How Flies Make Farming More Sustainable
You’ve probably heard that eating insects can be a more sustainable alternative for protein. But, maybe you’re like me and love seeing sustainable changes, but just can’t bring yourself to eat them. Well, you can still have best of both worlds with insects as food for agricultural livestock.
What, is that even a thing?? Y-E-S. I was impressed too when I first found out about it!
To learn more about how it works, we interviewed Jonathan Koppert, an expert in the insect feed sector. He is the co-founder of Bestico BV, a Dutch company that develops sustainable insect solutions. See what he has to say:
Jane (me): So Jonathan, can you tell us a little bit about insect feed? What is it? And, how is it different from insect food?
Jonathan: Insects as feed are just insects that are purposely produced to be food for animals. Insects as food, on the other hand, are insects intended to be consumed by people. Although insects are not yet seen as a treat in our western culture, in many other cultures insects are being consumed by people like you and me and a crispy cricket is considered to be a delicacy. In practice, there is not much difference between the two; in both cases the insects need to be safe, clean, healthy, nutritious and delicious.
Jane: I’ve tried a crispy cricket once, and it really just tasted like chips, but I guess it was heathier since it has more protein than regular potato chips [laughs]. I know some animals already eat insects. Can you give us some examples?
Jonathan: In nature, many different species of animals eat insects, like birds and fish. Wild birds love to eat insects because they are nutritious, healthy and yummy for them! And trout and salmon jump out of the water to catch a fly. Actually, the aim of using insects as feed, is to bring back some of this natural diet to farmed animals like chicken and fish.
Jane: But why are insects as feed useful for agriculture? What issues can they help solve?
Jonathan: There are two main global issues which are addressed when considering insects as feed. First is the issue of protein shortages. Globally we will need more protein to feed the growing number of people and animals who inhabit our planet. Insects naturally contain a lot of protein and can make a valuable and sustainable contribution towards solving this problem. Secondly, a lot of food which insects could eat is currently underutilized.
So for example, food and agricultural waste could be given to these insects to eat, creating more value and less waste. Many different types of industrial by-products and leftover food would make insects really happy.
Jane: That’s really an amazing idea for the current sustainability limitations in our agricultural system! Can all insects be used, or are there specific insects used as feed for animals?
Jonathan: Based on EU legislation, there are currently seven different species of insects allowed as feed for animals. The two most important ones are Black Soldier Fly and Mealworms. In both species it is all about the larvae or worms which are considered to be most nutritious and tasty for the animals.
Original photo taken by: Cotinis (Flickr)
Jane: And what type of insects do Bestico use to feed agricultural livestock?
Jonathan: Bestico has a strong focus on producing the Black Soldier Fly or more precisely, the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly. This species has been selected for its nutritional value, speed of growing cycle and because it’s not too picky about what it needs to eat.
Jane: Hm, but aren’t flies dirty? I mean, I’m not eating them so that’s fine. But couldn’t they contaminate production systems? Or somehow affect the livestock eating them?
Jonathan: That’s definitely a common misconception. Many people live with the idea that insects and the production of insects is a dirty / not hygienic activity, while in reality insect production systems need to be clean and hygienic in order to keep these systems free from possible harmful microorganisms. The IPIFF (International Platform of Insect producers for Food and Feed) has even set guidelines for manufacturing principles where great emphasis is placed on hygiene in production. Besides that, local food safety authorities control insect companies on their compliance with European legislation on food and feed safety.
Jane: Okay, phew, that’s good to know! So then how is insect feed currently produced?
Jonathan: The process is split into two parts. The first is the primary production, where the actual insects are produced (just like a farmer raises his pigs or chickens). The difference is that insects are produced in crates and need much less space and water compared to conventional livestock. The second is the processing part where insects are transformed into concentrated protein meal and insect oil.
Jane: Is there anyway that the process of producing insects as feed can be improved?
Jonathan: From our perspective there is always room for improvement and we constantly try to reinvent ourselves in order to get better and better. The rate of change inside our organization and industry is rapid, sometimes even to the frustration of others. There is no choice in this as everyone else is moving fast as well. The insect industry knows hundreds of start-ups, all contributing to a better world and keeping our industry lively and dynamic. For all of us, big improvements can still be made on the legislative aspect of our industry. We would be very happy to see the Europe Union allow insect derived protein to be used in poultry and pig farming. Or have better access to materials to feed insects such as ‘former foodstuff’. At the same time insect producers are limited to what they are allowed to feed their insects based on EU legislation. Within the legislation insects have the same status as other livestock animals and therefore the same rules apply. As a result we cannot feed our insects any other feed material which you could also feed to a pig or a chicken. I believe there is a great opportunity to use insects as a vehicle to transform many different potential feedstocks such as pre-consumer waste and catering waste into more valuable and safe proteins and fats. In order to have these feedstocks for insects allowed in the European Union we will need to prove this safe and results in clean end-products. I am confident we will get there.
Jane: And, are there any other controversies around insect feed? What other arguments have you heard against the use of insects as food for animals?
Jonathan: Not really, there are no big arguments against the use of insects as a feed for animals. But, the biggest concern would be the use of feed materials to feed insects which cannot be directly consumed by fish, chicken or pigs in order to keep the sustainability aspect relevant when using insects. We will need to place additional effort into proving that it is safe to use products like catering waste to feed insects and subsequently feed insects to poultry or fish. Through this process we are mimicking nature as close as possible and offer a sustainable solution for the long term.
Jane: Then is there any research that’s going into insect feed to maybe help alleviate these problems?
Jonathan: Yeah, definitely, the amount of articles published in academic literature is growing almost exponentially. Currently research is being conducted in three main areas:
- Research on the biology and environmental factors impacting the insect in production.
- Research on new technologies to create more efficient and effective production systems, and
- Research on application of insect derived products in different markets and industries.
Jane: That’s good to know! Hopefully with this research, the process of insect feed production can improve in no time [laughs]. Anyway, thanks again Jonathan for doing this! I really think this concept is creative and helpful in terms of making our agricultural system more sustainable.
Jonathan: Not a problem at all. I was happy to do this!
So, what do you think of insects for agricultural feed? Let us know in the comments below!