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Industrial meat giant Tyson Foods is teaming up with Dutch insect ingredient producer Protix to construct an insect ingredient manufacturing facility in the U.S.
In an announcement last week, Tyson said it is acquiring an ownership stake in Protix, and forming a joint venture to construct “the first at-scale facility of its kind to upcycle food manufacturing byproducts into high-quality insect proteins and lipids which will primarily be used in the pet food, aquaculture, and livestock industries,” Tyson Foods stated.
In a statement, Protix said, “The strategic investment will support the growth of the emerging insect ingredient industry and expand the use of insect ingredient solutions to create more efficient sustainable proteins and lipids for use in the global food system.”
Tyson Foods, Protix and proponents of insect-based foods argue that the production of such food products is more sustainable than rearing conventional livestock.
But food safety experts who spoke with The Defender said companies like Tyson are motivated by financial and other incentives, not sustainability. Citing scientific studies to back their claims, they also questioned the safety of insect ingredients.
“This is not about public health or even environmental health,” Nina Teicholz, science journalist and founder of The Nutrition Coalition, said. “The food industry likes bugs, because producing them involves multiple, patent-protected steps that enable companies to make a profit and control our food sources.”
Dutch journalist Elza van Hamelen, who has investigated Protix, told The Defender, “The takeover and transformation of our food system — toward synthetic lab-grown meat, GMO [genetically modified organism] vertical farming and insect farms — is an attack from many fronts.”
“Venture capital is investing in this, even though there is not a clear business case,” she said. “Governments are setting up ‘ecosystems’ in which government representatives, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], academia and business join hands to get ‘alternative proteins’ off the ground.”
Science communicator Dr. Kevin Stillwagon, a retired chiropractor and airline pilot who investigates health issues on his Substack page, said, “There are already efforts underway to convince us that the way we raise food for human consumption is harming the environment by using up too much land and water and emitting excess greenhouse gasses.” He added, “They will try to convince us that even by using insects as animal feed, the environmental problem is not going to get solved.”
Howard Vlieger, a member of the board of advisers of GMO/Toxin Free USA, told The Defender that Tyson could leverage its market power and its entry into the insect ingredient market to place further financial pressure on cattle suppliers.
“Tyson is one of just four large companies that livestock producers rely on to market their cattle,” he said. “Tyson could potentially leverage its alternative foods interests against cattle purchases, thus lowering the demand and price for the cattle they buy.”
Tyson’s deal with Protix move marks the latest instance in a recent trend that has seen several prominent food producers, including Cargill, invest in insect ingredient manufacturers.
‘Stomach contents of cattle’ to be used as ‘a viable feed source for insects’
John R. Tyson, chief financial officer of Tyson Foods, told Food Ingredients First his company will use its own “by-products,” including “the stomach contents of processed cattle,” to produce “a viable feed source for insects.”
In Tyson Foods’ press release, Kees Aarts, CEO of Protix, said, “Tyson Foods’ and Protix’s strategic partnership advances our joint work towards creating high-quality, more sustainable protein using innovative technology and solutions. Moreover, we can immediately use their existing byproducts as feedstock for our insects.”
According to CNN, “Byproducts like 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 stomach of cattle it has processed to a Protix facility, where it’s fed to insects.”
“For the company, creating a larger market for this type of waste can not only reduce waste but offer a larger revenue stream,” CNN reported.
The Tyson Foods statement said, “Protix contributes to a circular food chain by using waste from the food industry as feed for the black soldier fly (BSF). In turn, the insects are processed into valuable nutrients such as proteins and lipids.”
“Protix’s customers use these proteins and lipids as high-quality ingredients for feed and food” while “residual streams from the insects are used as organic fertilizer,” it added.
Aarts told CNN the black soldier fly “can grow on almost every type of food waste and byproduct you can imagine,” while according to Food Ingredients First, the flies “can eat up to twice their body weight daily, which can be used to enable a closed-loop recycling system,” creating a reusable protein source while using less water and land.
