Insects – The Potential to transform the animal feed sector

As discussed in a previous blog , we are beginning to witness a revolution in human plant-based eating but the evidence suggests that there is now an urgency to sow the seeds of an equivalent revolution within the animal feed industry.

A ‘less but better’ approach to the production of animal proteins is always going to be an important component of a sustainable food systems approach ( meat is the only source of protein in many parts of the developing world for example)  and as such we need to address this sectors key environmental impact – Feed, which to date, has received surprisingly very little attention.

Approximately 70% of agricultural land is used to produce feed for animals with over 1 billion tonnes grown annually. Demand for feed is set to grow exponentially with meat and aquaculture production set to rise by 70% and 90% respectively by 2050. The production of soya for our four and two legged friends (cattle, pigs and poultry) and fishmeal for our flippered friends (fish for the aquaculture sectors) are the most significant contributors to environmental change. The production of soya for animal feed is a key driver of deforestation in the Amazon and recent reports suggest that 100% of wild caught fisheries are either over-fished or are in a state of near collapse, with 22% of the capture from these fisheries being used for animal feed.

The use of insects for both human and animal feeds have received increasing attention in recent years as a more sustainable source protein. Research indicates considerable reductions in GHG emissions, land-use, waste and associated water use by switching soya and fishmeal to insect-based feed alternatives. Insects can also be reared on feed that is unsuitable for livestock, such as agricultural and food, which would otherwise would be wasted or have little economic value, contributing to a more closed loop circular food economy.

Whilst there will be some demand in the Western world for insects for human consumption, this will always be, in my view, a limited market opportunity. Cultural and Western consumer perceptions of insects, or the ‘yuck’ factor, is at least in the short term, going to be a barrier to insect consumption at any scale. Introducing insects, one stage removed and further down the value chain, is likely to be a much more of a palatable option. After all, for many omnivorous species, including poultry, pigs and fish, insects have always been an important and natural part of their diets – soya and fishmeal certainly were not!

There are some promising early signs of insect feed innovation. InnovaFeed, Europe’s largest producer of insect meal, are working with a cooperative of French Farmers to supply rainbow trout raised on a diet containing insect meal which are now available to French consumers. Enterra Feed, one of an emerging crop of insect growers, process insects into protein-rich food for fish, poultry – even pets. There are also some early signs that some of the biggest companies involved in livestock production, are starting to explore these insect based feed options. McDonald’s for example, is exploring the use of insects for chicken feed to reduce reliance on soy protein.

These are promising signs, but much more investment and resources are required to scale up animal feed insect production. There is also a need for the retail sector to work with their suppliers to support and encourage innovation in this sector. Governments also need to recognise the environmental and economic opportunities to support more sustainable forms of animal feed. In Europe for example, there is a real need to ensure insect feed is at the heart of the proposed Protein Plan for Europe and that insect producers are incentivised through the Common Agricultural Policy.

Sustinable animal feed is likley to be the next big issue confronting the livestock sector and insects offer one of the most promising solutions to increasing environmental pressures, food insecurity and the rising costs of animal feed.

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