Tyson, a major American producer of beef, pork and chicken, is betting on proteins that come from insects.
The meat processor said on Tuesday it had invested in Protix, a Netherlands-based maker of insect ingredients. Tyson is not only taking a minority stake in the company, but is working with it to build a factory in the US. This facility will use animal waste to feed black soldier flies, which will then be turned into food for pets, birds and fish. Tyson did not disclose the financial details of the deal.
At this stage, these flies do not enter human food. “Today we are focused on more than [an] ingredient application with insect proteins than we are a consumer application,” said John R. Tyson, chief financial officer of Tyson Foods.
Insect protein, long hailed as a sustainable food source, has not entered the mainstream. But in recent years, interest in insects as animal feed ingredients has grown.
A 2021 report by Rabobank noted that “demand for insect protein, primarily as an animal and pet food ingredient, could reach half a million metric tons by 2030, up from today’s market of approximately 10,000 metric tons.” That same year, Mars launched a line of cat food made from insects called LoveBug.
Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson doesn’t make pet food, but sells its animal byproducts for use in the pet food and fish-feeding aquaculture markets, the CFO said. By-products such as animal fats, hides and inedible proteins, if not used or reduced, can end up in landfills. In this case, Tyson can send what’s in the stomachs of the cattle he’s treated to a Protix facility, where he feeds it to insects. For the company, creating a larger market for this type of waste can not only reduce waste, but also offer a larger revenue stream.
“One of the things about being in the animal protein business is figuring out … how to get value out of” waste, Tyson said. “We saw this as an extension of our existing business,” he said of the Protix collaboration, adding that the insect ingredients market has “really attractive growth characteristics that would accelerate Tyson.”
The market for insect ingredients is “definitely growing at an exponential rate that I think is exponential,” said Christine Johanna Pickard, a biology professor at Indiana University-Purdue’s Indianapolis School of Science. Picard helped establish the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, a partnership between academia and industry members, including Tyson and Protix.
“There are more and more startups entering the space because there is so much demand for insect proteins,” she said.
The partnership with Tyson will help Protix scale, noted Kees Aarts, the company’s CEO. “These partnerships are really necessary to bring solutions like ours to the global stage,” he said.
The meat industry puts a heavy burden on the planet, in part because of the land, water and energy needed to grow the crops that feed the animals we eat. Some experts say reducing the ecological footprint of animal feed can help make for a more sustainable system.
Making insect food is one way to do this: bugs take up less space and subsist on waste that would otherwise be thrown away.
The black soldier fly “can grow on almost any type of food waste and by-product you can imagine,” Aarts said.
That waste management is a big part of why insects can help ease the burden placed on the planet by cattle and other animals, said Reza Ovisipour, assistant professor of sustainable food systems in Texas Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology. A&M University.
Flies eat waste from different kinds of animals and turn it into “a specific product, which will be the protein or fat from the insects,” he said. “Once you have that specific protein and fat in place, you can easily formulate your animal diet.”
When insects eat animal waste, they essentially serve as “mini bioreactors,” he said. “And these mini bioreactors are very cheap,” he said. “You don’t have to apply as much energy. It’s very sustainable.”