Insect-based protein – fad or panacea?
The insect protein produced from this process can be used as an ingredient for animal or human food. It appears that in Western markets, consumer acceptability will be a major barrier to marketing insect foods to humans. Therefore, it seems that the main market for insect protein will be in animal feed.
Excellent source of protein
Many types of insects can be cultivated to produce protein. I will focus on the Soldier Black Flies (BSF), which is by far the favorite. I won’t go into the technical side except to say that BSF larvae eggs are laid out on a substrate of organic waste, for example, poultry litter, mortality and slaughterhouse waste. The eggs hatch and develop into larvae. The larvae feed on organic waste. They are harvested after about 12 days and processed into oils or flours with a high protein content. The protein is very rich and has a good balance of amino acids. The residue is a valuable organic fertilizer. If the larvae are allowed to pupate into flies, these can be used to reproduce the next generation.
Why is the use of insect protein valuable for the poultry industry?
Sustainability and environment
The poultry industry is frequently attacked as being unsustainable. The reasoning is that it takes about 2 kg of food ingredients to produce 1 kg of chicken meat product. With the use of insects, almost all waste is converted back into protein and fat for food or into residue for fertilizer. Thus, the poultry economy becomes much more circular.
Sources of protein for animal feed
There are two main sources of protein for animal feed, soybeans and fishmeal, which are dangerous for the environment.
The growth of soybeans for animal feed is criticized as it is often grown on land from reclaimed tropical forests. It also competes with crops that could feed the local population. BSF can replace soybeans in animal feed. This would reduce the pressure to clear the rainforest so that more land can be used to produce soybeans as livestock farming expands.
The lucrative market for fishmeal for animal feed encourages fishing companies not to limit their yields of bycatch (from which fishmeal is made), and thus leads to ecosystem depletion, environmental damage and the collapse of local fisheries.
The use of BSF can replace both soybean meal, soybean oil and fishmeal with great environmental benefits.
The process of growing BSF from waste can be done locally without the need to transport the waste to large sites. It converts waste – litter and manure and other agricultural wastes – which are potential pollutants (ammonia, odor, water pollution), into stable and valuable resources.
The basic process, if it is well designed, will be energy efficient and will have no negative impact on the environment (odor, greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater pollution, etc.). With BSF treatment, direct greenhouse gas emissions are 47 times lower than windrow composting.
The poultry industry, which is essentially a means of converting plant protein into animal protein, faces a long-term challenge related to protein produced in the laboratory. The use of insect proteins is expected to increase the efficiency of the poultry industry and improve its position to face these challenges.
The first results seem to show that the use of insect protein in the diet improves the health of birds. It is also highly regarded in premium pet foods and in the aquamarine industry.
Where are we today ?
The BSF and insect protein industry is roughly at the stage of development that the renewable energy industry (mainly solar and wind power) was 30 years ago.
The basic science has been done and it is recognized that the process works technically. Pilot projects of commercial size exist all over the world. There are also a few large-scale producers, who keep most of the details under wraps for understandable business reasons.
Thirty years ago, renewable energies were not seen as a solution to fueling the global economy. It had a few niche applications and grew mainly on government grants and environmental activists. In 2021, renewable energies are competitive with fossil fuels. It is not only the main backbone of global attempts to contain global warming, but also the cheapest way to fuel an economy.
The main challenge preventing the large-scale deployment of BSF technology is cost. According to a Rabobank analysis, the cost of insect protein is typically $ 3,500 to $ 5,500 per metric ton. The equivalent price of fishmeal is between € 1,200 and € 2,000 per tonne.
So there is a vicious circle that needs to be broken: costs are high, so scale is low, but to reduce costs, we need scale. This is a classic situation calling for government intervention to encourage scaling. Before examining the role of government, we should take a closer look at the cost aspect.
- The main raw material of BSF in the poultry industry is poultry litter and slaughterhouse waste. These materials are available virtually free of charge. Although they have a use for fertilizer, among other uses, most farms pay to have their compost removed from the farm. So, practically the only material cost after raw material is a little energy to maintain a temperature of about 28-30 ° C and the cost of BSF eggs. What increases the high costs is the capital cost of the system and the cost of labor to operate it.
- Once scale is reached, increased automation will significantly reduce labor costs. Capital costs will be reduced by economies of scale and the development of flow technology rather than the more expensive batch technology.
Another hurdle to overcome to reach scale is regulation. Regulations differ from country to country, but they basically fall into two categories:
- Can insect proteins be used in animal feed?
- If so, what wastes can insect larvae be fed from?
This summer, the European Union relaxed its regulations to allow the use of BSF for animal feed in the form of larvae as well as in the form of oil. This is in addition to its use in pet food and aquaculture, which has already been approved.
At the same time, EU regulations still prevent insects from feeding on animal waste, including litter.
Governments must recognize the beneficial effects of using insect farming. So, for example, it can be used as a safe and sustainable way to recycle agricultural waste. Policymakers should also consider ways to encourage the development of the industry.
I see a five-step process by which the cost of insect protein will drop to a level that will make it affordable and therefore in demand in large quantities.
- Development of a process flow technology that will work well with automation and lower capital costs
- Similar relaxation of regulations to allow the use of poultry litter and slaughterhouse waste as a substrate for insect growth. This will lower the cost of raw materials.
- Specialization of insect installations in breeding stock and protein production
- Ongoing research into the rearing process, ideal temperatures, etc., and how to provide producers with egg packs that can be activated when needed for production. This research is already being carried out by an Israeli bio-startup Freezem.
- All of this will lead to economies of scale to the point that it will be economically viable to compete with fishmeal and soybeans on their own merits.
Rabobank expects the cost of insect protein to fall below $ 2,000 by the end of the decade. At this price, the use of BSF should become widespread, thus transforming the poultry sector into an almost circular economy. This will allow it to increase its efficiency and improve its image.