Antoine Hubert is the head of Ynsect, a company that breeds insects. This French start-up has raised $372 million to embark on large-scale insect production and build a robotic vertical farm to breed insects near Amiens. The journey of this agricultural engineer is surprising as the entrepreneur tries to shake up received ideas by wanting to make insects a food like any other. He is one of the founders of the company Ynsect, which he chairs today. From associations to start-ups that have become unicorns, his company produces insect-based food for animals and humans. Amiens breeding located in a vertical farm 35 meters high should start in the fall of 2022. Antoine Hubert is releasing a book on February 2, 2022 For a positive ecology, manifesto of an insect producer (edition Otherwise) in which he exposes his vision of an ecology reconciling sobriety and technology and his vision of citizen entrepreneurship. Interview with Hubert Antoine to talk about the place of insects in food and transition.
Why write this book For a positive ecology, manifesto of an insect producer ?
By creating the company Ynsect, I wanted to show that it was possible to reconcile ecology and economy and to provide answers to the two major challenges of climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. The purpose of this book and of my company is also to prove that it is possible to reindustrialize and produce locally.
Today, insect-based products intended for human consumption represent what proportion of your turnover ?
Insect-based products intended for human consumption currently represent 5% of our turnover. We hope that within 4 years, it will be 10% and much more at the end of the decade if the market takes off, in particular thanks to environmental awareness.
[À lire aussi Avion, mode, viande, vidéo en ligne ou voiture, à quoi les Français, les Européens, les Américains et les Chinois sont-ils prêts à renoncer pour lutter contre le changement climatique ?]
« Show that it was possible to reconcile ecology and economy. »
Reasons for consuming insects
What are the environmental benefits of eating insects?
Eating insects emits less greenhouse gases (GHG) than eating beef or poultry. Insect farming emits less methane and nitrous oxide. A burger made with insects emits 200 times less GHG than a burger made with beef and 20 times less than one made with poultry.
« A burger made with insects emits 200 times less GHG than a burger made with beef and 20 times less than one made with poultry. »
In addition, the droppings of the insects we raise provide organic fertilizer, which means that we no longer depend on chemical fertilizers based on nitrogen or phosphate. It is a real carbon sink.
But, how to convince consumers?
To start, our products are primarily aimed at athletes in order to demonstrate their nutritional and health qualities. In addition to their proven nutritional qualities, insects also have real taste qualities. Now, we know very well that the whole world is not going to start eating insects overnight. On the other hand, what is interesting is to eat fewer animals and more plants in order to achieve a form of sobriety in consumption. In terms of environmental impact, insects are the best of both worlds. On the one hand, insects are a very digestible protein giving the opportunity to manufacture healthy food intended for human consumption. On the other hand, using insects to replace soy or fish-based animal meal in animal feed reduces the environmental impact of livestock farming by limiting deforestation and overfishing.
[À lire aussi Petit à petit, les insectes font leur nid dans les rations d’élevage]
Is replacing meat with protein from insects a goal for you? Isn’t there a risk that my insect-based protein will add to meat rather than replace meat protein? and therefore that in the end the consumption and impact of meat does not decrease?
Of course, we must indeed pay attention to the rebound effect. This is why it is essential to change the way we produce and also to ensure sobriety in consumption. Public and fiscal policies must help to eat less and better. This means eating fewer calories, fresher and less processed products.
We are going to increase the diversity of the offer to allow consumers to favor alternatives to meat. We want to give consumers the right products at the right time. Let me explain: I think you can keep red meat for special occasions such as festive meals during which you take the time to savor, but, in my eyes, meat is not justified when you are in a hurry. When there is no time to eat or prepare food, we tend to go for fast food or processed foods. There, our insect products play a role.
“When there is no time to eat or prepare food, we tend to go for fast food or processed food. There, our insect products play a role.«
Reducing red meat is an important goal, but it should be borne in mind that extensive animal husbandry, with animals grazing on free-range grass, plays a vital role in maintaining landscapes such as meadows or pastures in the mountains for example.
[À lire aussi Une pouponnière de millions d’insectes pour protéger les tomates]
The vertical farm
What demonstration do you want to make with the vertical farm project for the breeding of insects which relies heavily on robotization?
We want to show with our vertical farm that technology and nature are not antagonists but allies. Technology has a role to play in addressing environmental issues. Insect breeding has existed for millennia, but it is a labor-intensive activity, you have to carry the bins, feed the insects… We have automated all handling operations to allow breeders and operators to focus on monitoring livestock quality rather than moving heavy loads.
