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Eco-Efficient Protein: The Rise of Insect Farming with Korea Soft

Korea Soft (official site) builds agriculture automation solutions presently used to produce insect-based proteins destined for human consumption. It has been known for a while that some insect species could provide humans with an alternative source of protein. However, producing such proteins has been very challenging from an economic standpoint.

Past attempts to use insect-based protein were plagued with the bugs having diseases as it’s very hard to control the environment. Breeding multiple generations was also much more difficult in general when compared to larger animals.

But why use such an alternative to start with? It comes down to environmental efficiency. In the case of the white grub (brevitarsis seulensis larvae) that Korea Soft helps produce, they are said to require substantially less carbon emissions, water, feeds, land use, and time.

Also, those grubs can grow in a self-sustaining ecosystem where their feed (mushrooms) are produced and fertilized on-site using the grubs’ poo. While this sounds a bit gross, it’s also objectively efficient.

From a “qualitative” point of view, the proteins derived from the grubs are also considered by Korea Soft to be “high quality” because the protein content (density per gram) is 2.5X higher than beef, the absorption rate is extremely high (see study), and there are a lot of unsaturated fats, vitamins, and minerals. There are documented benefits if you want to do more research, but I was amused by mentioning “Hangover relief” in one of the presentation slides. This might be a motivator for partygoers, etc, to eat unconventional protein sources. During my research, I even found Korean soap made with this grub.

Korea Soft says it can make this work by using high-tech solutions such as Robotics, IoT devices, and software (and AI, of course) to control the environment and keep productivity on track.

The company’s hardware is like a small farm for grubs, with sensors and data acquisition. More importantly, it can remove mites and pathogens that may harm the grubs.

The boxes are also automatically cleaned, which helps keep the mortality rate low. I was curious to know how the mites were removed, but Korea Soft wasn’t ready to share this sensitive information yet as it is surely a key advantage in this industry.

The cloud-based software controls the hardware, ensures that everything works as intended, and collects monitoring and historical data to feed reports and AI (artificial intelligence) training.

From a business standpoint, the company could benefit from a global push for alternative protein sources and believes that the Alternative Protein market will reach $23B by 2050. According to them, the insect-based protein will be responsible for most of that growth.

And to make it happen, the company has an ambitious roadmap. At present time, it is already selling farming solutions as described above. In 2024, the goal is to expand that footprint to more farmers and supply on a global basis by 2026.

The idea of eating insect-based protein is now something that might make most people salivate, but this is not meant to replace steaks and chicken (at least, for now). Instead, there are many packaged foods where other forms of protein powder are used today, which could switch to white-grub protein without consumers noticing or complaining.

Would we see it in a “build muscles” protein-packaged product anytime soon? I don’t know, but I’m curious to see how consumers perceive it and how it can be marketed to them. But that’s for food companies to worry as I suspect Korea Soft will be a supplier rather than a consumer-facing brand.

That said, the industry has been using insects for a very long time. A famous example is the cochineal insect, which is widely used to create food-grade red color additives and other dyes. Korea Soft will show its technology at CES 2024.

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