of our energy needs through what's called a hydro condenser. So if you see our facility in Nel, France, you'd actually see these two big pipeline racks connecting us to these neighbors, one conveying that feedstock and one conveying that hot water that we use for about 60% of our energy needs. So all of those things combined kind of equate to what we call industrial symbiosis and the end ingredients really kind of go to show how they compare to kind of traditionally used proteins and oils in the markets that we serve.
So in 2020, we published a life cycle assessment that sought to measure two different things. One was the impact of this industrial symbiosis model versus a model that didn't have industrial symbiosis. We basically created a hypothetical model and said, what if we had to truck in all of these grain byproducts?
What if we had to have our farmers dry those before they got sent to us? What if we just tap directly into the grid for energy rather than relying on that waste? We saw that model itself, which was really powered by the natural proclivity of the black soldier fly, was able to decrease our carbon emissions by 80%.
And so when you see that in the markets that we serve, we're also in seeing at least a 50% emissions reduction compared to traditionally used proteins, including chicken meal, soy, fish meal, etc. as well as on the oil side compared to both leading animal and plant-based oils. You'll be hard pressed to find a more environmentally efficient product than the insect ingredients that we produce out of our Nelfrance facility.
How the insect-based products compare with traditional feed options.
Yeah, so we produce kind of... Our end ingredients are basically protein meals and then oils. And so these are used as kind of the base either protein or energy source into kind of finished feed formulation.
And so on the protein side, we compare our protein to other premium animal-based proteins, things like premium fish meal, premium poultry meal. In the pet food space, there's a huge rise in kind of exotic protein. So, you know, I've seen kangaroo meal.
I've seen a bunch of different things. We compare extremely favorably to these high quality animal proteins at a fraction of that environmental footprint. The other thing too about insect-based ingredients is they have some unique properties that are actually helpful to the animals that consume them.
A few of these include the antimicrobial peptides. So insects actually don't have an immune system. And so to ward off, you know, diseases, etc.
they use these things called antimicrobial peptides. And over 50 have been expressed in the black soldier fly genome. And so there's ongoing research to study what impact that has on immunity on just overall health for the animals that consume them.
Another thing that's interesting is chitin. So chitin is what's called a prebiotic fiber. And it's basically what the exoskeleton of an insect is made up of.
This fiber can have a prebiotic effect and favorably impact gut health for the animals that consume it.
Eating food basically from insects is not as, it's not, well, it's not that old. I think it's like, it's like 10 years old in the US market because I did some research on other companies that are lunching protein-based, even human food is similar to what you do. But I feel like people are still doing some sort of restraint when we talk about eating insects or feeding insect foods to their pets.
What's your impression and do you think that people are changing how they feel about eating insects and proteins from insects, which are basically, like you said, the same, if not even better, than what we consume from other animals?
It's a great question and something that I think about all the time. So part of my role is I kind of lead our global efforts in pet food. We also have teams that lead our efforts in livestock, in aquaculture, where the problems are a little bit different.
In pet food, we're selling directly to pet parents. You know, they're buying the feed itself. When we sell into aquaculture, the consumers are buying that fish filet, that chicken breast that was then fed insect ingredients before.
So it's essentially like one more, we're one more step removed in those markets that we are in pet food. You know, pet food is a really interesting dynamic because we have to, we are very close to consumers. Then obviously the closest you can get to consumers is human nutrition.
That might be on our horizon later on down the road. Right now, we're entirely focused on animal nutrition in that pet livestock and aquaculture space. It's an interesting challenge because one of the biggest trends in pet food is the humanization of your pets.
A lot of people, including myself, treat their dogs and cats as part of their family. I have a dog, George. He's wonderful.
He also eats insect-based pet food. He's doing a lot of work with me. He's my partner.
I guess George turned into a dinosaur.
He's very, very healthy, reaping up all the benefits of the healthy nutrition. One of the things that we've learned through consumer studies, through different marketing efforts, is we need to meet consumers where they are. We realize that consumers might not know that much about insect-based pet food.
They might sound kind of weird or foreign to them at first. And so we know that rolling out insect-based ingredients cannot happen without kind of that educational primer. We know we need to kind of quickly educate on, hey, why the heck would we be doing this in the first place?
What are the benefits of insect-based ingredients in pet food? What are the facts? One thing that we learned from a consumer study that I didn't realize until going through this and kind of really putting my consumer hat on is that probably 10% or 15% of respondents said, I'm worried that I'm going to see maggots or flies in my dog food.
And it was like, wow, this is a really good example of meeting consumers where they are because obviously we're selling a defatted insect meal that's very similar looking to whether it's poultry meal or fish meal. But we don't realize that consumers don't automatically know that. So how do we convey what it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, what your pet feels about it, what are the nutritional benefits very quickly and easily?
