By David Burrows
In 2017, the EU gave the green light for insect protein to be fed to farmed fish. This year, approval is expected for poultry. But are insects really a sustainable and commercially viable feed?
Why do we need alternative feed inputs? The potential benefits of insect feed are many, including helping to tackle the sustainability and supply concerns relating to soy, which is full of protein content yet comes with environmental baggage. What’s more, costs just keep going up and up: Defra’s business farm income statistics, published in January, forecast that input costs for specialist poultry producers will go up by “around 8%, driven by increased feed costs”.
Insects would seem like an obvious choice. Yes. In fact, they make “perfect sense”, says Dennis Oonincx, an animal nutrition expert at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, because they are part of the birds’ natural diet. Some research has shown that feeding birds live insects can improve welfare – the larvae encourage free-ranging behaviour. Research in Denmark has also shown that poultry offered live insects had higher body weight and calmer behaviour than those fed processed larvae.
It brings back memories of birds scraping around in the farmyard for bugs, doesn’t it? Some companies are selling that nostalgia. The largest retailer in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, already stocks a brand called Oerei, which are eggs from layers that have had the soy in their diet replaced by live insects. Protix, the insect feed company behind the product, also has a “Friendly Salmon” brand – fish fed on black soldier fly (BSF) meal.
Why haven’t UK retailers started encouraging the transition? Oerei and Friendly Salmon are niche, high value products, with potential benefits in terms of bird welfare and environmental impact. However, feeding live insects to large commercial flocks still has practical problems. The laws are also a bit of a minefield (for example, release of live larvae might breach regulations relating to the introduction of non-native species in some countries).
Can’t producers use processed insects instead? Not at the moment. This harks back to the BSE crisis and falls under what’s often referred to as the EU “feed ban”. But this is where it gets interesting: the rules could soon be relaxed, opening the floodgates to more insect protein production. The European Food Safety Authority set the ball rolling back in 2015, when it concluded that: “When currently allowed feed materials are used as substrate to feed insects, the possible occurrence of microbiological hazards is expected to be comparable to their occurrence in other non-processed sources of protein of animal origin.”
EFSA also called for further analysis, but this was a big moment for the insect-farming movement, providing the launch-pad for a revision of the feed ban rules. In December 2016, the European Commission voted to open the aquaculture feed market for insect-derived protein from July 2017. Now the hope is that authorisation for pig and poultry feed will follow.
When are the rules set to change? Preliminary discussions have taken place with member states and the feedback has been “rather positive”, according to Christophe Derrien, secretary general at the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF). He says there’s a willingness within both the Commission and European countries to move forward, but admits that “opening the poultry feed box is a bit more complicated”, and it’s unlikely anything will happen this year due the election of a new European Parliament and a new European Commission this year.
What’s the UK Government’s view? Last year it stumped up £571,166 (through the Innovate UK programme) to support a Cambridge-based business that specialises in “insect biomass conversion”. Entomics is rearing BSF larvae on various “recipes” to determine how each affects the bugs’ growth rates and nutritional profiles. Fed on food waste, the larvae can grow to around 5,000 times their body weight within a couple of weeks, according the start-up’s CEO and co-founder Matt McLaren, and the fats and proteins in them “are great sources of nutrition for salmon and poultry”. It’s also looking at “microbial fermentation technology”, which could mean the livestock feeding on the larvae are more resistant to disease and, in turn, reduce reliance on antibiotics.
Is the plan to feed the insects food waste? The exact recipes are often a closely-guarded secret (we tried contacting a number of developers but only one – Protix – responded). So let’s start with what they can’t be fed on: manure, animal by-products and post-consumer waste. This, too, is under the feed ban regulations mentioned above (however, in other countries, insects are being reared on these things).
Any feedstock will therefore primarily be composed of pre-consumer waste and industrial by-products of vegetable origin. An example might be biscuits that were destined for human consumption but don’t meet quality criteria. By-products from the brewing sector are also showing potential. The trick is to ensure the feedstock is consistent in terms of quality and supply – and is an efficient use of resources. “It’s got to be something that can’t go into poultry feed already,” explains Aidan Leek, a poultry, feed and technical specialist with feed supplier AW Ennis.
So, what are the most sustainable feeds? We don’t really know yet – but researchers are busy trying to find out. Alejandro Parodi is one of them. A PhD student based at Wageningen University, Parodi is rearing BSF larvae on a range of feedstocks – including food waste and by-products from food manufacturing – and then comparing the environmental impact with sending the waste for composting or to an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. “It’s so important to look at the nutritional and environmental benefits of different feeds,” he says.
One study, conducted in Indonesia and published this year in the journal Waste Management, showed that feeding organic waste to BSF larvae had a much lower carbon impact than composting it. Instead of investing in more AD technology, there is an argument that the UK Government should be focusing on incentivising food-and-agricultural-waste-to-feed systems, in turn reducing reliance on “unsustainable” soy imports.
So insects can replace soy? Let’s not get carried away. Even IPIFF’s Derrien suggests insects will complement soy given their “interesting” nutritional profile (and not only the amino acid content, but the presence of antimicrobial peptides – a quality that demands further research). Poultry will likely play third fiddle to the pet and aquaculture markets, adds Leek, who has travelled in Europe, the US, China and Vietnam looking at the insect production industry and potential opportunities for the UK poultry sector as part of his Nuffield Scholarship. “The big challenge remains the price point,” he says.
How many insects could be farmed for feed, then? This is a nascent industry. We’re talking about very limited quantities: 1,000 tonnes of insect protein in Europe. Since the door was opened to the aquaculture feed market in 2017, things are “moving fast” though – businesses are investing heavily and IPIFF reckons production volumes for insect protein could reach 194,400 tonnes by 2020 and 1.2 million by 2025. This could also create 20,000 new jobs. “Four out of five of our members feel the poultry feed market is a valuable opportunity,” says Derrien. There could be big opportunities in bugs for those rearing birds.