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Obesity, under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies represent a heavy burden to economic development globally: their material cost is estimated at 5% of global income or US$3.5 trillion per year1. Aiming to tackle these issues, ATNI publishes a Global Access to Nutrition Index rating the world’s largest Food Manufacturers and their contribution to addressing these challenges.

Insects – Feed, Food or Fad?

Rita Wyshelesky Rita Wyshelesky RI Analyst
RI emerging issues

Insects – Feed, Food or Fad?

Rita Wyshelesky


RI Analyst

INSECTS – FEED, FOOD OR FAD?

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It is currently estimated that food production will have to increase by 70% to be able to feed the world in 2050, with meat outputs expected to double.1 The rising demand, coupled with the environmental impact of animal farming has led to protein shortages, and the search for alternative supplies of sustainable protein. Recently insects have been considered as a potential solution to the problem by utilising them as a source of food, animal feed and pet food. This Emerging Issues Expert Brief looks into the benefits of edible insects as well as some of the challenges faced.

WHAT ARE EDIBLE INSECTS?

Edible insects are a wide range of insect species, which are most commonly used in animal feed, pet food or for human consumption. The species of insects that can be consumed by humans versus animals are different, as are the harvesting and processing methods.

The nutritional value of insects varies depending on the species and life cycle stage, however, generally insects provide high protein content in the range of 60% of their body weight, which is comparable with fish and beef. Most insect species (similar to fish) are high in essential fatty acids, which cannot be synthesised by the human body and must be obtained from diet. Insects are also rich in fibre and valuable micronutrients such as iron, magnesium and folic acid.2

WHERE ARE THEY USED?

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Human consumption

Insect consumption by humans dates back to Roman times and is still traditional practice in many countries nowadays. 3 It is estimated that there are roughly 2,000 edible insect species consumed globally supplementing the diets of around two billion people.4 Insect consumption is less common in developed markets, and in these countries insects tend to be processed into products such as flour, protein bars, snacks, burgers and bread, in order to appeal to consumers.5

Pet food

Pet food is projected to rank as the second largest category, by 2030, behind aquaculture, with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) saying that some insect-based foods may be better for pets than steak as a protein source6. Currently there are seven species of insects authorised as pet food in the EU, with the top three being house crickets, yellow mealworms, and black soldier flies.

Animal feed

Insects as an animal feed ingredient has been growing in popularity in recent years, partially due to the fact that insects form a natural part of many animal diets, with research showing that insect meal can partially replace commercial meal in broiler feed, 7 although concerns remain regarding the potential poor digestibility of the insects8.

To scale up the use of insects in animal feed, the Research Council of Norway has recently allocated more than €1million to investigate the potential of using insects as a safe and healthy fish feed ingredient, and in July 2021 WWF-UK in partnership with Tesco issued a report looking at ways of scaling up the use of insects in UK feeds to reduce the environmental impact of soy farming.9

HOW IS INSECT PROTEIN PRODUCED?

The production of insect protein begins by farming and harvesting of insects. Collection of insects can happen from nature, semi-confined habitats or indoor farming. In tropical countries most insect species are collected from nature.10 However, if insects are to become an important resource, they would need to be farmed as ‘mini-livestock’, which can only be achieved in industrial automated rearing facilities. Following the harvesting, the insects are then processed through blanching, drying and nutrient extraction:

  • Blanching is a process wherein a food is placed in boiling water for a short period, removed, and then plunged into iced water to stop the thermal process. It is used as a pre-treatment to reduce microbial counts and to inactivate enzymes responsible for food spoilage and poisoning.
  • Drying is the most widely used technology for increasing the shelf-life of foods. Drying technique examples are roasting, frying and freeze-drying. Drying can reduce the total water content and therefore, the availability of degradative reactions.
  • Nutrient extraction for edible insects has been used mainly for protein, fat, and chitin. Protein extraction for example can be carried out using water, organic solvents, and enzymes.

The final step of the production process is the storage of the insects. In some parts of the world, “ready-to-eat“ insects are sold in local markets without appropriate hygienic handling. When insects have not been subjected to a thermaltreatment, they may contain a high microbiological load and can be cross-contaminated. Therefore, it is necessary to process, pack, and store them properly to minimize the risk of bacterial infections.

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INCREASE IN DEMAND IN RECENT YEARS

As consumers are becoming more conscious in making ethical and sustainable food choices – investments in alternative proteins are also increasing, and have more than doubled in 2020 when compared with 2019.11 Insec protein is the least known of alternative protein varieties, but has been increasing in popularity in recent years although currently, most of the investment is heading towards feed and pet food. Recently, pet food giants Nestlé Purina and Mars announced the launch of their insect-based pet food ranges, Purina-Beyond Nature’s Protein, and Lovebug.

Following Tesco’s announcement in July 2021, that they are trialling insect protein in feed, in December 2021, supermarket chain Wm. Morrisons announced that they will replace the current soya-based chicken feed with insects, as part of the company’s efforts to reduce supply chain CO2emissions and produce “carbon neutral” free range eggs.12

Human consumption has also been increasing in recent years; for example, Entomilk is a dairy-free ice cream alternative made of insects. Eat Grub was the first company to penetrate the British supermarket Sainsbury’s with their insect snacks. And VEXo mince is a plant and insect-based mince that can be used in burgers, meatballs, etc.

