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From molecules to worms: Catalan start-ups offer solutions to food sector challenges

Companies present solutions to tomorrow’s problems today through biotechnology at Alimentaria trade show

Ana Caño and Andrea Giordano, co-founders of Planet Biotech, at Alimentaria
Ana Caño and Andrea Giordano, co-founders of Planet Biotech, at Alimentaria / Lea Beliaeva Bander

Lea Beliaeva Bander | @leabander | Barcelona

March 19, 2024 11:47 AM

March 20, 2024 10:47 AM

Some of the biggest challenges facing the food industry are food shortages and climate change. So it comes as no surprise that food sector companies are introducing new products that can lead consumers – and the industry – in a more sustainable direction.  

The latest edition of Alimentaria & Hostelco, the joint gastronomy and hospitality trade show that kicked off in Barcelona on Monday, reflects this awareness, with the large presence of organic and ethically sourced food options from Catalonia, Spain, and around the world.

Two Catalan start-ups have decided to tackle the issues from a different perspective: from the ground up through biotechnology.  

Preparing crops for climate change 

Ana Caño, a Ph.D. in biology, has 20 years of experience researching how plants adapt to drought, and in her own words, she decided to put her “know-how into value” a couple of years ago. 

Together with Andrea Giordano, she founded the company Planet Biotech, the first start-up to come out of the Catalan Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG).

 “It is a company that is going to provide solutions for plants to cope with drought and elevated temperatures by producing stimulants that are specifically designed for this purpose,” explains Caño.

The idea is, to use the natural resilience mechanisms of plants and crops through their own molecules to overcome stresses such as drought and extreme heat and adapt to climate change.

With their biotechnology, the flower and fruit of the crops will be protected, while also strengthening the roots of the plant.

“We are not modifying the plants,” stresses Giordano. “It’s not GMO, it’s preparing the plants to cope with the stress.”

For the two scientists, the current drought experienced in Catalonia is the clearest reason why their project is important.

“The drought is going to be everywhere, and we need to prepare the crops,” says Caño, emphasizing that drought is already the world’s biggest agricultural problem.

 “It causes 60% of crop losses globally, and poses a big threat to global food security and sustainability,” she adds.

Sustainable protein

Another Catalan company that is also trying to adapt to global problems is Insectius, a startup founded in April of 2023 by Raul Reyes and Eric Díez. 

Erik Díez and Raul Reyes, co-founders of Insectius, at Alimentaria 2024
Erik Díez and Raul Reyes, co-founders of Insectius, at Alimentaria 2024 / Lea Beliaeva Bander

As the name may suggest, the company breeds insects, specifically mealworms, from their farm with their own technologies, to create a new, and sustainable, source of protein in the form of mealworm flour.

While the company’s initial idea was to produce pet food, interest in creating food for human consumption has grown, causing the young company to rethink its direction.

“We are getting more clients, especially from abroad and from Europe, who are interested in our product for human consumption,” says Raul.

And indeed, he says, using mealworms to produce protein “makes sense” because of its high quality. 

“Mealworms contain twice as much protein as any other meat that we know, and we use 96% less water than any other livestock production,” he says.

Not only is raising mealworms better from a sustainability standpoint, but it will also help with the future’s food shortage issues, according to Reyes.

“The projections are that there will be 10 billion people by 2050, and that will increase the demand for protein by 60% of what it is today, and that will be impossible to meet, so we have to think of more sustainable solutions,” he says.

El president de la Generalitat, Pere Aragonès, i el conseller d'Acció Climàtica, Alimentació i Agenda Rural, David Mascort, atenen les explicacions d'un dels participants a la part d'innovació de l'estand.
Catalan president Pere Aragonès and climate minister David Mascort visit the Insectius stand / Lluís Sibils

From snails to mealworms

Although interest in Insectius as human food has so far been greater abroad, the project is growing in Catalonia, and Reyes believes it’s only a matter of time before ordinary people will start to catch on.  

“Here, we’re not used to thinking of mealworms as food,” he notes, adding that eating insects is commonplace practically everywhere outside of Europe.  

“But in Catalonia, we eat snails, so it’s all cultural,” he concludes. 

Support of projects

But when it comes to institutional support, both startups say it has been positive.

For Insectius, the Catalan Agency for Business Competitiveness (ACCIÓ), under the Catalan government, invited them to the 4YFN startup hub at the latest Mobile World Congress to share their technological experience with robotization and artificial intelligence.

“And now we’re here at Alimentaria, so we feel very well supported.” 

For the women behind Planet Biotech, the support has also been broad-based, both from industry and the institutions.  

“We are getting support from the government here in Spain and also from the European Union,” says Andrea Giordano, to which Caño adds that the project has twice received funding from the European Research Council and is now preparing to apply for funding for female-led projects in the EU. 

“I think it's going to be motivating for all young girls now in the university to start up their own companies in the future,” says Caño with a smile.

While Caño and Giordano are confident in their project, they also urge both society and governments to do more to mitigate the challenges facing the world.  

“We can do biotechnology and technology, but we cannot do miracles,” stresses Caño, adding that everyone must improve their “way of wasting and living so we can all have a more sustainable plant- and food production in the years to come.”  

Planet Biotech and Insectius can be found at the Alimentaria Innovation Hub, until Thursday.