What the Latest Avian Flu Epidemic Teaches to Insect Farmers?

In the first half of 2015 the egg production industry in USA has been hit hard with avian flu epidemic causing the staggering loss of 11 percent of the hen population all across the country. In actual number of egg-laying hens reduced just between April and June by 33 million individuals. Read these articles for more details:

(http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/7/the-end-of-chicken.html?utm_content=buffer14455&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer)

http://thefern.org/blog_posts/11-percent-of-egg-laying-hens-dead-in-two-months-from-bird-flu/

kirva
So what can the insect farming industry conclude from this example of significant pathogen issues this established and large industry is struggling with? When such a large industry with long history of scientific research and large funding (compared to insect farming) behind it cannot control its pathogen risks, it is clear that insect farming is exposed to even higher probability of risk pathogen risk realization.

Starting from the first posts I have been writing about the seriousness of the pathogen breakout risk. It is also my main conclusion of my thesis that this risk is the most serious one for all insect farming companies. Here are a few selected sections from my thesis about the topic. If you read the thesis already, you can jump ahead until the cricket drawing! If you are reading this for the first time and you are interested to learn more, find the link to my complete thesis in the end of this post .

pirkko
“The lack of knowledge increases all risks in every department and function of an IFF- farm, not only in the supply chain. As mentioned in chapter two by the time of writing this study there are no functional large-scale facilities operating yet, only plans exists. Even though the companies will do their best to predict upcoming challenges, it is likely that there will be surprises that the companies are not able to predict. There is not much scientific research on the industry so a lot of the data and knowledge companies have is gathered through their own research and development projects and based on the experiences of the individuals. As the data is private and essential for the company`s success the knowledge is carefully protected and out of reach of the public. As mentioned already in the opening chapter other than IFF- insect farming has related history, however the knowledge from the field of for example farming of entomophagous insects cannot be directly used to help the risk control in IFF- farming .This is be-cause the insect species feed on different nutrition and the scale is significantly bigger.”

aurinko
“Pathogens and parasites are the biggest concern for all entomology farms; they can wipe out entire facilities endangering the production output for a very long time. What makes the risk even more serious and the mitigation more difficult is that there is a very limited amount of knowledge available on the subject on commercial level farming. The insect pathogens include viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists and nematodes (Eilenberg et al.). An example of a problematic pathogen is densovirus that can cause serious dam-age to cricket farms that can wipe out entire colonies (Szelei et al., 2011). For control-ling the risk of contaminations by pathogens and parasites high hygienic conditions are required, similar to other food production (Klunder et al., 2012).”
“Pathogens and parasites cannot be controlled completely as they are in some cases originated from the insects themselves (Eilenberg, 2015). At times the pathogens will outbreak and cause problems for the production. An example of a minor case could be a loss of a few percentages of insects, or maybe only a slowed down growth rate. In the worst case scenario the whole colony dies. Losing a colony can be a catastrophe for an insect farm because risk residence resilience level is low due to the lack of egg supply in the market (chapter 4.3). “

“Pathogen and parasite outbreak can be considered as a hazard risk because of the lack of knowledge and low control level caused by it. The lack of knowledge leads to a situation where the companies do not have complete understanding of the dangers. What are the pathogens and parasites, where they can come into the process and what are the circumstances that favor the unwanted visitors? When the risks or their cause are not known, they cannot be mitigated. Other hazard risks are for example natural disasters as discussed in chapter 3.2.2. These risks cannot be controlled completely, but a company can be prepared for them.”

So what can the insect farms do that they could be better prepared and handle their risk than the struggling traditional farming? What is positive for insect farming is that unlike the traditional animal farming, the insect- industry is not tied to old fashioned infrastructure that does not support the modern risk management thinking and the growing insect industry can be build according to the latest knowledge.

ilkka-heinäsirkka
For long time the traditional farming has ignored the unethical and hazardous (and money making) living environments of the animals as they have been able to counter the downsides by heavy use of medication on the animals. As it has now been seen again with the latest case of the avian flu, it just might be so that this is not the right way to go. Fortunately, the insect farming industry does not even have this option simply because such thing as insect medication does not exists. For this reason the best option for insect farmers is to first of all provide the insect the best possible environment to lower the risk exposure of pathogen breakout. Secondly, use Risk Pooling meaning that the insect colonies are divided in the multiple separate locations so that in case the risk does occur, it does not affect the whole colony right away.

Further reading:
About risk management click here: https://ilkkataponen.com/2015/05/20/thesis-supply-chain-risk-management-in-entomology-farms/
About ethical insect farming click here: https://ilkkataponen.com/2015/01/04/the-animal-welfare-in-insect-farming/

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Animal Welfare in Insect Farming

Large-scale industrial insect farming is a relatively new industry and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. There are a few industrial size insect farms starting around the world that are rearing insects, mainly for fish feed, but some products are also popping up little by little for human consumption as well. The human consumption of insects is called entomophagy, not to be confused with entomology, the branch of zoology concerned with the study of insects. There are over 1000 different insects species used today as food, but the most common insects being farmed on an industrial scale are the mealworm (Tenebrio molitor), black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and house cricket (Acheta domesticus). Insects are seen as a sustainable substitute, especially for the consumption of livestock. The traditional protein source livestock is not only expensive, but also environmentally unsustainable – compared to an insect or vegetarian diet, meat production is ineffective and uses staggering amounts of water, land and feed. For example, a cow consumes 12 times more resources than crickets that give the comparable nutrition as meat.