« We want to show with our vertical farm that technology and nature are not antagonists but allies.«
In addition, robotics makes it possible to create qualified employment and value, to regain sovereignty by producing locally and consequently to reduce dependence on imports for the proteins used in breeding. You should know that France currently imports 50% of the vegetable proteins used in animal husbandry and Europe 80%, largely from South or North America.
[À lire aussi Déforestation : Greenpeace dénonce « l’addiction » européenne au soja OGM brésilien]
How do you respond to critics who deem this technology-based vertical farm model remote from peasant agriculture and the land?
It is true that the production of insects like that of yeasts and micro-algae relies on more technological and industrial companies. The objective remains to offer quality products to as many people as possible.
We need all agricultures. We need small local and peasant farms that raise quality livestock or poultry in the open air. But it is also necessary, at the same time, to be able to reach the greatest number. The risk of peasant agriculture is that it is elitist because it is labor intensive and therefore expensive. Its products will therefore be aimed above all at people with high incomes.
I think the two models are complementary. I believe that there will be more and more peasant agriculture and more technological agriculture that will help peasant agriculture to work. For example, we offer farmers organic fertilizers made from the droppings of the insects we raise.
[À lire aussi À la ferme verticale Jungle, les herbes aromatiques voient la vie en rose et Une des plus grandes fermes « verticales » d’Europe ouvre ses portes au Danemark]
Why did you choose to raise mealworms?
The mealworm has characteristics that we have not found in the fly or the cricket. The beechworm has a very high nutritional density close to that of milk and a limited environmental impact. In addition, it is a stable species for which breeding techniques have been well known for decades since this worm is used as fishing bait or in animal feed.
“The mealworm has characteristics that we haven’t found in the fly or the cricket. »
Are you working on selection within the species?
We are going to work on the development of an agronomic sector for the selection of insects, as has always been done in agriculture. We will study the varieties, cross them and select them so that they have better nutritional qualities, more interesting tastes or faster growth. Nevertheless, we want to preserve the resistance of the current strain to diseases and we want to avoid certain shortcomings observed in the history of domestication and selection.
What about the issue of animal suffering?
Insects are not vertebrates, they do not have a brain or a mechanism for receiving the sensation of pain. Yet they have a form of intelligence and they feel things. We must be very clear, and on this I think that the vegan movement is very biased, intelligence is found in all living things. We now know that trees and fungi feel, exchange information, in short they communicate with each other. The question to ask is how do we respect the living knowing that we need to consume part of it to live. So you have to raise and eat mindfully.
Precisely, insects are among the great forgotten of the sixth mass extinction which currently affects biodiversity. Any word on that?
[À lire aussi Les scientifiques sont incertains quant aux proportions du déclin des insectes et L’entomologiste Henri-Pierre Aberlenc : « on peut tout ignorer des insectes, mais c’est se priver d’une composante fabuleuse du réel »]
Absolutely. The Ynsect company was born out of an associative project aimed at raising young people’s awareness of the origin and future of the content of their plate. We are currently talking about the apocalypse of insects, victims of intensive agriculture and chemical inputs, as well as urbanization. Insects are the base of the food chain, their disappearance would destabilize the balance of life and ecosystems. We must restore a balance in the living and preserve the climate.
“Insects are the base of the food chain, their disappearance would destabilize the balance of life and ecosystems. »
You rely on both technological innovation and behavioral change to move towards greater sustainability. Double challenge. What lessons can be drawn from this to face current environmental challenges?
It is a permanent plea for change. You have to invest a lot of time and resources in communication and marketing to explain what you do and why it makes sense and to show by example. In our case, showing and letting people know that eating insects is good for health and the environment. For the consumption of insects as well as the preservation of the environment, it is interesting to convince young people of the relevance of the changes, especially because they do not yet have any cultural blockages that slow down changes in habits.
“We need a lot of committed entrepreneurs with solutions. »
Do you have a last word?
We must act now to transform the way we produce and consume to move towards more sobriety. And I believe that we need a lot of committed entrepreneurs with solutions. I was not originally an entrepreneur. If you have useful ideas to meet the challenges of the world and the general interest, then you have to start with good support.
[À lire aussi Bertrand Piccard et la fondation Solar Impulse ont identifié plus de 1000 solutions écologiques : « il faut de nouvelles technologies pour ne pas demander à la population des efforts impossibles à tenir »]
Interview by Julien Leprovost
For a positive ecology, Manifesto of an insect producer, Antoine Hubert and Laurent Vaultier, editions otherwise