When completed, the Tyson Foods-Protix facility will “centre on all aspects of production, from breeding and incubating to the hatching of insect larvae,” Just Food reported, quoting a Tyson Foods spokesperson as saying the two companies are currently looking to “identify” the location where their plant will be constructed.
The joint-venture facility is expected “to be ready for ramping up operations towards the end of 2025,” according to Feed Navigator, which also reported that “The facility’s capacity will be three to four times the output of [Protix’s] existing plant” in The Netherlands. It will be able to produce “up to 70,000 tons of live larvae equivalent annually.”
According to Just Food, the precise size and cost of the minority stake Tyson Foods acquired in Protix has not been disclosed, but according to Feed Navigator, “When asked to disclose how much the U.S. company has invested, a spokesperson for Protix [said] funding from existing backers along with Tyson Foods” totaled $58 million.
Tyson’s insects not headed for human food supply — yet
The companies claim that the insect-based products they will manufacture will not enter the human food supply — for now. Tyson told CNN “Today, we’re focused on more of [an] ingredient application with insect protein than we are a consumer application.”
But a Tyson Foods spokesperson told Just Food that “Human food compositions exist, and Protix is leading the development of high-quality proteins from animal and fish feeds to consumer-level products.”
“While consumer adoption is very low and human-food applications are not the focus of this joint venture, opportunities exist in the long term to create more sustainable protein products,” the Tyson Foods spokesperson added.
Tyson told Food Ingredients First that he views his company as a “catalyst” that can create a more sustainable and equitable food system, and that “Partnerships with those across industries are an important part of that journey, working together to advance our collective sustainability ambitions and transform the global food system.”
According to Stillwagon, inserting insects into the human food supply is the goal of major food producers.
“Livestock and fish that are fed with insect-based proteins and lipids will most definitely enter the human food supply. This may change the taste of these foods to some degree,” he said.
“Also, the fish and livestock may need to be genetically modified so they will grow to sizes necessary for harvesting since they would be consuming something that is not natural to them,” Stillwagon added.
Not ‘adequately tested for safety’
According to CNN, “The meat industry places a large burden on the planet, in part because of the land, water and energy it takes to grow crops that feed the animals we eat,” adding that “Some experts say that reducing the environmental footprint of animal feed can help make the system more sustainable.”
“Making food out of insects is one way to do that: Bugs take up less space and subsist on waste that would otherwise be discarded,” CNN reported.
According to Food Dive, “Insect protein has grown in prominence in recent years with companies debuting cricket-based snacks and powders,” citing claims by cricket ingredient brand Exo that crickets are 20 times more efficient to grow than cattle.
CNN quoted Reza Ovissipour, Ph.D., professor in sustainable food systems at Texas A&M University, who said that flies operate as “mini bioreactors” that can convert animal waste into “the protein or fat from the insects,” which can then be used as animal feed.
“And these mini bioreactors, they are very inexpensive,” he said. “You don’t need to apply that much energy. It’s very sustainable,” he said.
Experts who spoke with The Defender expressed a different view.
“Due to the insect exoskeletons, which humans are not adapted to eat, it’s not clear that this new ‘foodstuff’ is safe for humans — or pets,” Teicholz said. “Insects and bugs have not been adequately tested for safety.”
“We know that meat, eggs and fish are sources of complete, whole proteins that humans (and dogs) have evolved to eat over millions of years,” she added. “We should be trying to figure out how to make these natural proteins more sustainable rather than shift to new, potentially dangerous food sources.”
Along similar lines, Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the Organic Consumers Association, said, “We don’t need to replace meat, milk or eggs with anything, we just have to raise animals on pasture. This is incredibly beneficial to the environment, really productive and produces the most nutrient-dense food possible.”
Baden-Mayer also said there are several risks that insects, when consumed as food, pose for human health, noting that insects contain allergens known as chitins and toxins known as mycotoxins — which also cause mold to be toxic to humans.
