Insects as a food source is not new in many parts of the world, but only in the last decade or so have they gained significant interest in Western countries. Europe is home to many of the world’s leading insect producers, and after about 10 years of research and development, its budding insect industry is growing rapidly as it enters large-scale, controlled production.
There are challenges to overcome, however, according to Lars-Henrik Lau Heckmann, business development manager with Skov A/S. The Danish agricultural production equipment supplier recently became a partner in a new joint venture with Inno and Big Dutchman, called Better Insect Solutions, to serve the building and equipment needs of the sector.
Why it matters: Sustainable insect farming can accommodate growing global demands for protein feed ingredients in aquaculture, poultry, swine and people, decreasing the need to increase other forms of protein like fish meal or soy, for example.
Despite its growth, the insect industry needs to upscale its production to meet market requirements while addressing regulatory barriers and gaining consumer acceptance, Heckmann told international agricultural journalists during a tour of a new insect farm being built near Horsens in Denmark.
A joint venture between Enorm Biofactory A/S and Skov, it will be one of Europe’s largest black soldier fly production facilities when it comes online in 2023.
According to a report by Natural Products Canada released earlier this year, many insect farms use food and agricultural waste as feed, and sustainably raised insects have better feed conversion ratios, use less water, feed, and land, and create less greenhouse gases than beef, poultry, hogs or fish.
“Insects have unique dietary requirements and need the right nutrients to grow – but overall, insect farms look like any other big scale farming from the outside,” Heckmann said. “We leverage philosophies from classic animal farming in insect production.”
Black soldier fly follows a growth cycle similar to pig production, although much shorter at only 45 to 50 days, as the insects move through nursery, grow-out and finishing stages. Every female fly lays 700 to 1,200 eggs and production of one kilogram of larvae requires only one to two kg of feed.
In fact, 80 to 90 per cent of the world’s insect farming is focused on black soldier fly because of their rapid growth in a wide variety of substrates. They are also three to four times more efficient than meal worms and easier to raise than crickets.
Farmed insects in the European Union can be fed with byproducts from dairies, breweries and the potato industry, but food waste from households, hotels, restaurants and institutions is not permitted. Food waste overall accounts for almost four per cent of Denmark’s total carbon dioxide emissions, making insect farming a potentially powerful waste reduction partner, noted Heckmann.
“Since BSE, you can’t feed terrestrial animals to other terrestrial animals so we had to do a lot of work to have that ban lifted for fish, poultry and pigs (and build the market),” he said, adding that changes in the regulatory environment will have significant impacts on development of the sector.
Insect protein has been approved as a fish feed ingredient in the EU since 2017. Poultry and pigs were added in 2020, setting the stage for rapid growth the sector is now seeing.
About 1,000 people work in Europe’s insect industry now, which is expected to produce three million tonnes of protein annually by 2030. That is still not enough to keep up with global demand.
Some larvae are kept for breeding, but the bulk of Enorm’s production is processed into meal or oil and the manure produced by the insects, called frass, is marketed as fertilizer. The company was started in 2018 by Carsten Lind Pedersen, a former pig farmer and premix producer, who set up a pilot facility to test and refine efficient and sustainable production methods before launching into large-scale production.
At full capacity, his new facility will produce 60 tonnes of live larvae per month, along with 12 tonnes of insect meal, 4.2 tonnes of insect oil and 24 tonnes of frass.
“We are not against traditional farming, but we shouldn’t feed larvae with grain or soy as it doesn’t make sense. We can’t produce anything without loss, but we can minimize it as much as possible,” Pedersen said, adding that the sustainable aspect of insect farming is attracting many young people to the industry.
Like other types of agriculture, insect farming is increasingly fueled by technology, including sensors, artificial intelligence and automation. According to Pedersen, ventilation in particular is key in successful insect farming, which led to his partnership with Skov. He works closely with researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark and the Technical University of Denmark on ongoing insect farming projects.
Insects are a growing sector in North America too. Forty-nine of 50 U.S. states have insect-derived ingredients registered, and Canada has approved insects for human and animal consumption, said Wendy Lu MacGill, executive director of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture, in a webinar earlier this year.
There are more than 30 insect agriculture businesses across Canada at various stages. As in Europe, the main market opportunities are animal feed ingredients, pet food and treats, and human nutrition – although human consumption is developing less rapidly due to a lack of consumer acceptance of food with insect-based ingredients. Products include whole dried insects, defatted protein meal, insect oils and frass.