At the Oxford Farming Conference, delegates heard how insect bioconversion could offer an attractive future solution to the poultry feed problem. Michael Barker reports
Insect bioconversion has huge potential to boost the poultry feed chain, improve bird health and lower carbon footprints by replacing soya.
That was the message at the Oxford Farming Conference in January, where experts from the fields of farming and research came together to discuss the rapidly evolving scientific and regulatory environment around using insects as animal feed. It is an area that Hertfordshire farming and NFU Poultry Board chair Tom Wornham summed up thus: “Insects are to poultry what hydrogen is to propulsion – full of potential, but not yet commercialised.”
According to food and environment researchers Fera Science, insect bioconversion is a method of converting food waste into animal feed via insects. Species such as black soldier fly, house fly and mealworm can eat a wide range of organic materials, reducing surplus food waste and contributing to the circular economy. The bioconversion process essentially involves taking an organic substrate – which could ultimately be anything from animal manure to vegetable waste, but is currently restricted to plant and veg-derived matter – and feeding it to the insects to create high-quality animal feed, proteins, oils and soil nutrients.
Depending on the species, insects are rich in antimicrobial, medium-chain fatty acids, and have been shown to have gut health benefits for chickens. Their use also has environmental importance through the reduction in need to import soya, and as a side benefit of the process, chitin, frass and antimicrobial peptides can also be created.
Fera Science has been involved in a number of projects over the past decade, including one working with AB Agri looking at the potential of insects within poultry feed. Fera is also leading an insect biomass working group looking at the risks and opportunities in the sector, and last August, it opened a £1 million insect bioconversion lab at its York Biotech Campus.
The law is currently a stumbling block. Insects can be fed to animals, but in the UK they cannot presently be blended into a compound feed for animals. “The regulations changed in the EU last year to enable the feeding of insect protein for pigs and poultry, but that’s still not permitted in the UK,” explained Maureen Wakefield, principal scientist for entomology at Fera. Fingers are crossed that the situation will change soon and the UK catches up.
Feeding insects directly to poultry has shown to be successful, and the birds are enthused by the process, according to Wornham. But feeding live insects has issues in terms of staffing, practicality and biosecurity, so the development of insect-based feed would seem to have great value.
For Wornham, who has been involved in developing the market for insect feed for several years, it offers good potential for replacing soya in poultry diets – as long as the industry gets on board. “Poultry production is known for its efficiency in converting feed into eggs and protein, but maintaining consistent feed quality is imperative for the sector to remain competitive, which means that not only does the supply of insects need to be consistent, but so does the availability of substrate to feed the insects,” he said. “Ideally, the substrate would be repurposing products destined for landfill.
“Insects have been discussed for many years, but I sense a degree of apathy,” he added. “Either the concept is good enough to succeed driven by industry enthusiasm, or there needs to be government intervention to inspire the growth of the sector. But necessity is the mother of invention – the UK is still at the concept stage of the journey with insects, but the war in Ukraine has highlighted the fragility of supply chains. So it’s a question of how can farmers take this industry from the lab and monetise it? The benefits to society extend beyond the farmgate, but the rewards of being an early adopter seem limited. If, however, there was opportunity for collaboration between farmer and business, now would be the time to create those relationships.”