To read more about the topic, have a look at FAO’s Edible Insect document available here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

Along with the environmental issues, another ethical concern associated with meat consumption is the main topic of this blog: animal welfare. The basis of animal welfare legislation is the so-called Brambell’s five freedoms model.

The five freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease.
  4. Freedom to express normal behavior.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress.

The basic cause for ethical problems in traditional animal farming is that it is economically beneficial to keep the animals in environments that are not natural for them. For example the unnatural, stressful environment and unnatural density of animals can lead to health issues, but economically it’s cheaper to deal with it by extensive medication than by providing more space.

As it stands today, when high-scale insect farms are emerging, it is economically beneficial for insect farms to respect the five freedoms. According to multiple industrial scale farmers interviewed in the research document “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”, the more the industrial environment resembles the natural environment of the insect, the more productive and healthy the insect will be. There are a few exceptions, however. Some farmers use juvenile hormone to prevent the larvae of Tenebrio molitor from moulting into pupae and later into beetles. Another example is gender ratio manipulation. In order to maximize the breeding activities of the adult insect, the natural ratio of male and female insects is modified. These are two instances where the animals’ right to express their normal behaviour is interfered with. To read more about this topic, you can find the full “A Bug’s Life”-document is available here: http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf

Hypocritical approach on animal rights.

People tend to be hypocritical about animal rights. For example, domestic animals are loved by their owners and a lot of time and effort is put into their wellbeing, because they are considered ‘cute’ and can show affection. Animals like rats do not receive the same degree of compassion, let alone cockroaches or spiders. This fact will affect the public’s view on the growing industry significantly. Even if in the future insect farms would not be able to provide an ethical environment for the insects, the public would not be as concerned with defending, for example, fly larvae in the same way that it is increasingly doing with livestock. Insect farming hasn’t yet reached a scale comparable to livestock farming at this point. It remains to be seen if farms will be able to provide the animals with the five freedoms and how the public will perceive the industry when it grows bigger.

For the last point some food for thought.

The big moral question that the consumer is facing when it comes to entomophagy is: is it morally correct to eat insects and other animals? And if not, can the immorality of eating insects be overlooked for the sake of the greater good?

If carefully controlled, insects can be fed with biological waste streams. This would make insect products clearly the most environmentally sustainable protein source, not only over livestock and fish but also over soya beans. If the carbon footprint of the end product does not count in the production of the insects’ feed (as it is otherwise considered waste), the only environmental impact comes from electricity usage on the farm, packing and transportation. When looking at the issues associated with soya bean farming, not even a full vegan diet gets away with a clear environmental conscience. For this reason, even a consumer who is conscious of the animal rights of insects must consider entomophagy over vegetable based proteins for an even lower environmental impact.

My blog is clearly pro-entomophagy, but an opposite view exists as well. Here is a link to a blog where the author speaks against insect farming for ethical reasons: http://reducing-suffering.org/why-i-dont-support-eating-insects/. The author makes some relevant and respectable points from his ethical point of view, but is guilty of fallacy when referring to “A Bug’s Life” and high mortality rates. Specifically, when the author writes “…in practice, farms don’t want to spend too much effort on maintenance or optimal welfare”, this conclusion has already been overruled by researchers of the “A Bug’s Life” document. According to their knowledge and the multiple farmers they interviewed, it is essential for the success of the farm to put a lot of effort into the maintenance and optimization of the insects’ welfare.

I hope you found my first ever blog interesting to read! As you may have noticed I’ve left out multiple references to make the text easier to read, also for people who are not interested in the topic for purely professional or research reasons. In case you would like to know more, leave a comment. I’ll do my best to answer all the questions!

In Paris 4th January 2015. Ilkka Taponen

Updated 2017- version can be found from my Medium-site: https://medium.com/@itaponen/animal-welfare-in-insect-farming-213a7224ef3d#.n6v9yewbt

Further reading:

For general information on insect farming: FAO’s Edible insects: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm

Study on animal welfare in industrial farming: “A Bug’s Life. Large-scale insect rearing in relation to animal welfare”

http://venik.nl/site/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Rapport-Large-scale-insect-rearing-in-relation-to-animal-welfare.pdf

About the environmental impacts when using insects of a part of fish feed: Life Cycle Assessment on Icelandic Arctic char fed with three different feed types:

http://skemman.is/stream/get/1946/15119/36564/1/Birgir_%C3%96rn_Sm%C3%A1rason.pdf