One of the ways that we're doing that is kind of creating this new brand of our ingredients that's called Helucia. So the sign of the name of the black soldier fly is Hermesia elucens. And so Helucia is a portmanteau, a kind of a shortening, a combination of both the genus and the species.
And we want to kind of change the way that we refer to black soldier fly larva protein or black soldier fly larva oil, which aren't really the most consumer friendly ways to talk about a super healthy and natural and novel ingredient. So we want to change the narrative to Helucia protein, Helucia oil, and really showcase not only the benefits of the black soldier fly, but showcase the benefits of Innovafeed's industrial model. And those two things combined is really what Helucia means to me.
So we're really excited. I think the day that we're recording this, we just had a big promotion on our social pages. And so we're really excited about Helucia.
I think it's going to be a great tool to further educate pet parents in the pet space. And I'm looking forward to sharing that with folks throughout the markets that we serve.
So you're basically making campaigns that you publish on social media. Have you had some success with those campaigns before? And which ones you found to be less successful?
Is it because of the communication? Is it because of the imagery, the tone, the style, the type of the content that you shared?
Yeah, I think it's interesting. It's a great question. It's something that we're continuously honing at this point.
I think we need to realize who Innovafeed is, what Hellucia can be used for, and what our role is within the value chain of doing this education. To me, Innovafeed is never going to be that consumer-facing company, because we sell through brands, we sell who then kind of are that consumer face. And so really what I think has, I think our biggest takeaway is that we need to get every end of the value chain involved.
In the pet food space, that's getting the brands that we work with involved. So we've even developed this Power by Hellucia protein or Power by Hellucia oil label to put on their front of package to showcase this and really kind of let this speak for itself to the consumers directly. And then we have kind of a little back of pack explainer that goes over all of the benefits of Hellucia and the benefits of Innovafeed's industrial model.
And so I think the idea of working with the partners in the value chain who really have that, you know, the finger on the pulse of the consumer is really where I think our role is. You know, we need to let the people that are working with the consumer brands do that work for them and really empower them with the information on how best to situate insect-based ingredients.
Yeah, I ask you because you are opening a factory in the US so how do you plan to integrate marketing strategies in the launch and promotion of your new services to your new potential partners?
Yeah, yeah, I always joke that, you know, we're a French-based biotech, but the reason I don't have a really cool accent like Monica is because of our plans of expansion in the United States. So as you mentioned, yeah, we're building what will become the world's largest insect production facility in Decatur, Illinois, in partnership with Archer Daniels Midland, ADM, who is headquartered there, and we're going to do the same kind of industrial symbiosis model, this time using, connecting our facilities to a corn mill. So we use wheat-based byproducts in Europe.
We will use corn-based byproducts in the US. And to give you a sense of timeline, we just actually opened and started breeding flies at our pilot level facility, which is really like a way to kind of de-risk everything at a semi-industrial scale. And then we will break ground on the larger scale facility in the next couple of years as we get more and more learnings from both our French factory that's currently in operation and that pilot facility indicator.
And I think understanding the differences in dynamics between the markets is really crucial. I think we want to have an overarching strategy on how we approach, let's say, pet food consumers globally. But we know that pet food consumers in France, in Germany, in the UK, in Italy are different than pet food consumers in the United States.
And so how can we translate these benefits into those kind of educational pieces to meet those consumers where they are? And so the way that we've been really doing that is through consumer surveys that are really geographically based. And so we've done quite a few in the US.
We've done some in France, which is where HQ is. We've done some throughout different parts of the EU. And really to hone in kind of what do consumers think about insect-based project?
Do they know anything about it? Or what level of education will be needed to kind of launch that out? One of the benefits of the EU is that the hotbed of insect ingredient production is in Europe.
So the markets are quite a bit more developed than they are in the US. And so we found that a lot of people are more and more familiar with insect-based ingredients, whether it's through the pet food channel that I'm focused on or the aquaculture and livestock channels that we also sell them to, which is a really strong benefit. But one of the beauties of the North American market is that we're kind of starting from scratch so we can build the narrative, build that educational tools from the ground up, which is a really interesting challenge, but I think gives us a lot of freedom to operate in kind of the way that we see as would be most beneficial for the market.
Yeah, well, it's a common challenge throughout the clean tech, agri-tech, nature tech, food tech industries. But how do you feel that Innovafeed is going to contribute to the local economies? I'm talking about the US, particularly in the regions where your facilities are located.
Yeah, I think, I mean, we have always been very, very strong advocates for local partnership. You know, when we just published our first impact report, and to us is not just the environmental CO2, biodiversity, et cetera. It's also, you know, the local economic impact.
