On a poultry farm in Cambridgeshire lies a grey container: were it not for the sleek white branding, it would look like your average farm building.
In fact, this is a fully-automated containerised insect farm designed by Better Origin, a British tech start-up. In it are seven million larvae of Black Soldier Flies (BSF), which are being reared as feed for the farms’ laying hens.
Insects are a rich source of protein, and one that the animal feed industry is starting to consider as an alternative to problematic sources of protein such as soya and fishmeal. Around 68 per cent of the UK’s soya imports come from South America where the crop is a leading driver of deforestation. Meanwhile, 20 per cent of global wild fish catch goes to make fishmeal: considering the pressures marine ecosystems already face from overfishing for human food and pollution, campaigners argue that the use of whole fish to make fishmeal is indefensible.
While insects as a protein-rich snack or ingredient for humans are already gaining attention, feeding insects to animals could have more far-reaching impacts.
Fotis Fotiadis, Better Origin’s co-founder and CEO, says there are two reasons for this. The first is that regulation currently only allows dried processed insects in aquafeed, but not for poultry or pigs. As insects are a new protein source, legislation is slightly behind the times, although new EU rules due by early 2021 are expected to change this.
Fotiadis says that regulation is one of the reasons his company decided to start with live larvae: it offered an immediate route to market. But poultry welfare was another motivation.
“We did studies with Bristol University and we saw a significant increase in welfare on hens that were fed live BSF larvae every week: there was more activity, less keel bone fractures and better feather coverage,” he says.
In other words, hens pecked at the larvae rather than at each other. The study also showed that hens produced more and better-quality eggs. “I love this idea that we’re using cutting-edge technology to revive the primitive concept of chickens eating insects,” says Fotiadis, adding that scratching for insects is a natural behaviour of free-range hens.
This concept of ‘nature’s engineering’ is a recurrent theme in the development of insect protein. Keiran Olivares Whitaker, founder of Entocycle, another British start-up, got interested in insects while exploring issues around food security and waste. “There is no waste in nature: it’s just input for further down the chain,” he says. “It’s nature and it’s been going through 150 million years of R&D [research and development] perfection.”
The FAO estimates that one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted every year; insects therefore offer an opportunity to convert this waste into valuable protein. BSF in particular, which are saprophagous (they feed on decaying matter), are the ultimate waste processors, while locating farms close to waste sources, such as Better Origin’s X1 container, means local waste can be transformed into local protein as a further sustainable benefit.
The potential in insects still faces significant barriers, though, particularly around regulation regarding the use of animal protein in animal feed.
“The legislation for feed was set up in the wake of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, which targets animal proteins, but applies to insects by default,” says Mark Ramsden, a consultant at environmental consultancy ADAS. “Research is being done and the evidence so far suggests that [insect protein] can be produced safely and has advantages,” he says.
Because insects are currently classed as livestock, they can only be fed approved feed such as supply chain surplus, surplus bread, or out of spec food, all of which already have existing markets as feed for energy generation, via anaerobic digestion.
The insect industry is pushing hard to broaden the range of feed for insects, particularly supply chain waste containing meat and fish, as well as catering waste. Olivares Whitaker, whose company plans to break ground for the UK’s first industrial-scale BSF facility next year, says this broadening of feed sources is key to unlocking insects’ full circular economy potential. “This is fundamental to me, but also to the business,” he says.
For consumers and food citizens, there is an even greater benefit for insects being fed to animals. NGOs such as WWF, with its ‘Get deforestation off our plates’ campaign, and Greenpeace’s report Winging It, have found that for UK consumers at least, it’s chicken that is likely to have the most environmental impact, due to what they’re fed.
Insect-fed products have already hit the shelves in Europe: consumers in the Netherlands can buy Oerei Eggs, laid by hens fed with grains, seeds and BSF. And shoppers at Auchan supermarkets in France can buy trout that has been fed BSF.
In the UK, supermarket chain Tesco is working with WWF to develop a local BSF sector and diversify animal feed in their food system, while only this week, fast food chain Nando's announced it is looking into alternative feed sources for chickens as part of its plan to improve welfare and cut environmental impact.
While government legislation plays catch up, businesses and brands are already seeing the potential in insects as feed, so it may not be long until Brits can tuck into insect-fed fish, chicken and other food, too.