Insect Farming Is Best Suited for the Production of Animal Feed

The companies of the growing industry of high-scale insect farming are approaching their businesses from many different angles, but where the use of insects can be justified the best is when the insects are used to create animal based feed for other animals. The “animal based feed” means feed that include proteins and other nutrients that are coming from an animal instead of plants. Certain farmed animals like salmon and pets like some reptiles require animal based feeds for their health and efficient farming.

When evaluating where the insect based products should be used, the animal based feed is the only group of products where the insects stand out in a positive way against the substitute products. Other products that can be made out of insect are human food, chitin and fertilizer. Chitin and fertilizer are side products of the main purpose of the insect farming that is aiming to produce food either for human or animal consumption.

Let’s go through some of the approaches the insect farming industry has made so far, and how they match up with the substitute products.

Human food

When talking about human food, insects are associated to it as a protein source and replacement for other animal products and beans like soy. There is no doubt that insect farming have significant benefits over these two product groups, but when looking at other new protein products, insects are not anymore the number one choice. Single-cell proteins (Algae, fungus and bacteria), cultured meat and bio engineering (e.g plant based products mimicking animal based products) can all offer the same value proposition as insects, but they do not carry similar risk exposure for the producers making them. For this reason the substitute products are more likely to be produced with more efficiency.

The main difference and in the same time the source of higher risks compared to these other modern food sources is that the insects are the only animal based, or putting it more precisely, the only one coming from live animals.  When farming animals in high-scale the pathogens are a risk for the health of the animals themselves. This risk is underlined in the coming years as the pathogens’ are building bit by bit more resistance against antibiotics. Secondly, when dealing with live animals the end products are also exposed to pathogens like salmonella more than plant based products.

The factor that insect industry has over the substitutes is the possibility of nutrient recycling. Nutrient recycling in this case means that nutrients can be saved from bio waste or even manure by feeding them to insects. Using bio waste brings multiple benefits for an insect farm, but it also highlights the risks. When the raw material of the production is bio waste the cost is very low. This lower cost can make up some of costs of higher risks when comparing the substitutes and underline positive environmental impact of the insect farming.

There are a few negative sides of using bio waste. Depending on the source of the waste the quality and quantity of it changes and this makes the forecasting of the production more difficult also in both quality and quantity. Additionally, when the waste is so unstable it bring additional pathogen risks. There are ways to mitigate these issues: If using waste from bio waste created by facilities such as breweries the quality and quantity are consistent, but the price is not as good as the same waste can be used for example in bio gas production. Other way to make the raw material consistent is for example fermentation and mixing of different high standard deviation batches to make them consistent by quality, but these solutions increase the production and inventory carrying costs. Lastly, the issue of regulations might be a problem from companies using bio waste. At the moment it is unknown how for example heavy metals and medication residues build-up in the food chain of insects. This is one of the main reasons why EU has not yet opened the markets for insect based food and feed. It has been speculated that the first steps of the opening of the markets will include only certain insect species fed only with certain feeds, and those fees would not include bio waste.

All these downsides may compromise one of the main arguments of insect farming, the possibility of nutrient recycling. If you are interested to read more about this aspect, see my blog post “Using bio waste as feed” here: https://ilkkataponen.com/2015/08/20/using-bio-waste-as-feed-for-farmed-insects/

Animal feed

When looking at the substitutes in the animal feed sector “insect feed” is competing with wild fish, side streams of traditional farming and plant based proteins like soy. The prices of these products are low and the quantity demand is extremely high. It will be difficult from the insect businesses to answer these numbers especially when the industry is still building up, but insect feed have other significant benefits over the competition.  Both wild fish and insects are part of the natural diet of predatory fishes like salmon, but unlike the wild fish, insects can be produced locally and insect products are a lot more sustainable. Soy is one of the key elements in the modern fish farming even though it is not a part of for example salmon’s diet. This area is not my expertise, but it is my understanding that soy is being used as fish feed only because it is the cheapest possible protein source, and if the price of an animal based protein source would be close soy, soy would be ditched right away. Additionally, the rise of the wild fish based fish feed prices is expected to continue. This will be closing the price cap year after year in benefit of the insect feed.

Conclusion

Keeping in mind the explained issues and when thinking about the industrial scale food production it can be concluded that insect are most suitable for animal feed for situations when the animal based nutrients are a must. When thinking of human food the new and modern substitute products offer more efficient and, depending on the type of the feed used for insects, more environmentally friendly solutions. When looking at the topic from non-industrial point of view insects are a great solution for human food. For developing countries and areas where arable land is scarce insects can offer great benefits over mammal farming that need huge areas of land and water. Topic that was not discussed in the blog was taste; will it work in benefit of insect or other protein sources? This question I leave for other bloggers and experts.

Insect Farmers Are Ignoring Health Hazards

Insect are closely related to crustaceans. Multiple entomology companies are acknowledging this by warning their customers about the possibility of allergic reaction when consuming insect products especially on people who are allergic to crustaceans e.g shrimps. The companies apply the warnings to their customers, but it seems they do not act on the same basis when it comes to the protection of their employees.

