Insects are vital for farming as pollinators of crops and as predators of pests but livestock farmers are now looking more and more at insects as a source of feed. There growing interest and research on farming insects to provide a source of protein for both animals and humans. Farmed insects may offer a more efficient and sustainable source of protein in poultry and aquaculture diets than do soy-bean meal and fish meal. Insects may also offer a lower cost protein alternative with a good amino acid profile, fish feed can contain up to 40% insect content, and chicken feed up to 30%.
Farmed insect products for animal feed can potentially reduce the share of human-grade grains (soy, corn) and fish meal in compound feeds, so liberating more of these grains for direct human consumption. The market for farmed insects is growing rapidly, according to the IPIFF (International Platform for Insects as Food and Feed) a body which represents insect producers, insect production is expected to grow at a rate of 20% p.a.
Insect species of interest to the animal feed sector include crickets; maggots; meal worms and black soldier flies. The black soldier fly is of particular interest because it stops eating before it becomes an adult, so it is very efficient at storing nutrients. Black soldier flies also eat a very wide range of diets, can convert (food) waste streams and they grow very fast. This is the reason why the species is often the preferred choice of insect for companies to work with.
Environmental concerns are also driving demand as insects are seen as an efficient way of producing protein animal feeds without competing with human food sources. There is a growing number of insect farming start-ups for both animal feed and human consumption. For example Protix from the Netherlands has been producing feed ingredients from black soldier flies since 2009. Ynsect in France, produces premium feed ingredients for aquaculture and pet nutrition by farming mealworms.
Interest in insects as animal feed is particularly strong within Europe. According to the EU Commission the EU produces only 29% of what it consumes in products with a protein content of 30 to 50%. This has a considerable impact on the economics of poultry and pig production as well as aquaculture. There is growing pressure from both retailers and policy makers to reduce Europe’s reliance on imported soya meal. In November 2018 Adriana Cassilis Vice President of the International Platform for Insects as Food and Feed (IPIFF) stated that insects are ‘new’ sources of protein and are needed to close the feed gap. Today, the aquaculture feed market consumes approximately 50% of European animal feed made from insects and this is expected to rise to 75% by 2030.
However before insects can start to replace some of the 30 million MT per year of soya meal currently imported into the EU regulations need to change. The EU has established regulations for the use of insects in animal feed and has allowed insects to be fed to fish since 2017 and it is expected that insects will be approved for feeding to poultry and pigs in the near future. According to the IPIFF roughly 1,000 tonnes of insect protein have been commercialised by European insect producers in total, since the authorisation of insect proteins for use in aqua feed. In some countries outside the EU insect producers can obtain organic certification however this is not yet the case within the EU due to the absence of EU organic standards for insect products for food or feed.
EU regulations are currently holding the insect feed sector back, but market forces and environmental pressures are building for the necessary changes to take the market forward in the future.