Insects as food is one thing – but how about insects as feed?

BUGSfeed explores insects as food for people. It’s a huge topic with enough interesting facts and stories and questions to fill ten books, let alone one website. But here’s one aspect we’ve not looked at yet: what about insects as feed?

A key argument of entomophagy’s proponents is that the monumental environmental challenges we face are made much worse by the meat industry. Billions of cattle, poultry and pigs are raised and slaughtered for food.

 

This has a huge impact, from methane production to vast slurry pits, hogging land and water… And of course crops. Enormous swathes of land are taken up with crops for animal feed. In 2011 combined world feed production was around 870 million tonnes. Protein-rich soya bean is the latest culprit, associated with deforestation, habitat production and the loss of indigenous lands.

hogs.jpg

Hogs. Photo: United Soybean Board, licensed under CC BY 2.0

So if cutting out meat altogether looks unlikely in the near future, changing what animals are fed might be a more plausible step. What if they ate insects? The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization have argued that it would diminish risks of antibiotic use in poultry, and cited termites, fly pupae and silkworms as potential candidates.  

As often is the case, this already occurs around the world – but will it take off in the West? Below Mark Ramsden, agro-ecologist, gives us the facts on what might be round the corner:

A new ingredient for poultry feed?

In Europe the main source of protein for poultry feed is from soya bean, mostly imported from Brazil. The demand for meat and eggs is increasing, and there is a growing need to secure a reliable and environmentally sustainable protein source. Insects are a natural part of the diet for poultry, and an excellent source of essential amino acids and a range of micro-nutrients. We have seen huge improvements in insect rearing and processing, and in our understanding of feed nutrition, so are insects now a truly feasible option for Europe, as they are already in many other parts of the world?

Poultry production is generally considered to be more efficient and less environmentally damaging than ruminant livestock farming, and it is going to play a key role in feeding the ever growing human population. This will also mean feeding larger numbers of chickens, turkeys, and other poultry, which are already counted in the billions globally each year. By increasing the diversity of feed inputs, poultry producers can reduce the risks associated with any single supply chain and reduce their ecological footprint.

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Chicken in a farm in Texas. Photo: Artizone, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The ban on animal protein in livestock feed following the BSE crisis in 1996 remains in force – and this extends to insect proteins. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion paper published in October 2015 concluded that any risks associated with insects in human food supply chains are comparable with current mainstream livestock sources, but this would depend on how the insects themselves are reared. Legal changes have already been made for fishmeal to be used in poultry feed, and many believe that a further amendment, allowing insects to be used as feed, is on the cards.

So far the information we have is promising

A lot more research is needed to address an overall lack of knowledge in this area. While there have been studies showing the benefits of insects in livestock feed, we need to be built on to reflect the potential impact a change on this scale would have. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure ingredients will be safe, legal, publicly accepted, and sustainable. There are challenges ahead, such as the lack of legislative clarity, questions over the scalability of insect production, and whether consumers will accept such changes in poultry production. So far the information we have is promising, and suggest that insects could make a useful contribution within poultry production as part of the feed supply chain.

Are insects a feasible option for helping to secure our livestock feed supply chains? Perhaps we are not quite there yet, but the day when ‘insect-fed’ chickens are sold alongside corn-fed may not be as far away as you’d imagined.

For more information, contact Mark Ramsden.

References

Lundy, M.E. & Parrella, M.P. (2015) Crickets are not a free lunch: protein capture from scalable organic side-streams via high-density populations of Acheta domesticus. PloS one, 10, e0118785.

Spiegel, M. van der, Noordam, M.Y. & Fels-Klerx, H.J. van der. (2013) Safety of Novel Protein Sources (Insects, Microalgae, Seaweed, Duckweed, and Rapeseed) and Legislative Aspects for Their Application in Food and Feed Production. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 12, 662–678.

Verbeke, W., Spranghers, T., Clercq, P. De, Smet, S. De, Sas, B. & Eeckhout, M. (2015) Insects in animal feed: Acceptance and its determinants among farmers, agriculture sector stakeholders and citizens. Animal Feed Science and Technology, 204, 72–87.

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