Article by The Agriculture Scientist.

As you likely know at this point, the world’s population is growing. And the rate is so accelerated that food production, the experts say, will have to rise by up to 70% to keep up with the demand. This doesn’t just include humans – animals also have to eat, and they even consume more resources than we do.

In fact, most of the farmland area in the world is destined to growing food for animals. In 2010, the global production of animal feed compounds reached 720 million tons. With food production requirements set to increase, there will be even larger pressure on the environment.

When you consider the main sources of protein for animal feed – such as soy – the challenge becomes even bigger for regions like Europe, which depends on its import and is thus vulnerable to price fluctuations and demand variations in the global market.

Insects in animal feed

Some of the insects with the greatest potential for large scale application are the larvae of the black soldier fly and the housefly. However, specialists have looked into other species’ potential for this effect: crickets, termites, wasps, bees, ants, etc.

Farmers in China, South Africa, Spain and the USA already produce big quantities of flies for aquaculture and poultry farming, through bio conversion of organic residue.

Upsides of using insects for animal feed

One thing we need to note is that insects are new food for animals – especially birds. Insects are a natural food source for many birds. Chickens, for instance, pick up insects and larvae from the ground.

From a scientific standpoint, investigation has shown that the nutritional value of insects is at least comparable to that of the main ingredients currently used in animal feed. Insects contain high quality protein (between 55% and 75%), vitamins, amino acids, and important fatty acids. They’re also rich in fibers and micro nutrients, like copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.

Another plus is that insects are made of chitin, a polysaccharide that is present in their exoskeleton, and which seems to have a positive effect in the immune system. Therefore, feeding animals with insect-based feed may lead to a reduction in the use of antibiotics in the poultry meat industry.

Besides that, insects are very efficient – that is, they need very little sustenance to grow a lot. Their reproduction and growth cycles are short and they require small amounts of food, water, and space. They also emit less greenhouse gas and ammonia. That makes them sustainable and economic sources of protein.

Insect-based food production can play an important role in creating a circular food chain. Insects can grow on sub-products and residue from the agri-food sector and primary production. This way, they can contribute to a more sustainable livestock sector and increase the value of sub-products in the agriculture and food industries.

In crop farming, many losses occur, so the valuing its sub-products can turn them into good feed for animals. However, these sub-products less stable, and thus susceptible to degradation; besides, they’re nutritionally unbalanced and not rich in protein.

So, there’s a need to convert vegetable subproducts into stable and nutritionally-rich products. And that’s where insects come in.

They’re bioconverters, capable of reducing decomposing mater and of converting organic matter into protein and fat. They transform various unstable sub-products into high quality raw materials which can be used in animal nutrition.

Finally, they can also contribute to the composting of these sub-products, producing organic fertilizers which will later be used again in the fields – thus closing the cycle.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to our farming and AgTech newsletter.

Article by The Agriculture Scientist (portuguese)