Insect protein unlikely to be price competitive with soya until 2050

Entrepreneur James Wright, a former director at insect farming company Multibox, has told egg producers insect protein may not be price competitive with plant protein such as soya, until 2050.

Speaking at the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) conference, held on 15 October in Birmingham, Wright said insects were a big opportunity for companies looking to develop more “sustainable protein” for poultry feed. But he highlighted the many practical obstacles still in the way of making it a viable business.

Processed animal protein (PAP) was banned as livestock feed in the wake of the BSE crisis, but in 2017, the EU voted to reintroduce different forms of PAP into fish food and pet food. As of next year, insect feed will be allowed to be fed to poultry.

He said there was little prospect of UK consumers ever actually eating insects on any scale – “I can never see a chicken nugget becoming an insect nugget,” he said – but farming insects for livestock feed did present a big opportunity.

Three main areas need more development until this can be a practical option, said Wright: diet & husbandry, scalable automated mass rearing systems, and downstream processing.

The main species being farmed at the moment is black soldier fly, which has a 21-day incubation period from egg to fly and produces a 2% weekly harvest. Wright said the optimum harvest day was day 18, which produced the maximum fat and protein content, and was not yet in chrysalis form.

The first challenge to make it commercially viable is getting the right feedstock for the insects. Industrial food waste (not household) was a good option but finding feedstock available all year round was quite a challenge, he said. Cow manure would be excellent source of feed for insects, but it is not allowed by EU.

There are currently 50 companies around the world at the moment farming insects; 27 are in Europe. Wright said the most common feedstock was fruit & veg derived products, but around 30% developed their own feed for insects from feed mills.

The main problem at the moment is no-one is at scale. Significant amounts of money have been raised. In the past year, the insect farming sector has raised $480 million in past year and has produced 6,000 tonnes, which equates to $80,000 investment per tonne manufactured.

 “We raised £250,000 [at Multibox]but were only producing 400 kilos a week,” said Wright. “It is very difficult to see a route to economies of scale.”

There are other challenges too – such as how to deal with the vast quantity of frass (insect excrement) and NVQs. Cost of capital, labour, input material, and 130ppm ammonia are all other areas that need more consideration.

Wright said although it was an exciting area of development, it was possible all the challenges meant it could be 2050 until insect protein was price competitive with soya.

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