There has been a lot of press, both positive and negative, about a recent United Nations report in which scientists recommended that we start eating insects to fight world hunger. But the other U.N. recommendation—that farmers should consider feeding insects to poultry and aquacultured fish—did not garner nearly as much attention, despite seeming more feasible. After all, when given the opportunity, fish and chickens readily eat insects. And there is no shortage of literature on their high nutritional value and ease of breeding. But if feeding insects to animals presents so many advantages, why aren’t we doing it already?
One reason has been processing cost. Currently, protein from mealworms (beetle larvae commonly fed to animals, including pets) is 51 times as expensive as soy protein, according to a 2012 study by Dutch researchers from Wageningen University and Research Center. The study concluded that, to be competitive, the cost of mealworms would have to decrease by at least 95 percent. The scientists explained this difference in price by pointing to the low levels of automation and mechanization in insect-rearing procedures.
“Some of the folks trying to grow insects at an industrial scale haven’t found a way to produce insect-based feeds at a cost that competes with conventional feed producers,” says Glen Courtright, president of Enviroflight, one of a handful of companies that manufacture insect-based feeds worldwide. The company, located in Ohio and founded in 2009, seems to have found a way to compete with makers of conventional feed: it sells many different types of insect feeds to a few companies in the aquaculture industry, most of which are made from black soldier fly larvae. Courtright declined to reveal how his company manages to keep its production costs down.
The other big obstacle to producing insect-based feeds has been the fear of spreading disease. Feed insects do not tend to carry pathogens that are intrinsically dangerous to humans, but when they are fed manure or reared in unsanitary conditions, they can become vectors for bacterial disease that they can transmit to pigs, chickens and, subsequently, humans.
Enviroflight avoids this risk by not feeding their flies animal manure or table scraps. “We wouldn’t touch manure with a 10-foot pole,” Courtright says. Rather, the company feeds its larvae brewer’s grains, a by-product of alcohol production it gets from local breweries.
The advantages of insect-based feeds might soon push other feed producers to join Enviroflight's mission to create sustainable animal nutrient alternatives. The U.N. report explains that since insects reproduce quickly and prodigiously, they might be more reliable than feed crops. In addition, insects are not picky eaters, so farmers can buy various unwanted grains and other material from other farmers at low cost and capitalize on insects’ incredible ability to recycle the nutrients found in agricultural by-products, the third most cited advantage of raising insects for feed. Courtright also points out that he doesn't just sell the larvae, but also their feces, which are used to feed tilapia and prawns.
Of course, the switch to insect-based feeds will only work if people accept the resulting insect-fed meat, so taste is an important factor. According to the U.N. report, expert taste-testers detected no flavor difference in the Ohio prawns that were fed Enviroflight's products compared with conventionally fed prawns. The only difference was that these prawns were paler in color than regular prawns. And, in a report for the Australian Poultry CRC, a company that manages research and development programs for sustainable poultry farming, scientists pointed out that grasshopper-fed chickens in the Philippines are actually fetch higher prices than other chickens because of their superior taste.
So far, Courtright says, Enviroflight has received nothing but positive reactions from government officials and the farmers to whom it sell its products—a good sign because the need for alternative animal feed products is mounting. The cost of grains is rising, and this price rise is already affecting the poultry and aquaculture industry. Although humans have a tendency to think of insects as pests, rather than a link in our own food chain, with a little fine-tuning, insect-based feeds could soon represent a viable piece of the food crisis puzzle—one that wouldn’t require us to munch on exoskeletons just yet.