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With the increase in demand there is also a need to scale up production levels. The French firm Ÿnsect recently raised $225m to open the world’s largest insect farm in Amiens and announced its acquisition of Protifarm, a producer of human food ingredients made from mealworms. Additionally, US based EnviroFlight announced plans to develop a new R&D center in 2022, and the British company, Entocycle, has received a £10m government grant to build a Black Soldier Fly larvae farm outside London.

As a sustainable business model, it sounds almost too good to be true! Insects not only make a far more efficient feed–they can also be fed on waste and their excrement can be used as fertiliser.13 The next section explores fully the benefits and challenges of insect protein production.

BENEFITS OF INSECT PROTEIN

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Global livestock agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Less well known than carbon dioxide (CO2), but representing a particular concern are methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Livestock is responsible for 44% of methane emissions and 53% of nitrous oxide emissions globally, and despite being short-lived in the atmosphere, these gases have 27 times and 273 times the global warming potential of CO2 emissions, respectively, over the span of 100 years14.

Among insect species, only cockroaches, termites and scarab beetles produce methane, whereas insects deemed viable for human consumption and animal feed, such as mealworm larvae, crickets and flies, compare favourably with pigs and beef cattle in their GHG emissions, which are lower by a factor of a 10015.

Water use

Water is vital for the survival of all living organisms and it is a key factor contributing to agricultural output. The UN estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world population will likely be under water stress16. The increasing levels of stress placed on the global water supply threatens biodiversity, food production and human survival. The agriculture industry currently uses roughly 70% of freshwater worldwide, and the water footprint for producing animal protein is 5 to 20 times higher compared with grain protein. Insects on the other hand require 5 times less water to produce than beef13with certain species being drought-resistant compared with cattle.

Life cycle analysis15

Life cycle assessment is a technique which assesses the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life. For edible insects the analysis found that energy usage throughout the mealworm production chain was lower than for beef, comparable with pork, and slightly higher than for chicken and milk. Insects can also produce an equivalent amount of protein to beef using 25 times less feed.

Additionally, for every 1 hectare of land required to produce mealworm protein, producing animal protein would require between 3.5 to 10 times more land depending on the type of farmed animal, making mealworms the more environmentally friendly source of animal protein.

Risk of zoonotic diseases15

Intensive animal production in high densities is a starting place for many diseases and has been known to trigger the emergence of antimicrobial resistance. There is also a risk of diseases becoming zoonotic, meaning that they transfer from animals to humans. In recent years there has been an increase in zoonotic diseases due to the intensification of animal production and climate change. These include the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS), influenza ‘A’ viruses, and the COVID-19 pandemic being the most recent examples. As insects are taxonomically much more distant from humans than conventional livestock, the risk of zoonotic infections is expected to be low, but could rise if there is unhygienic handling of insects, or direct contact between farmed insects and insects outside the farm due to weak biosecurity.

One Health concept

One Health is a means of managing the threats posed by the interface between human, animal and environmental health. Studies suggest that when compared to other sources of meat, insects can be an efficient, safe, and low-impact source of nutrients, and are used in many sites with endemic malnutrition.17

Deforestation

Livestock farming is the primary cause of habitat loss. Cattle ranching is estimated to account for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon, followed by soy. Of all soy cultivated, 85% is destined for livestock feed, with only 15% going to other uses, including irect human consumption18.

It is estimated that by 2050 soy production could increase by 43% compared with 2020, which is alarming as land resources are finite. To mitigate this, the use of insect protein in animal feed could potentially reduce UK soya imports by 20% by 2050. Additionally, due to their small nature and living in close proximity, producing 1kg of insect protein requires 98.6% less land compared with beef protein. Therefore, combining the use of insects in feed as well as reducing human consumption of livestock could play a key role in tackling deforestation.

CHALLENGES IN USE OF INSECT PROTEIN

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Lack of scale

The industry’s first challenge is the lack of scale. Current volumes of insect protein are around 10,000 metric tonnes globally, led by a few large scale producers and many small scale players.19

Costs

High costs and thus high prices are also limiting the demand for insect protein and therefore limiting the opportunity of the marke to grow. The prices for insect protein currently range between €3,500 and €5,500 per metric tonne, which is significantly higher than fishmeal and soy protein.19

Legislation

Legislation varies by country and by their intended use. The use of insects in feed in the EU was prohibited until 2017, but now allows eight insect species in animal feed20. Pet food ingredients in Europe must also follow certain stringent regulations, making approval of ingredients a lengthy process. In early 2021, the EU approved insect protein as “novel foods”, with mealworms the first insect species to secure clearance as a novel food.

In the US, insect food for human consumption is covered under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Many States base their feed regulations on recommendations made by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) which currently only lists the black soldier fly as suitable for livestock feed. Pet treats (as opposed to pet food) do no have to comply with AAFCO regulations, as they are not a source of complete nutrition.

