The insect solution to soy

Could feeding insects to chickens help replace soy in animal feed and cut the deforestation impact of one the most popular foods?

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. 

Black Soldier Fly larvae are a protein-rich source of animal feed. Image Entocycle.

The BSF larvae reared in Better Origin’s containerised insect farm, named X1, eat local grain waste before larvae are fed live to hens in a trial with a local egg farm.

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.

Better Origin
Better Origin’s X1 insect farm is located in a shipping container on a farm in Cambridgeshire.

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.

Dried larvae
At the moment, insects are classed as livestock and their feed is regulated. Image Entocycle.

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.

Chickens eating from hand
Feeding poultry with insects rather than soy could reduce their environmental impact.

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.


Leave a Reply

  1. Why do non-vegans have to continually come up with alternative ways to exploit and kill animals rather than just accepting the fact that it is cruel, unsustainable, unhealthy for us (read the China Study and no, none of its extensive evidence has been disproved), unethical and totally unnecessary. This idea is absurd nonsense, like a burglar trying to come up with “acceptable” ways to steal your possessions: “Well, if I only cause a small amount of damage when I break in, don’t steal too much from each person and don’t make too much mess, it’ll be completely ok!” There is absolutely nothing about animal agriculture and consumption that is acceptable, healthy or beneficial in any way. All laying hens come from hatcheries that kill the male chicks a day or two after hatching. Millions of babies killed at birth. All laying hens are disposed of after 18 months to two years as their laying reduces. “Thanks for making us all the money, don’t need you now so you’re going to be slaughtered for pet food.” Some of our rescue hens are eight years old. Milk is known to promote prostate cancer and other diseases: doesn’t matter if it’s organic or not. Dairy farms forcibly impregnate their cows every year, steal the baby calves from their mothers causing extreme distress to both and kill the male calves at once or raise them briefly in isolation for veal. Eating animal products is unethical, unnatural, unhealthy and unsustainable. All animal farming involves extreme cruelty and killing (yes, ALL of it, including organic). People need to get past their myopic cultural conditioning and face the reality of their choices and behaviour.

    1. agree totally
      ! They are trying to justify the unjustifiable and this reminds me of a story called « Thew emperor’s new clothes »Come on people we really can do better!

    2. Hi Andy . The problem is factory farming of anything animal or vegetable . Unsustainable vast monocultures sustained by chemical means . A society completely ignorant of and removed from food production with long precarious supply lines . Food needs to be grown locally for the local community .Otherwise when things go wrong for most people the issue will be getting enough to eat .

  2. Brilliant!!! I love the fact that this idea is a win win situation. ‘Waste’ of all kinds – green, meat/blood, fish guts etc reprocessed as protein.
    I use the term waste cautiously, as echoing the article, there is no such thing as waste in this bio closed loop system. Could we get to the point where local waste is utilised – then moved yards – not miles, as a food source?
    This is pure permaculture – miles away from agro-industry that would have us bring highly processed food grade animal feed from the other side of the world.
    Good luck! You’ll need it fighting established vested interests…

  3. It is absolutely shocking that tastebuds, profit and greed replace what should be a heart and compassion for our fellow beings on this planet and our planet itself. We need to stop the abuse and start giving back to our planet. There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for man’s greed. Go vegan it’s easy and delicious and the right thing to do

  4. Brilliant.

    Save grains and vegetables for people to eat, stop pulling down rainforests for Soya to feed to animals for those who aren’t Vegan [that’s a lot of folks out there], and utilize lots of “waste” foodstuffs.

    I’m keen to see more of such development – if bears thrive on bugs, I’m sure a lot more animals can [including humans? – pass the mealworms, chaps!]

  5. Feeding insect larvae to animals to replace soya grains sounds like a good move. As long as the larvae don’t escape into the environment and become a pest. Perhaps a more knowledgeable person has a view on this. But the hens are still mainly kept in appalling conditions and abused in many ways, and male chicks killed just so we can eat a food which we don’t need and according to some scientists harm our bodies. anthony

  6. This is very interesting, but it needs to be part of food regulation. For example, it’s possible but not permitted to make feathers into chicken protein feed. But feeding the feathers to BSF larvae would not be prohibited.!
    The food industry will stop at nothing to sell us rubbish, the worst examples being processed ‘vegan’ stuffs, where we know absolutely nothing about the ingredients or provenance of the ingredients. .


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