There no public releases or instructions on how the employees should be protected in the entomology industry. While such white papers are still missing, guidelines can be looked for from the seafood industry. The Canadian government gives instructions for fish handling:

“Employees shall wear protective clothing such as coveralls, aprons, sleeves, smocks, hand coverings, hair nets or beard nets that are in a clean and sound condition and suitable for the tasks employees are charged to perform.”

The complete instruction can be found here: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/fish-and-seafood/quality-management-program/compliance-and-assessment-guide/eng/1373905757114/1373905892989?chap=5#s29c5

Behind the following link you find an article about a Shrimp factory. The article includes pictures of the factory and its employees in full protective gear. http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/thailand-thai-shrimp-industry-labor-abuse-child-migrant-burma-burmese-workers

It is surprising how lightly the entomology companies seem to the health hazards and the low level of protection offered to insect farm employees against the allergens. When you are unsure about the possible risks, you should be rather safe than sorry, right? Ignoring the risks can lead break out of allergies making the employees in the worst case unable to work at the facility. Additionally, the protective gear is not only for the safety of the employees, but also for the protection of the insects from pathogen sources and unwanted insect species.

At first I was thinking of showing here examples of companies, but I think it would be unfair just to name a few companies as “bad examples”. These examples are easy to find, just go ahead and search for pictures and videos posted by the companies themselves and you can see inside the facilities and how the employees and visitors are equipped.

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/

5 Questions an Investor Should Ask Before Investing into an Insect Farm

Investing into the growing industry of high-scale insect farming that has undoubtedly high potential is a case of high risk / high reward. The high reward comes from the growing and unexploited markets and the high risk from the limited knowledge and the undeveloped market environment. Here in this blog I list some of the most important questions that investor should ask and that the farmer must have clear answers that are supported with solid arguments.

aurinko

In my perspective the one of the most important qualities for a high-scale insect farm is its flexibility. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the industry the most important question is how the farm can adopt to changing legislation, trends and new scientific knowledge. All these factors increase the risk exposure of the insect farming companies. This main question is cut in to more detailed questions here below. The questions and the reasoning behind them are explained with higher detail in my thesis that can be found here: https://ilkkataponen.com/2015/05/20/thesis-supply-chain-risk-management-in-entomology-farms/

ilkka-heinäsirkka

1. What species are you farming?
2. How many species are you farming?
3. What type of feed are you using?

The question number one is very fundamental question and sets direction for the farming company. As concluded in my thesis the biggest risk threatening the companies is a pathogen break out. The risks are especially associated with insect farming because the pathogens are still very poorly known. For this reason insect farms should choose their species to be one of the ones that are best known, or they should have extraordinary knowledge or resources related to the scientific research with the selected species. In my thesis I name the three most common species farmed today. The species are Tenebrio molitor, Hermetia illucens and Acheta domesticus. If a farm has selected species that are not one of this three the species should at least be present in the “Belgium ten”, a list of ten approved species by the Belgium authorities  ( You can find the list here: http://www.afsca.be/foodstuffs/insects/).

Changing the insect species is not easy after building the infrastructure around the certain needs and choosing only one species is a risk for multiple reasons. The farm should be prepared for changing the primary species in order to avoid the following risks:

-It is possible that the selected species might not be in list of insects that are first allowed for use for human food and animal feed.

-If the species will not be one of most common ones to be used in the future the company will be left out from the growing knowledge of the most common species and from the growing logistics downstream.

-There is no knowledge of how any insect species will perform in very high volumes. It is possible that even the most promising species will turn up to be unsuitable for high-scale farming.

Same goes with the selected feed. Even if the selected species would be approved by legislation and the species would perform well in high-scale environment, it might be that the selected type of feed makes the end product remain banned. This type of situation might be ahead for example for the companies using biological waste.

4. Do you consider biological research important?
Companies are going to two different ways when it comes to biology research about the farmed species. Few bigger companies have multiple scientists with their teams working on building a better understanding on pathogens and what are the best and most efficient ways of farming. In the other end there are companies with no biological knowledge. It is essential to know the reasons behind the company’s selection between these two approaches. Is it so that the research is just waste of money, or so that the research will bring better quality, risk management and higher efficiency?

5. How have you prepared against pathogen breakouts?
There are multiple risks in insect farming, but the most dangerous one is a pathogen breakout. As mentioned before the knowledge about the insect pathogens is really basic and they pose risks that can in the worst case kill off entire colonies. According to Doctor Jorgen Eilenberg of University of Copenhagen, leading insect pathogens expect in the world, companies cannot with current knowledge prevent pathogens breakouts completely. It is undeniable scientific fact that the sufficient risk control against pathogen can only be reached by risk pooling and segregation of different functions.

If the farm uses same batch of feed for all of its insects, they are all located in a same space or if they use same AC- machinery the investor should be alarmed and ask how the farm can justify the ignorance towards the risk?
pirkko