Houseflies, the Soviet space program and manned missions to Mars — these aren't plot devices for a Cold War space thriller, but key terms to understand the history behind Fukuoka-based startup Musca Inc.'s project to provide a solution to some of the world's most pressing agricultural problems: food and animal waste and dwindling supplies of livestock feed.

As far-fetched as it may sound, the company's plans for harnessing flies to recycle waste and create natural fertilizer and fish meal has evolved into a small but growing sector in recent years, spawning a crop of insect growers and sparking the interest of global food-production behemoths looking for alternative sources of protein.

Fast-food giant McDonald's, for example, is backing studies using insects and algae for chicken feed to reduce reliance on soy and to hold off deforestation.