SUSINCHAIN

Improving insect rearing for food and feed

Circular agriculture

Insect meal is a good alternative for high-grade proteins in animal feed. Photo: Shutterstock

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Will we be eating pasta and bread made from insect flour in the future? We will if Europe has anything to do with it, as the European Union wants to become less dependent on raw materials as protein sources from outside Europe. That is why scientists at Wageningen University & Research are collaborating with European colleagues in a study on the use of insects in food for humans and animal feed.

To meet the demand for protein, the EU wants to reduce imports of protein-rich crops such as soya and become more self-sufficient. This is more sustainable because fewer imports mean lower costs, less energy consumption due to transport and less deforestation for the cultivation of soya. Soya is grown mainly in Latin America as a protein-rich raw material for animal feed. Insects are a good alternative to these proteins. They are a source of high-quality protein and can easily be cultivated locally. In the European SUSINCHAIN (Sustainable Insect Chain) project, the Wageningen scientist Teun Veldkamp and his European colleagues are exploring the options for incorporating insects in animal feed and food designed for humans. SUSINCHAIN's ambitions are concrete: to replace at least 20 per cent of the animal protein consumed in Europe with insect protein by 2025 and to increase production volumes and jobs in the insect farming sector by a factor of 1,000.

Low-impact livestock farming

Veldkamp is a senior researcher in Animal Nutrition at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and specialised in insects. “In Africa, incomes are rising and that has led to an increase in the demand for meat and fish. So prices are going up steeply too. On top of that, it is debatable whether the planet can bear the burden of meeting that demand sustainably.” Traditional meat production takes up large amounts of land and natural resources, explains Veldkamp. “Here in Europe, we want lower-impact livestock farming.”

We look at the issues insect farmers encounter, in terms of both legislation and rearing methods

Mealworms are among the insects most commonly farmed (as larvae) for animal and human consumption. Photo: Shutterstock

Insects reproduce quickly, which offers real opportunities for insects as an alternative source of protein. The nutritional value of insects is comparable to that of ordinary meat. Veldkamp: “Another big advantage of insects is that you can grow them on waste streams from the food processing industry, such as vegetable remains and pulp, which makes them much more sustainable than fishmeal and soya.”

Bread and pasta

Insect protein is an excellent option for animal feed as it can be cultivated locally, unlike the fishmeal and soya that are currently fed to livestock. The food industry is also interested in alternative sources of protein. However, consumers are not at all keen on eating whole insects. But a good alternative might be to incorporate insect flour in food products such as bread and pasta. A disadvantage of insect farming is the cost. Insects have been farmed for decades but not on a large scale. If insects are to become a realistic alternative source of protein, production needs to be scaled up to supply large volumes with consisting quality. The aim of SUSINCHAIN is therefore to test and demonstrate innovative rearing methods that will allow a smoothly functioning, commercially viable European insect supply chain to be set up.

Cultivation methods

The project is also a seamless fit with the views of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. Veldkamp: “The ministry has drawn up a sector plan together with the insect farming sector. There is synergy between aspects of that plan and our project.” WUR is coordinating this European project and Veldkamp is the project coordinator. “The project has various scientific work packages. They range from developing business models and exploring the potential markets for insect producers to the development of techniques for processing insects.” Veldkamp: “When developing business models and examining possible markets, we look at the current state of affairs and the options for insect producers. For example, what else could we do with insects? And we also look at the issues insect farmers encounter, in terms of both legislation and rearing methods.”

The nutritional value of insects is comparable to that of ordinary meat, making them a suitable substitute for fish and meat. Photo: Shutterstock

The researchers are also examining various rearing techniques and ways of improving the transport of larvae and eggs. That includes the larvae of the black soldier fly, the housefly, the mealworm and the cricket. “These are the insects most commonly farmed for animal and human consumption. We look at the quantities of larvae per rearing box, the quantities of feed and the types of feed. Temperature and humidity are important when transporting eggs for the production of larvae, for example.”