Stillwagon said insects pose other risks to human health.
“Since allergies to insect proteins, known as entomophagy allergies, have been reported, food producers must label insect-based products accurately to provide allergen information,” he said.
“The second risk is the microbiome and virome of the insect itself,” Stillwagon said. “It is possible that in some people with weakened immune systems, the consumption of bacteria and viruses that are naturally part of the insect could become pathogenic,” he added.
“Chemicals that are used to kill bacteria and viruses during the processing of insects on a massive scale for food may be harmful to humans,” Stillwagon said. “Also, the plants that the insects feed on may have been treated with chemicals like glyphosate or pesticides that will be absorbed into the insects and be consumed by humans.”
A February 2017 article in eBioMedicine, published by The Lancet, states that “Infections with viruses, bacteria and parasites have been recognized for years to be associated with human carcinogenicity.”
And an article published in July in the Nutrients journal stated that “Insect protein is an adequate protein source with promising health benefits” but noted that “further research is needed to fully understand its potential and optimise its inclusion into the human diet.”
WEF, WHO, major banks and investment firms promoting insect-based food
Yet, CNN reports that “interest in insects as ingredients for animal food has been growing” even if it “hasn’t caught on in the mainstream.”
CNN cited a 2021 report by the Netherlands-based Rabobank, claiming that “the demand for insect protein, mainly as an animal feed and pet food ingredient, could reach half a million metric tons by 2030, up from today’s market of approximately 10,000 metric tons.” Rabobank and Rabo Investments are investors in Protix.
A report by Grand View Research says the global insect protein market is expected to expand by an annual compound growth rate of 27.4% by 2028.
Protix says it aims to increase its “global gross revenue to around €1bn [$1.06 billion] by 2035 through international partnerships.”
Tyson Foods is an investor in Upside Foods, a company that recently won approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to produce lab-grown chicken. Upside has attracted more than $600 million in research and development investments, including from Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal Musk and Cargill.
Tyson Foods has also invested in Future Meat Technologies, another company seeking to develop cultivated meat products.
According to Food Ingredients First, “Earlier this year, Tyson Foods felt the impact of high inflation and low meat demand, which plunged its stocks by 45.36% from a year ago,” leading the company to close two of its U.S. chicken plants in March.
Yet, last year, Tyson Foods invested $355 million in a bacon production facility in Kentucky, “to meet rising retail and foodservice demand for bacon products.”
Other “Big Food” players have also made significant investments in this space, including Cargill, which in 2022, expanded a partnership with Innovafeed for the production of “sustainable” insect-based fertilizer and animal food, from three to 10 years.
ADM (Archer-Daniels-Midland) has also partnered with Innovafeed to commercialize insect protein for pet food sold in the U.S. and for the construction and operation of an insect production facility in Illinois, adjacent to an ADM corn processing complex.
According to van Hamelen, “There is a lot of financial and policy support to get these ‘foods’ off the ground. Corporations are steered towards moving their portfolios into ‘novel foods’ as part of ESG investment rating criteria,” adding that “It may be interesting to review the ownership of these corporations and the agenda they pursue.”
Notably, Vanguard and BlackRock, the world’s two largest institutional investment firms, are also the two top institutional holders of Tyson Foods shares. BlackRock, and its CEO, Larry Fink, have been strong proponents of “sustainable” corporate practices.
Governments have also gotten into the act, van Hamelen told The Defender.
“The legislative framework is being prepared to approve these ‘foods’ as ‘novel food’ — in the EU, U.S. and also at the U.N. [United Nations] level under the Codex Alimentarius,” she said. “In addition, ‘behavioral government’ approaches, a.k.a. social engineering, used to steer people towards alternative protein choices, are part of government policy.”
For instance, in June, the EU authorized yellow mealworm powder to be used in bread, cakes, mashed potatoes, pasta and vegetables, following a novel food application French firm Nutriearth submitted in 2019. According to Food Ingredients First, “Final authorization on this is expected later this year or early 2024.”