In some countries such as Nigeria, Canada and China, approval of insects as food or feed is governed by the Ministry of Health. Other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand do not have standalone legislation or regulations on insect farming. Whereas in Japan, normal novel foods do not require pre-market authorisation, while novel additives do.21

Safety Concerns

Whilst in Western countries insects are farmed, in tropical countries most insect species are collected from nature.10 Possible hazards from harvesting insects from nature include contaminants, such as heavy metals, pesticide residues, and pathogens. If insects are to become an important resource, they need to be farmed with consideration on how to avoid disease spreading within and between insect populations, whilst minimising the need for antibiotics and pesticides.

Allergies

Like most protein-containing foods, insects can induce allergic reactions in humans. The majority of cases are caused by nhalation or developed at the site of contact, and allergens may cause symptoms such as eczema, dermatitis, congestion, and bronchial asthma. 22

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Animal welfare

Whilst traditionally it is perceived that insects cannot feel pain, it has actually been discovered that insects can feel acute pain similar to the way humans do, whilst their nervous systems can also experience chronic pain throughout their lives well after an injury has healed.23 For this reason, insects would not be a suitable alternative protein for those choosing to eat a vegan lifestyle.

Animal welfare laws are different in every country and in Europe they do not apply to insects, however, insects intended for animal feed, are captured within a wider ‘farmed animal’ legal definition. To ensure animal welfare, farmed insects should be provided with adequate space, which depends on the level of interaction a species has with conspecifics under natural conditions.

Biodiversity

Harvesting from the wild is the most traditional way to gather insects. As increased demand for a few insect species may lead to more aggressive harvesting techniques, without appropriate care being exercised to ensure sustainable collection during reproductive periods local biodiversity could suffer. Therefore it is important that any upscale of production is done in a manner that does not have any adverse impact on biodiversity.5

Consumer perception

In Western cultures, insect consumption can invoke negative reactions. This view of insects as essentially inedible is perpetuated through TV shows where contestants are forced to eat insects to advance in a competition. Studies have shown that only 19% of individuals are prepared to eat insects as a meat substitute, with figures lower amongst women. Although acceptance of insects as a human food in Western culture is low, 75% of consumers were nevertheless happy to eat animals fed on insects.22

CONCLUSION

Due to the low GHG emissions, water usage, land use and high protein content associated with insect farming, insect proteins have the potential to tackle the increased demand for protein in a world with a growing population that is under natural resource constraints.

However, with the different challenges the industry is facing, particularly surrounding country dependent legislation, product safety, and consumer perception, scalability potential remains a concern. Additionally, as there are currently very few, if any, insect protein companies that are publicly listed, investment opportunities remain limited and mostly to private equity or venture capital.

Nevertheless, with the increased focus on tackling climate change, following the announcement of the “Methane Pledge” in COP26, 2022 could at last be a breakthrough year for insect protein.

Edible Insect farming has implications for EdenTree’s intensive farming and animal welfare policies, but we have yet to form a view on the matter given the very novel nature of the industry. Should investment opportunities emerge we expect to develop an appropriate policy approach towards this, taking into consideration the findings of this expert brief and the views of clients.

Sources

  1. 2867Policybrief_Insects.pdf (un.org)
  2. The contribution of insects to food security, livelihoods and the environment (fao.org)
  3. Edible Insects in a Food Safety and Nutritional Perspective: A Critical Review (wiley.com)
  4. Anthropo-entomophagy: Cultures, evolution and sustainability - RAMOSELORDUY - 2009 - Entomological Research - Wiley Online Library
  5. Edible Insects Processing: Traditional and Innovative Technologies (wiley.com)
  6. https://www.petfoodindustry.com/blogs/7-adventures-in-pet-food/ post/10218-insect-protein-for-pet-food-buzzing-into-mainstream
  7. Edible Insects as a Protein Source: A Review of Public Perception, Processing Technology, and Research Trends (nih.gov)
  8. https://www.fairr.org/index/
  9. The_future_of_feed_July_2021.pdf (wwf.org.uk)
  10. Edible insects contributing to food security? (biomedcentral.com)
  11. Alternative Protein Market | Food Tech Spotlight | FAIRR
  12. Morrisons ditches soya for insects in chicken feed to hatch carbon neutral eggs | Financial Times (ft.com)
  13. If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects | Food | The Guardian
  14. https://www.fairr.org/sustainable-proteins/
  15. Edible Insects - Future prospects for food and feed security (fao.org)
  16. Water scarcity | International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015 (un.org)
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24973999/
  18. https://www.fairr.org/index/key-findings/risk-opportunity-factors/ deforestation-biodiversity-loss/
  19. Demand for insect protein could hit 500,000 tons by 2030 (feednavigator.com)
  20. Insects As Feed EU Legislation – Aquaculture, Poultry & Pig Species (ipiff.org)
  21. https://www.wageningenacademic.com/doi/epdf/10.3920/JIFF2020.0066
  22. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/nbu.12291
  23. Study Finds Insects Can Experience Chronic Pain | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine