Initial economic opportunities to exploit insects, in particular as a source for animal feed, are beginning to be explored by a diverse group of people including scientists, farmers and innovative entrepreneurs, who recognise the potential in transforming organic waste products into a commercial product, which requires fewer land and water resources.

Food production principles are primarily linear, prioritising the yield and volume of goods, and efficiency of processes, rather than the overall effectiveness of a system. An estimated 30% of all food is wasted along the value chain, while 10% of the world’s population is classified as living in food poverty. Valuable nutrients are taken out of the soil without being returned, whilst the chemicals used in fertilisers and pesticides contribute to high levels of land degradation, which costs an estimated $40 billion worldwide annually. For livestock farming, the growing demand for high quality, reasonably priced meat has incentivised increased intensification and industrialisation of animal production, which stretches finite land and water resources further. Projected to exceed nine and a half billion by 2050, the world’s growing population is only likely to increase the scale of these challenges.

In response, innovation and invention that inspires thinking beyond existing paradigms will be key in the creation of effective solutions to help resolve the complex interrelated problems of the current context. One way to shift the system could be through diversification and exploration of alternative nutrient sources, and this is where insects could be a factor.

There are around 2000 edible species of insects; they are usually high in protein and micronutrients, such as iron and vitamins, and they require less land and water resources to farm compared with other livestock. Insects are also a more efficient nutrient, being entirely edible, compared with livestock like chickens and cows, where only half of the animal can be consumed. Diets are of course culturally dependent; a range of insects from caterpillars to beetles is a regular food source for more than two billion people. In many parts of the world, personal distaste towards the idea of eating insects is a significant obstacle, which means that a more immediate opportunity to take advantage of the nutrients from insects might be in their utilisation as proteins in animal feed.

In 2014, 980 million tonnes of animal feed was produced, worth around $460 billion and increasing demand will surely lead to larger and larger volumes. Soymeal and fishmeal are the incumbent forms of feed, but each is arguably reaching limitations in current production, for example, 80% of the world’s soybeans are used to create feed, but cultivation requires very large amounts of land and water. It has been estimated that one hectare of land can produce one tonne of soy per year, the same area can produce over 100 tonnes of insect protein. Meanwhile, aquaculture consumes 10% of the world’s fish production as feed for other fish, as a commodity, fishmeal has been subject to significant price volatility over the last 15-25 years, rising from $500 per tonne in the 1990s to over $2000 per tonne between 2012-14.

Innovative start-ups, like Entocycle, a small company based in the UK and Brazil, aim to take advantage of that economic opportunity. Their process emulates natural processes by cycling waste nutrients back into valuable products. They take organic waste, add Hermetia illucens, better known as the Black Soldier Fly, leave them to eat the waste and then farm the larvae as insect feed. It sounds relatively simple, and it is, well sort of, “the key is to be precise in terms of quantity of larvae and amount of time to the amount of waste you have”, Entocycle’s founder and CEO, Keiran Whitaker told Circulate, “it’s a process that we have researched and refined over a period of time”.

The Black Soldier Fly, according to Whitaker, can effectively consume almost any kind of organic waste, except for wood, and the process is designed to be as cyclical as possible, Entocycle harvests 2-3% of its insects for breeding purposes to re-populate the system and the waste, which is turned into a soil compost by the larvae, a byproduct that can also be sold on as good quality fertiliser.

Health and safety remains a little bit of a question mark, in Europe at least, where legislation, inspired by mad cow disease bans the feeding of animal protein to livestock in Europe. Insects are classified as animals and consequently are not permitted in the diets of chickens, pigs and other animals. 

However, there are signs of the potential for regulation on that topic to shift. A 2014 review by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nationas (FAO) conducted insect feeding trials on catfish, rainbow trout, several other fish species, chickens and pigs, it concluded that insect meal could replace between 25% and 100% of soymeal or fishmeal in livestock diets with no negative effects. Carefully choosing the insects’ food source can mitigate the small risk of the passive spreading of pathogens through the supply chain, according to a more recent report authored by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), while bacteria and viruses that harm insects are likely harmless to humans. It’s perhaps not surprising that legislative bodies are taking a look at the issue, as Whitaker points out, there’s nothing ‘unnatural’ happening here, “chickens, pigs and fish all naturally consume insects in the wild”.

There is still the need for more information, there are reports of negative physical reactions in humans after eating insects directly, which have never been noted in farm animals, but should be monitored and the entirety of the biological nature of insect consumption still needs further scientific research.

Building a stronger research base and exploring the potential to scale insect production to an industrial level is a core part of Entocycle’s work moving forward and they are not alone in that endeavor, Cape Town based AgriProtein Technologies has built a large factory near the international airport, which, when it reaches capacity, will operate with enough black soldier fly to consume 110 tonnes of organic waste daily, producing 24 tonnes of maggots, which can be dried and ground to powder and sold to South African farmers at a lower price than fishmeal.

Insects and their role in the future of our the global food supply chain are situated in a larger conversation, which includes questions about the quantity of meat consumed (and wasted), and the negative externalities caused by that sector. Provision of protein, in terms of both human food and animal feed, is unlikely to ever be solely insect-based, but increasing the diversity of the nutrient sources that feed the system, has the potential to create a morie resilient and effective food supply, while reducing pressure on precious land and water resources.