Nascent insect-based pet food industry eyes ecology

Scientists suggested that insect farms focus on developing ideal practices for optimizing sustainability before the industry grows too large to change easily.

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(wittayayut |
(wittayayut |

Ecologists suggested that insect farms focus on developing ideal sustainability practices before the insect-based pet food ingredient industry grows too large to change easily. Meanwhile, arthropod agriculturalists aim to achieve just that at Ϋnsect’s fully automated pilot plant in France, where the company produces protein and oil from mealworms (Tenebrio molitor).

“Why not do it great from the beginning?” Åsa Berggren, ecology professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, said. “Think about sustainability now, since it’s easier than once they [insect farms] are already built.”

Berggren and her colleagues wrote a paper noting areas where the nascent insect farming industry needs more research to establish best practices for sustainability. Trends in Ecology and Evolution published the paper.

Native insects as pet food protein sources

For one thing, insect farms should be wary of potential environmental effects of escapees, she said. Errant insects could become invasive species.

Cattle, carp, horses and pigs all started as domesticated animals in the United States, but now cause ecological damage in areas where they have escaped captivity. These invasive species, and many more non-native plants and animals, cost the United States nearly US$120 billion each year, according to a 2005 paper in Ecological Economics.

“The issue is having non-native insects in massive amounts,” Berggren said. “So if they escape, they could do serious damage.”

Using native insect species would be a safer choice for agricultural operations than raising species that could escape and compete with indigenous insects, she said.

For example, insect-based protein and oil producer Ϋnsect raises yellow mealworms. These arthropods are native to France and many other regions where they have been reared for decades as fish bait, Constant Motte, business development manager for Ynsect, said.

Even for native species, escaped insects could cause problems of literally Biblical proportions (Locust are edible, by the way).

Thousands of escaped native insects would still cause a sudden ecological shock and could inflict localized environmental damage, Berggren said.

In the case of the mealworms, the age of the insects limits their chances for escape.

“We raise them in confined buildings and our insects, mainly at the larvae phase, cannot escape from their trays,” he said. “It is a fantastic insect that likes to be raised in a high density, social environment and at the larvae phase it cannot fly or jump because it has no wings or legs. The risk of escape from this closed building is insignificant.”

Energy used in insect farming operations

Raising native insects in maximum security confinement could still harm the environment, if the energy used to maintain those facilities comes from fossil fuels. In January, conventional livestock rearing suffered criticism in a Lancet Commission report that noted the environmental and human health costs of animal protein production. Instead, the report called for greater consumption of plant-based proteins. Animal agriculture advocacy organizations, such as the American Feed Industry Association, refuted the report.

However, beyond the debate, the resources used to produce protein from animals affect both the environment and the economy. Insects may provide a solution to this dilemma, because of their potentially much lower resource needs than mammals and poultry. At the same time, insects can provide a healthy range of proteins and amino acids, along with other nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.

“There have been some studies done, and insects are lots better than cows and pigs,” Berggren said. “For the insects that have been tested, we can eat everything, as opposed to cows were we eat only half the animal, more or less… Insects can eat things people and other livestock can’t eat.”

Still, the resources used to rear insects needs further study to determine the optimal way to produce the most insect-based pet food ingredients using the least fuel and feed, she said.

Ϋnsect raises mealworms on safe, controlled, vegetable byproducts that are not intended primarily for human food, said Motte.

“Ϋnsect know-how includes mealworm physiology to develop a specific diet mix in order to use as little feed as possible for each kilo of mealworm.,” he said. “The Molitor are known to be very energy efficient and retain protein from low nutritious feed.”

Likewise, when processing those mealworms into protein and oil, Ϋnsect endeavors to use as little energy as possible.

“The energy used to process the insects is very similar to the production of premium fish meal,” Motte said. “The main differences are the source of protein and the extraordinary freshness of the transformation process because our insect larvae are transformed just after the bleaching process; similar to the shrimp industry.

“An important benefit of our technology is that there is no waste,” he said. “The whole larva is used.”

Even the insects’ excrement, called frass, can be used.

Renewable energy and fertilizer from insect protein production

As Mad Max found out in “Beyond Thunderdrome,” pig manure can be used to produce energy from biogas.

Likewise, insect frass can be fermented into methane biogas, Motte said.

While methane is a potent greenhouse gas, fully combusted biogas can be climate friendly since it doesn’t involve releasing methane stored in ancient deposits.

“There is strong support at the moment in the EU to produce more biogas and bioenergy,” Motte said. “Frass could be used in that respect.

“The other option is to use frass as a great organic fertilizer to bring back organic matter into the soil. We can then store carbon and create a stable humus needed for the fertility of agriculture soils.

“Eventually, the uses would depend on the energy mix of each country,” Motte said. “In France where energy is highly decarbonized with nuclear and hydropower, the fertilizer application makes a lot of sense. In other countries where coal is the major source of energy, it could be relevant, environmentally speaking, to have a mix of biogas and fertilizer applications.”

Considering these and other ecologically positive potentials of insect farming, Berggren said she doesn’t want to swat the industry. Instead, she calls for further research to make sure the burgeoning bug business gets started on the right foot, or six feet in this case.

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