The buzzing potential of insect farms

Why protein-rich bugs are increasingly filling feeding troughs

The head of a black soldier, fly, which is often used to convert compost into animal feed. Thomas Shahan, Flickr
1 April 2020

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Consider the black soldier fly larva. Preferred by chickens and beloved by composting enthusiasts, these staple-sized maggots can consume a half-eaten roasted chicken in less than 30 hours.

Gross, right?

But that’s why those in the composting world love them. The larvae, which grow into darker, hairier three-fourth-inch grubs, can compost raw and cooked meat, which is often kept out of most backyard compost heaps and worm bins because they attract flies and animals. Plus, liquid draining from the compost can be sprayed on plants as fertilizer.

Two weeks after hatching, the larvae wriggle out of the compost to turn into pupae, which can be fed to chickens or fish. And what a meal! The grubs are 42 percent protein and 35 percent fat.

All in all, black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are an organic vegetable gardener’s friend. They keep food waste out of landfills, helping to decrease methane emissions; they produce organic fertilizer; and they are an excellent source of protein for backyard chickens and pet fish.

YouTube features many videos of how to make the best miniature insect farms for these bugs. Gardeners install tubes or ramps in rubber bins to help the larvae on their journey to the pupal stage. They hang floating shelves made of corrugated cardboard to serve as egg-laying nooks for pregnant adult females. There are myriad DIY plans that retrofit plastic tubs available at hardware stores, and there are building plans for sophisticated bug houses built from scratch.

From backyard set-ups to multi-million-dollar startups

Start-up companies have caught on. Five years after an explosion of interest from researchers and many peer-reviewed studies, investors are pouring money into companies producing black fly larvae and other insects in insect farms as alternative and sustainable sources of protein for animals.

This is mainly because the production of animal feed – mostly soy and fishmeal – is increasingly straining land and water resources. Insects can provide protein to livestock at a lower environmental cost, in addition to recycling organic waste.

And like the innovative backyard bughouse builders, the start-ups are all about automating insect growing from egg-laying to the emergence of adult flies.

In 2018, investments in insect farming topped the charts in the category of novel farming systems, with AgriProtein raising USD 105 million. Based in the U.K. and South Africa, the startup collects 250 metric tons of local organic food waste daily from food factories, supermarkets, farms and restaurants to raise black soldier flies. The insects grow in digitally controlled, bio-secure insect farms, awash in light wavelengths that mimic dawn and dusk – important prompts for many of the insect’s reproductive stages.

Then last year French insect farming startup Ÿnsect broke AgriProtein’s record, raising USD 125 million to develop their robotized mealworm farm. The company grows yellow mealworm beetles for pet food, fish food and plant fertilizer. To date, this is the largest ever ag-tech investment outside the United States.

“Ÿnsect is becoming the world’s largest insect producer, whatever the species, thanks to our unique highly scalable and pioneering technology,” said Ÿnsect CEO and chairman Antoine Hubert in a statement.

“Enabled by deep tech, the entire production process – from feeding to controlling the health and welfare of our insects, and from the sensors used for quality control to harvesting mature insects – is automated,” said Hubert. “We have 25 patents covering our technology, the products themselves and their different applications, giving Ÿnsect the world’s largest insect patent portfolio.”

A matter of acceptance

Does this mean more and more of the animals that end up on our plates will be consuming more black soldier fly larvae, powdered crickets or dried mealworms? Not quite yet.

In a study published last year by the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, Dutch researcher Arnold van Huis says challenges in production and legislation are keeping insect farms and production for livestock feed from going mainstream.

A garden soldier fly on compost. John Tann, Flickr
A garden soldier fly on compost. John Tann, Flickr

Insect production, despite the millions of dollars invested in automation, still needs to be more efficient, and currently production is so expensive that it can’t compete with common feeds like soy and fishmeal.

Finding food for the insects can also be problematic. Many large and small insect growers rely on food scraps from companies and landfills. However, this option is legally restricted in some countries.

Finally, it’s taking a while for whole regions to warm up to the idea of feeding insect protein to a wide range of farm animals. The E.U. currently only allows live insects and insect oil to be fed to fish. In the United States, edible insects are considered as food additives and only the black soldier fly has been approved as an ingredient for feed in aquaculture. In Canada, black soldier fly larvae can be fed to poultry and farmed fish.

The environment is friendlier in Asia, where insects have historically been considered as animal feed and a good source of protein. There are no specific regulations that limit their use in China and South Korea.

However, van Huis notes that various groups have already initiated solutions to these challenges. “The sector of insects as food and feed is developing fast,” he says. “Organizations are being formed to embed the industry in a more conducive environment.

“The sector can only progress when the insect industry, the academic world, governmental organizations and public society closely cooperate.”


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