Experimenting

There are also work packages for developing the technology for processing insects. The scientists are experimenting with various processing techniques. Veldkamp: “You need to dry the larvae first, getting rid of 70 per cent of the moisture, before you can turn them into insect flour. We tested techniques including microwaving, radio-frequency drying and low-energy electron beams on a variety of larvae. Those experiments yielded various products, some of which are being tested further in another work package looking at the use of insects in animal feed.” In that package, various types and quantities of insect meal are added to animal feed for farmed fish, poultry and piglets. Veldkamp: “We consider aspects such as the digestibility of the meal. That information is used to put together different animal feed products. Then we look at how the animals do when fed these products. What is their growth like, how many eggs are laid, are there health effects? WUR has a great deal of experience in this area and we can put that knowledge to good use in this project.”

New food products

The scientists are looking not just at the use of insects in animal feed but also at their application in food for humans. New food products are being developed and assessed in sensory tests. Specifically, six product prototypes are being developed that will then be tried out on consumers and sensory panels. Veldkamp: “The insect meal will be incorporated in standard products such as pasta, bread and falafels. We are doing this because at this point, European consumers are not keen on eating insects that are recognisable as such – something that is more common in Asia. We are doing consumer tests in Denmark and Portugal.”

The insect farming sector is quite new and there is a real need to share know-how

European consumers are not keen on eating insects that are recognisable as such, which is more common in Asia. Photo: Shutterstock

A work package on food safety covers both animal feed and human food. It examines the potential risks, such as allergic reactions. Veldkamp: “Some people may develop an allergic reaction to mealworms, similar to a shellfish allergy. Two major allergens that have been identified are tropomyosin and arginine kinase, which are found in mealworms, shellfish, and house dust mite. Mycotoxins are also investigated; these are toxic compounds formed by fungi in agricultural crops. Weather conditions have a large influence on mycotoxin contamination of, for instance, grains and nuts. This can lead to such high contaminations that the crops cannot be used for feed or food production anymore. SUSINCHAIN investigates if insects can safely be reared on mycotoxin contaminated crops.”

Gut health

The project is only halfway – it is due to end 30 September 2023 – but there are already some specific results. Veldkamp: “When insects are incorporated in animal feed, the insect products are just as digestible as conventional protein-rich animal feed materials. In fact, insects can boost gut health and immunity in animals.” Humans also appreciate insect products – when they are not recognisably insect-like. Veldkamp: “Regular dinner meals will be assessed by consumer panels in Denmark and Portugal. Of course you must state on the label that they contain insects because of possible allergies.” A major benefit of this project is that it is giving the insect sector and WUR a lot of new knowledge. WUR already knows heaps about insect production and using insect protein in animal feed. Food safety is also a key area of research at the institute but there is always a need for more knowledge, including among practitioners. Veldkamp: “The insect farming sector is quite new and there is a real need to share know-how. That doesn’t happen enough at present. The pioneers often keep the expertise they have acquired to themselves so that they don’t lose their competitive advantage. WUR’s task is to widely share our knowledge with the sector. That is why we launched a stakeholder platform for SUSINCHAIN where partners in the insect sector can talk about their experiences and the problems they encounter.” The project is now midway. Does it look like the objectives can be achieved? Veldkamp: “We can say the project will provide crucial tools for achieving the goal of replacing 20 per cent of European consumption of animal protein with insect protein. Not only are the larger existing insect farms expanding, we are also seeing more and more new insect farms in Europe.”

European research context

Sustainable Insect Chain (SUSINCHAIN) addresses the following European policy challenges:

  • Circular-economy agriculture
  • Reuse of waste streams
  • Sustainability and closing cycles

Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Livestock Research, Wageningen Food Safety Research and Business Economics Group Countries involved in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Poland and Portugal

Duration: 2019 – 2023

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