In May, the U.K. Edible Insect Association declared that the house cricket was deemed “within the scope of novel foods regime and valid.”
The European Commission has found that consumers are already aware of insects as an ingredient in foods, and has called on food manufacturers to display the Latin names of the insects contained in the food on the packaging for the product.
Baden-Meyer said that companies like Tyson Foods are looking to the future — and to applications of insect-based products going beyond just food.
“As we saw with the COVID-19 vaccines, cells are the new factories. Maybe that’s the bacterial cells used in ‘precision fermentation,’ maybe it’s the cells living within our own bodies,” she said. “Vaccines are first, but I expect all drugs to be delivered via mRNA or DNA ‘gene therapy’ instructions for the cell to produce a protein.”
“Maybe that will be the way ‘food’ will eventually be ‘delivered’ too,” Baden-Meyer said, citing the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s “Living Foundries” program, which seeks to program “the fundamental metabolic processes of biological systems to generate a vast number of complex molecules that are not otherwise accessible.”
Stillwagon identified a danger stemming from insects consuming byproducts of animals that had previously received mRNA vaccines. He said:
“Another danger is the potential use of mRNA encapsulated in lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) as ‘vaccines’ in the animals or insects to try to prevent diseases. The animals would most likely be injected. The insects and aquaculture would ingest them.
“The use of ingested mRNA encapsulated in LNPs has already been investigated in some insects, shrimp and fish. The possibility of these encapsulated mRNA particles entering the human food supply is very real.”
Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment ending government funding to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA during fiscal year 2024 for the development of transgenic edible vaccines, that would deliver mRNA “vaccines” through foods such as lettuce.
“My guess is this what the ‘Great Resetters’ plan to feed us with and make everything else out of, too,” Baden-Meter said, referring to the “Great Reset” promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Bacteria is the new petroleum, the ‘plastics’ of our generation, but it’s going to take a while to make this shift,” she added.
Notably, Aarts is a member of the WEF and a member of the WEF’s Future Council on Food Security and Agriculture. In 2015, Protix was one of the recipients of the WEF’s “Technology Pioneer” award, for its work in agrifood technologies.
A 2019 paper by the WEF, “Alternative Proteins,” published as part of the “Meat: the Future” series, says such proteins can meet “the nutritional needs and food demands of a predicted mid‑century population of 10 billion, in a healthy and sustainable manner.”
“The benefits of these products is not sufficient for consumers to adopt them,” the report states. “A much wider set of interventions will be required to accelerate uptake,” including the development of “narratives.”
The report also notes that “it is unlikely that alternative proteins will achieve scale unless use is made of the production and marketing expertise of the traditional protein sector.”
The WEF stated “We need to fundamentally transform our food systems to provide all humanity with affordable, nutritious and healthy food within the limits of nature by 2030,” in accordance with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Stillwagon said that organizations like the WEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) will seek to sway public opinion in favor of insect consumption.
“The possibility exists for the WHO to declare a climate emergency over this, and force countries to change food production. They will show that insects have been consumed by many cultures in various parts of the world for centuries, opening the door for cultural acceptance in the U.S.,” he said.
“Overcoming the ‘yuck’ factor is a significant challenge, which is why I think a declaration of a climate emergency and promoting the idea that ‘it’s for the common good” will be necessary,” Stillwagon added.
The European Circular Bioeconomy Fund, funded by the EU’s European Investment Bank, and firms connected to Belgium (10.3%), Luxembourg (1.0%) and Monaco (via Monaco Asset Management), are also investors in Protix, van Hamelen said.
A 2021 memorandum of understanding between the Dutch government and the WEF, representative of close ties between the two, foresees the development of a “food innovation hub” in The Netherlands, with agrifood as one of its focus areas.
Last year, Dutch farmers protested government plans to “drastically” reduce nitrogen pollution from livestock farming by buying out or otherwise expropriating farmland.