You Might Not Want to Eat Bugs. But Would You Eat Meat That Ate Bugs?

At an insect farm in Cape Town, the bugs are hungry.

More than 8 billion flies being raised in South Africa by the start-up company AgriProtein gobble 250 metric tons of food and farm waste, like corn stalks, potato peelings and damaged vegetables, every day.

“There’s actually no such thing as waste. It’s just stuff in the wrong place. Our flies think it is wonderful to eat,” the firm’s chief executive, Jason Drew, said on the phone recently from the airport in Johannesburg.

AgriProtein is among a small number of start-ups that are using insect larvae to produce protein-rich ingredients for animal feed. This nascent industry could help feed a growing human population in a way that’s less damaging to the environment.

Currently, most animal feed comes from soybeans and fish meal, and producing it contributes to a range of problems linked to industrial agriculture, including greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, land degradation and overfishing. Animal feed production uses about one-third of the world’s cropland, and it consumes 12 percent of the fish produced, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Insect farming has long been promoted as the solution to these problems, in large part because bugs are very efficient at turning organic material into digestible proteins. The black soldier fly larvae favored by the “insect protein” industry can become 200 times bigger after eating organic waste for 10 days.

Producers say that breeding larvae requires less water and land than growing soybeans, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

And bugs are nutritious. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, insect meal could replace from 25 percent to 100 percent of soybean meal or fish meal used in animal feed with no adverse effects.

While convincing people in Western nations to eat wriggly worms instead of juicy steaks would be an enormous challenge, using insect protein to feed animals instead of soy and fish may not be that hard.

Protix opened one of the world’s largest insect farms in June in the Netherlands, while other producers, including Enviroflight, Ynsect and AgriProtein, are building large facilities to turn billions of insects into animal protein every month. Large farming companies like Cargill and Wilbur-Ellis are also investing in this sector.

By breeding insects in vertical farms, these companies can produce large amounts of feed in less space than traditional farms, their proponents say.

“Having these vertical indoor farms is a way to control all parameters and increase overall efficiency. It’s much easier to monitor and control risks in an indoor farm than an outdoor farm,” said Antoine Hubert, the chief executive and co-founder of Ynsect, which breeds mealworm in an automated plant in eastern France.

And these insects are essentially recyclers that can turn huge amounts of organic waste into protein.

“I’ve been to facilities that can digest a hundred tons a day of waste with these insects. That’s a hundred tons of waste that won’t go into a landfill. A hundred tons of waste that won’t produce greenhouse gases. A hundred tons of waste that won’t potentially pollute the soils with pathogens,” said Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University who has been studying the black soldier fly for over two decades.

The beauty of the industry, Mr. Tomberlin said, is that black soldier fly larvae can also be reared in small farms, allowing agricultural areas to turn their organic waste into a valuable product.

“You can grow these insects anywhere in the world, in developed nations and using robotics, as well as is in second- and third-world locations, using wood scraps and chicken wire from your backyard,” he said.

Proponents say this industry makes sense from a biological standpoint because insects are part of the natural diet of many animals, especially chicken and fish.

“The high-protein ingredient we produce is being targeted toward aquaculture. I think the big end goal of this industry is to try to offset some of the needs for wild-harvested fish to produce fish meal,” said Liz Koutsos, the chief executive of Enviroflight, which opened what it says is the first commercial-scale insect rearing facility in the United States last November.

Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing food industry, and one that requires large amounts of wild fish. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, from 1995 to 2015, the production of industrial aquaculture feeds increased sixfold, from eight to 48 million metric tons a year.

Despite the possibilities, the insect protein industry faces many challenges.

Regulatory hurdles have hampered its growth in Europe and the United States, where black soldier fly products can be used to feed poultry and some fish species but not other animals, and there is no regulatory approval for the use of other insect species for this purpose.

But companies are confident that regulators in the United States will lift those restrictions soon.

“Regulators from the E.U., the U.S. and Asia are quickly understanding that this is a natural process,” said Mr. Drew, whose company plans to open facilities in California, the Netherlands, Singapore and South Korea. “Regulators tend to support this type of industry rather than hamper it because it has immense environmental benefits.”

But to scale up operations, these companies also need to diversify their product portfolio, optimize production methods and raise large amounts of capital.

Dr. Koutsos said that insect protein companies are like chicken farmers in the 1920s, a time when chicken rearing was mostly a backyard operation and not the large-scale industry it is now.

“The beautiful thing is that with a 50-day life cycle from birth to breeding, which is a very short life cycle, our 1920s model will evolve much more rapidly than with longer-lived animals,” Dr. Koutsos said. “So we will make great strides in this industry and its ability to have an impact on the environment very, very quickly.”