Christine Picard’s search for a better bug to feed the world starts with dead bodies. Well, not the corpses themselves, but the blow flies, flesh flies, and other squirmy, wriggly things that wing their way to corpses in the minutes and hours after death. Picard, a forensic entomologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, studies why some insects grow much more quickly than others. This is important for criminal investigations, because the maturity and type of insects found on a body can help nail down exactly when someone died. But Picard’s research on corpse-munching flies is starting to have an effect way beyond autopsy reports: Now her focus is on food.
Don’t worry. It’s (mostly) not for you.
The booming insect farming industry is becoming extremely interested in what makes some larvae grow faster and fatter than others. In 2021, Picard became one of the lead researchers at the Center for Environmental Sustainability Through Insect Farming, a new U.S.-based research center that wants to make farming insects much more efficient. Although the industry is growing, by pure numbers it is still relatively puny: European farms only produced a few thousand tons of insect protein in 2020, a drop in the ocean compared to other sources of protein. These small production numbers keep the price of farmed insects high. One way to solve the problem is to selectively breed fatter and faster-growing bugs — the same approach that the livestock industry has used for centuries to make farm animals more productive.
Breeding better bugs is a high-stakes endeavor. There are now dozens of startups farming insects to sell as ingredients in pet, livestock, and human food. Insects have long been touted as a healthy, low-carbon source of protein that provides an antidote to animal agriculture’s many ills, like methane-burping cows and chicken farms that fuel the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. If more of us could join the 2 billion or so people who already eat insects, then we might start putting a dent in the 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions that currently come from farming livestock.
But you might have noticed that the much-promised future of cricket smoothies for breakfast, cicada sushi for dinner, and mealworm cookies for dessert hasn’t quite materialized yet. Instead, it’s animals — our pets and livestock — that are really driving the edible insect revolution. In Australia, dogs can chow down on pumpkin and mealworm biscuits made by Buggy Bix. In Europe, the brand Tomojo sells all kinds of animal treats supplemented with black soldier fly larvae. Mars, the world’s largest pet food manufacturer, now sells its own brand of insect-supplemented food for cats and dogs. For now, pet food is the largest market for insect protein.
Antoine Hubert, CEO of the French insect-farming startup Ÿnsect, says that the ground mealworms he sells to pet food firms makes up more than 50 percent of his company’s revenue. Pet owners pay a premium to feed their animals food with a lower environmental impact. “It’s where the market adoption has been the biggest,” says Hubert. Although the meat component of pet food typically comes from the bits of animals that humans don’t always eat, it still has a sizable environmental impact. One 2020 study from the University of Edinburgh found that the production of dry pet food alone is responsible for between 1 and 3 percent of global emissions from agriculture.
But feeding pets is only the beginning for insect farming. In 2022, for the first time the European Union will allow farmers to feed insects to pigs and poultry — a reversal of rules that banned feed made from animal remains in the wake of the mad cow disease outbreak in the mid-1990s. The poultry and pig feed market is huge: There are 146 million pigs in the E.U. and 7.2 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat there every year. Even supplying a tiny slice of this market with insect protein would require massively boosting insect production. Ÿnsect is currently building one of the world’s largest insect farms in northern France, but scaling up to feed pigs and poultry would require hundreds of similar farms, Hubert says.
It’ll also require more meatier and faster-growing bugs. One of the major components of chicken feed is soy, which is extremely cheap and widely used across the world. If insect farmers want to start replacing cheap commodity crops like soy, then they’ll need to find a way to bring down costs.
That’s where insect geneticists like Picard come in. “There’s just not enough production right now,” she says. Tuure Parviainen, CEO of Finnish insect farming startup Volare, agrees. “The demand is there, but the production needs to be taken to quite a large scale for the big producers to actually start making a product,” he says. This is just as true for pet food as it is for poultry: The volumes are so huge that big manufacturers aren’t quite ready to go all-in on insects. “The supply is not really there so that they could flip a switch and change ingredients yet,” says Parviainen.
One way to ramp up is to make sure that insect farms are as productive as possible. Scotland-based startup Beta Bugs runs breeding programs to develop more productive versions of the black soldier fly — one of the most commonly farmed insects. “What we have is effectively a very kind of raw material which can then be improved through selective breeding,” says CEO Thomas Farrugia. “Increasingly I think people are starting to realize that this is how we make the industry scale over time.”
Fortunately for insect breeders like Farrugia, time is on their side. Although it might have taken humans thousands of years of breeding to come up with modern cow varieties, insects have much, much shorter life cycles. A black soldier fly is ready to harvest about 14 days after hatching. Its entire life cycle can take around six weeks. “What this means is that you can cram a hell of a lot of selective breeding in a year,” says Farrugia. The trick to breeding a better bug, Farrugia says, is to balance different traits off against each other. You could have one variety of bug that produces lots and lots of skinny larvae, or another that produces a smaller number of fatter young. As larvae mature, the nutrients inside them also change, so one of the tricks of breeding is hitting the sweet spot between fat, juicy bugs and those that are at the right stage in their life cycle.
“What we have is effectively a very kind of raw material which can then be improved through selective breeding,” says Farrugia.
That said, they don’t want insects that mature too quickly, because the insects are shipped to insect farms while they’re still in the egg stage, to make sure they’re fresh when they arrive. Beta Bugs breeds its black soldier flies in a facility just outside of Edinburgh. From there, eggs are packaged and sent across the E.U. Picking the right courier is key, Farrugia says. Black soldier fly eggs hatch in about four days, so if a package is delayed the customer may end up with a delivery that is slightly more alive than they anticipated.
In France, Ÿnsect has launched a breeding program to study the genetics of Tenebrio molitor, the mealworm beetle. The company has already collaborated with the French national center of genome sequencing, Genoscope, to sequence the mealworm’s genome and has also identified a strain of the buffalo worm, a close relative of the mealworm, that grows 25 percent faster than the original strain.
There is a huge amount of genetic diversity inside insects just waiting to be discovered, Picard says. Fruit flies and black soldier flies diverged from each other around 200 million years ago, so the differences between species can be huge. Some are generalists, munching on any kind of waste, while others prefer specialized diets of manure or certain fruits. This might make certain species particularly suited to specific tasks. The oil from mealworms could be a suitable replacement for palm oil, for example, while others might have the specific nutrients that piglets need. We already have different cows for different kinds of beef, Farrugia points out. It might be just a matter of time until we’re chowing down on Angus Aberdeen mealworms, too.
Matt Reynolds is a senior writer at Wired, where he covers climate, food, and biodiversity.