Which insect species to farm for human food?

Welcome to my third blog post! So far I have got almost 300 different visitors to my site, thank you all for reading and spreading the word. To celebrate this milestone I have got myself a logo and name for the blog. Special thanks for logo for my friend Lasse Ursin, who also provides the cool graphics of this blog post.

Since starting the blog I have completed my internship at Ynsect in France and returned to my native Finland. I have some interesting insect-related projects coming up, but nothing official yet. My thesis work is also moving forward, I think I’m about in the half way now. The title keeps on changing, at the moment it is Risk Management in the Supply Chains of Human food and Animal feed Entomology Farms. One interesting topic I came across with when doing research on insect farming is the reasoning why certain insect are more suitable for farming than others. Here is what I found out.

Which insect species to farm for human food?

There are over six million insect species in the world and over 1000 are used as a food source for humans. There is so much to choose from, so how to find the best options? There are many ways to approach the question, but for this blog I have chosen to take the businessman view and see which species can be farmed effectively and in large scale.

First of all the chosen insect must be phytophagous, meaning that they feed on plant-based food. Entomophagous insects, meaning that they are feeding on other insects, are very hard to farm and make a profit in the same time. This is because even though there have been many attempts, entomophagous insects have not been successfully farmed on factitious prey meaning that to farm them, also the prey insect must be farmed. This leads to a situation where two insects are farmed, but only one can be sold.

lehtikirvapirkko

The second step in the cutting out the options is answering a set of questions. Some of these questions are given in the book Mass Rearing of Beneficial Organisms.

Body size: The insect should have reasonably large body size because the insects that are sold for human food or animal feed are sold in weight (sometimes entomophagous insects that are reared for pest control are sold in numbers). The larger the size the easier they are to control during the rearing process.

Easy to culture: This is something quite obvious, but what makes a species easy to culture? The main reasons making culturing easy are: Available studies on the insect, availability of the insect itself, simple living environment, simple eating habits and low level of manual work on the upkeep of the farms living conditions.

High rate of reproduction: This is one of most important questions and related to the body size point. There is no use of having a species that are large in size if they are very slow breeders. High rate of reproduction gives also security against unexpected rise in mortality rates as the population can regain the required level fast. Also answering to rising market demand is easier.

Not significantly cannibalistic and high tolerance for diseases: Even though the insects must be given an environment that resembles their natural environment, they most likely will be living in more dense populations than in nature. Some insects will react to high density populations by starting to eat each other. This will cause losses to the farmer and fights against the animal welfare (see blog no 1). The dense populations increases also the risk of diseases and for this reason high tolerance is necessary.

Feed conversion ratio and feed: The feed conversion ratio tells how much of feed is needed to gain certain amount of biomass. The lower the ratio is the less feed needs to bought and stored. Unlike the farmed mammals, insects are poikilothermic that means that they are able to use most of their energy for growing, not for heating the body. This gives insects better FCR than cows and pork for example. There are variations between the insects as well, but the FCR of a certain insect depends on what the feed actually is. If the food has high nutrient values, a small amount is enough.

This brings us the last point of possibility to feed on organic waste streams. If the species can be fed on organic waste the cost of production will be reduced, but it brings up multiple questions. Is the waste high and consistent in nutrient values and is it risk free? If the consistency is not guaranteed, the already difficult production planning becomes more complicated because the consumption of feed cannot be forecasted. Already today a lot of waste streams are used in beneficial way, for example for the production of biofuel. How nutritious the waste that is available for free or very cheap actually is when major part of the “good” waste is already used somewhere else? There are few companies doing production on waste streams, would be interesting to hear what they have to say about this!

Few insects that fit the given criteria are house fly, coldling moth, silkworm, mealworm, black soldier fly and house cricket.

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