And so we, you know, our model really allows for us to go into usually industrial agricultural communities where that's where the grain processing takes place. And we're able to kind of be good neighbors, invest a lot of time, energy and resources into those communities and be great partners. So we've worked in Illinois, we've worked with the state of Illinois, we've worked with federal agencies, we've worked with the local jurisdictions, both at the county and the local level, to really ensure that we're doing things the right way, where we're hiring local talent and going to be, you know, we want to be there for a really long time.
And so we want to make sure we're good neighbors as we do that and get that community impact as we can.
And where do you see the future of sustainable nutrition in, let's say, five to ten years?
Yeah, it's a great question. I think just more and more transparency is what I see. Consumers are really starting to ask the questions about where does this food come from?
What did this food eat? You know, one of the most interesting parts about looking at the carbon footprints of different protein sources or different pet foods is that the ingredients themselves, whether it's the feed that your chicken ate, the feed that your fish ate, or it's the ingredients that make up your pet's food, is that's where the lion's share of emissions, environmental impacts come from. And I don't think a lot of people know that.
And I think just that realization that, you know, this transparency, this level of accountability, this level of, you know, stewardship will really require everybody kind of getting involved from every end of the value chain, from ingredient producers to feed formulators, to farmers, to the consumers themselves, and really asking the questions about, like, hey, is this really what's best for, you know, whether it's your body, your pet's body, et cetera, and is it best for the environment too?
The consumers raise some ethical questions about, you know, turning insects into food or?
There's definitely been some questions. I think anytime you're harvesting an animal, whether it's a cow, a sheep, a chicken, or a black soldier fly larva, there's always questions about how to do so from, how to do this in the most humane way. And so we have PhD animal nutrition ethicists on our team that are kind of working to lead the charge in what is the most humane way to go about kind of the slaughtering process to go about the farming operations themselves.
And so we actively are trying to stay on the forefront of all of those, all of those kind of questions. That's part of kind of our impact as well is to make sure that we're doing this for the environment. We're doing this for the nutrition of the animals that we serve, but we're also doing this in the most humane way possible for the insects that we raise under our roof.
And can consumers contact you, ask you questions directly through socials or some channels?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the best way to reach out to me is on LinkedIn. Sean Madison from Innovafeed.
You should be able to find me with a quick search. I share quite a bit of our feedback on here. I'm actually thinking of maybe getting into the TikTok game.
I received some feedback from one of our brand partners that that would be really helpful. But as a kind of millennial, I haven't really taken the dive into TikTok. So if you do follow me on there after I get that going, please bear with me while I get my bearings first.
But I might have to do a couple of dances or something like that.
Sean, my last question for you is, can you give me, well, not me, but to our listeners from the Cleantech or in this case, people who are doing food tech products or have their startups, what should they do to scale up their businesses in the US compared to, let's say, the experiences of the company that you work for in Europe?
Yeah, it's a great question. And I would say no matter what you're doing, no matter if you're selling directly to consumers or anything like that, you need to figure out the consumer. I think people could easily view somebody like Innovafeed as we're up to the value chain.
We never sell our protein meals directly to people to eat them. We sell it through their food or through their pet's food. And I think that that way of looking at things is a mistake.
When we kind of, I think if you look at it that way, the best you can do is find a niche. Niche is not necessarily a bad thing. But if you want to make the impact that we want to make at Innovafeed, we need to go that extra level down.
We need to kind of understand the consumer preference, consumer demands in the areas that we serve. And even if we're not the ones directly doing it. And so that's what I would really, really encourage, especially in the US market that I'm very, very familiar with, is you need to understand what the consumer thinks about it.
And what are some ways that you can kind of educate and do some convincing that whatever solution that you're bringing to the table in the food tech space is a solution that resonates with those consumers. Because at the end of the day, that's what matters.
Well, thank you, Sean. If there's anything else to add, some recommendations where people can get more introduced to what you do, or at least to find out something more about food tech and how we can turn insects into protein, you can share it now. We can link in the description below.
I'm definitely going to link your LinkedIn profile so people can easily find you. If you have some more resources to share, please do.
I'd say LinkedIn, our, I think can kind of go over all of this consumer efforts that we've begun over the last probably year and a half. It's something that I'm very proud of. It really aims to distill all of the great work that we're doing in a more consumer friendly way.
So LinkedIn, our page, and then just reach out if you have any questions. This was great. Great.
Well, this marks the end of another episode of the Green New Perspective Podcast. And like the ones before, this one is proudly sponsored by New Perspective, a Boston-based marketing agency working with CleanTech Lens. If you happen to be working for a CleanTech company and you're in the lookout for an awesome digital marketing agency, check out the info in the description of this episode and discover what our sponsors are offering.
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