The larvae of common black soldier flies and similar insects have the capacity to consume food waste at a scale mechanised systems have not realised. By capitalising on the larvae’s appetite, new businesses are developing a range of high value protein derivatives. Potential and realised applications of insect protein include feed for livestock, fish, pets, humans, plants, nutraceuticals and green chemistry.
Producing feed for livestock and aquaculture is perhaps the most promising of these. The question driving new businesses is straightforward: why waste 1.3 billion tons of food rich in protein annually, while continuing to exhaust precious natural resources, agricultural land and dwindling fish stocks to capture protein for feed?
Kees Arts, founder of the pioneering venture Protix in the Netherlands, has asserted that the potential amount of insect-extracted protein is equivalent to the total amount of proteins currently used in all feeds in agriculture and livestock. Furthermore, studies suggest insect-based feed can be more nutritious for animals: they live longer, require fewer antibiotics and produce more as well.
Emerging bug-based businesses like Protix are employing simple, scalable and controllable systems which can recover an estimated 70-80% of proteins from food waste. A host of similar ventures have sprung up elsewhere; these include Ynsect in France, Enterra in Canada, Grubbly Farms in the United States, Entocycle in the United Kingdom, as well as an international, collaborative project called Proteinsect.
What are the potential impacts for farming if high-value protein products can be wrung from feeding food waste to insects, to produce alternatives to animal feed?
Nearly a third of global agricultural land is devoted to producing food that is then wasted; a third is also committed solely to cultivating crops for feed. A 2015 study argued that we need to reduce the amount of arable land devoted to animal feed, reducing competition for direct food production, if we are to nourish 10 billion in 2050. Furthermore, the study estimated that reducing the amount of land devoted to feed could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18% and nitrogen surplus by 46%.
Using waste as a basis for insect feed is one way to reduce dependence on arable land for animal feed. Local waste-to-feed cycles could also reduce transport emissions (as well as wider resource implications) from importing resource-intensive products such as soy.
Regulation remains a key challenge, and will determine the profitability of insect feed. In the EU, livestock fed with waste (such as swill for pigs) cannot be sold to humans. International food experts argue that instead of prohibiting food waste feed in the EU, it should be more effectively regulated. Japan and South Korea respectively recycle 35.9% and 42.5% of their food waste as animal feed.
Other important questions will need to be addressed. Which markets will compete for food waste streams in future? Will it be more profitable for farmers to convert waste to energy or to feed?
Currently, there is no shortage of food waste. However, how might waste-conversion businesses guarantee their supply in the long run? Is there a risk that waste food used to fatten larvae delivering high value products could one day fetch a higher price than food for direct human consumption?
Image: Christina VanMeter
FAO (2016) Food wastage: Key facts and figures
World Economic Forum (January, 2016) Insects: the secret weapon to saving food waste?
All About Feed (January, 2016) First delivery of insect oil to Dutch animal feed firm
Feedipedia (January, 2016) Impacts of feeding less food-competing feedstuffs to livestock on global food system sustainability
Entomology Today (May, 2015) Black Soldier Flies as Recyclers of Waste and Possible Livestock Feed
Global Agriculture (2015) Meat and Animal Feed