Jessica Rose Buhl-Nielsen: "Insects can feed humanity tomorrow" - WE DEMAIN

Jessica Rose Buhl-Nielsen: “Insects can feed humanity tomorrow” – WE DEMAIN

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At only 24 years old, and with the help of her co-founder Malena, the Danish Jessica Rose Buhl-Nielsen has created an innovative start-up in the field of sustainable food. Hey Planet indeed offers insect-based food products. Their objective ? Design products that are good, with the best possible nutritional intake and a low environmental impact. Portrait of this young entrepreneur who, like the Belgian Adélaïde Charlier, moves the lines by committing to the planet.

Changearth Project is a series of portraits of young people committed to ecological transition, all over Europe. Co-created by two students, Astrid and Carla, this project aims to highlight these young people who are mobilizing in favor of the climate and biodiversity, and to inspire others to do the same. Throughout the summer, WE DEMAIN will publish one of these committed portraits once a week.

A few years ago, they started by testing recipes using insects and nuts at home, in their kitchen. “We looked for combinations of ingredients that worked together, then we selected three recipes from a hundred trials. We then continued to develop them, until we launched our own brand in 2016”, explains Jessica. Today, Hey Planet has four employees. They work with a specialized farm in the Netherlands that produces their protein bars and other snacks from insects. After a long research work, numerous tests and discussions with chefs, they have just launched their minced meat made from insects, the two main ingredients of which are pea protein and… the beetle.

Why eat insects?

The main interest of insects is that they are much less harmful to the planet than other animal products such as meat. “If we take the example of beetles, they take up very little space because they are raised in a vertical shelving system. They are fed with brewery leftovers, so that also helps to combat the problem of food waste”emphasizes Jessica.

According to their feed conversion ratio (FCR, a tool for understanding the sustainability of an animal product), with 1.7 kilos of food, you get 1 kilo of insects. While to produce 1 kilo of beef, you need 10 kilos of food; for pigs, 5 kilos and for chicken, 2.5 kilos. It is therefore more efficient to produce proteins from insects. Another important aspect is the water needed to raise them. Producing 1 kilo of beef requires an average of 15,000 liters of water, while for insects only 2 to 5 liters are needed. “Seen like that, you would think that it would be enough for everyone to go vegan, but that is without taking into account the nutritional aspect”she says.

A solution for sustainable food

To put things into perspective, it is not necessarily more sustainable to eat 5 kilos of avocado than a fish if you are looking to obtain Omega 3. This is all about the Eat-Lancet Report, written by the most recognized scientists in the field of sustainable food and who created the Planetary Health Diet, a standard diet that aims to reconcile the nutritional needs of each and the good health of the planet. It contains a little milk, a little egg, and a tiny bit of meat. The proportion of products of animal origin is greatly reduced compared to the current consumption average, but some of them are kept, because of their nutritional aspect.

Just like beef and pork, insects are very interesting in terms of nutrition: “They contain protein, vitamin B12 and iron, which can be difficult to obtain from a vegetarian diet”, explains Jessica. If we finally wonder about animal welfare, the breeding of insects is obviously less bad than that of cows. “Beetles like close, closed and dark spaces, although it’s a little different for other insects”, describes the young entrepreneur. Finally, these products are not certified organic because the legislation does not yet allow it, but the insects do not consume any medicine during their breeding. Indeed, unlike pigs for example, insects are not likely to transmit diseases to humans through their food.

Arancini made from insects, a recipe from Hey Planet.  Photo: Hey Planet.
Arancini made from insects, a recipe from Hey Planet. Photo: Hey Planet.

Economical in resources and water and very nutritious, are insects the future of our plate?

When asked about the ability of insects to feed humanity, Jessica is optimistic. “Of course, it is difficult today to imagine ceasing all meat production. But with a diet focused mainly on plants and some alternative sources of protein, we can greatly limit our consumption. With a little chicken, a little fish and pork on a very occasional basis, you get a diet that is good for your health and for the planet”. As for the insects, they are relatively easy and quick to produce (even if it will take us a few years to perfect their production). In short, “insects can feed humanity tomorrow” even if according to her, there is still a cultural change to operate.

At the start of their adventure, Malena and Jessica did not know of any competitors, but today more and more brands are offering similar products, such as Jimini’s in France or Eat grub in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the taste is not always there. The two young women have innovated in this sector thanks to their minced meat, which has great nutritional qualities, but also the appearance of meat and a particular taste. “It’s still about meat, since you can’t say that eating insects is being a vegetarian, but it’s kind of a new category of meat”.

Their products are distributed at Irma – a supermarket in Copenhagen –, in about twenty stores in Germany (including Muji or KaDeWe in Berlin). They are also available online, and their meat has just made its debut on the menu of a first restaurant in Denmark. They are now trying to focus on this meat and make it a success in restaurants, and then introduce it into supermarkets.

Insect-based products, a real marketing challenge

For now, Jessica and Malena are trying to target consumers who want to reduce the environmental impact of their food. “Technically, our products are not vegan, which is why we focus on pesco-vegetarians or flexitarians”. Their strategy has always been to introduce people to this concept with snacks, because it’s less scary to eat bugs in that form. Then, to introduce the meat, without putting it directly on the supermarket shelf. So they give it a taste at restaurants, festivals and pop-up shops, so people can try it out and hear about it. In the hope that they will then want to buy it.

European regulations do not facilitate their activity either. “There’s a rule that if a food hasn’t been eaten by enough people for more than 25 years, then you have to get permission to market it. We’ve been trying to get it for years.” They can therefore only export their products to countries that accept it today, such as Germany.

The advice that Jessica would give to someone who wants to launch their socially engaged start-up? Above all, it means being passionate about your solution. “5 years ago, nobody believed in insects, and today Hey Planet was born!”. Thanks to their concept, young Danish women are working for more sustainable food in Denmark and Germany. And we hope soon in many countries. In any case, we were able to taste their apple protein bar and we were convinced!

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