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.

Insects and sustainability are not crap.

In my first blog, “Animal welfare in insect farms”, I discussed why insect farming is more sustainable than livestock farming. On 17th of January 2015 an article “Are those edible bugs actually sustainable?” was released on MacLean’s website. In the article, Ben Reade is questioning the sustainability of insect farming, but he is doing it by making statements with no real arguments and cutting corners. The first quote from him in the article is: “Everyone has been making a lot of hype about insects and sustainability and most of that hype is crap.”  Admittedly, the tone of this article is most likely deliberately provocative, maybe to make people like me write about the same subject!  Later on, a chef called Nathan Isberg is also interviewed, but first let’s start by breaking down some of the misconceptions from the article given by Mr Reade:

..“No one spoke about the fact that, in order to ship those insects around the world, they were mostly being bred in Holland and had to be kept at 28° C—and that’s energy-intensive,” says Reade. “And then they were to be freeze-dried, which is just about the most energy-intensive form of preservation on the planet.”

  1. Obviously, when the demand for insect products grows, the insect will be industrially farmed all around the world, not only in Holland where the industry at the moment is booming the most. When looking at the production and logistics of insects, it is relevant to compare it to the substitute. For example, what is the difference in the sustainability of logistics of freeze-dried crickets going from Holland to Brazil compared to Brazilian beef and soya beans coming to Europe? The logistics have very little impact on the total environmental footprint of food; over 90 % comes from the manufacturing.
  1. There are three popular insects farmed at industrial level at the moment. From the three, only the house cricket is associated with high energy consumption related to the heating of its environment. The other two, namely the black soldier fly and mealworm, are farmed in large crowds and as such are heating their environment themselves.
  1. Freeze-drying is associated only with the house cricket, and only if the insects are shipped to customers without processing as a whole. There are already products like protein bars, as mentioned in the article, that are made out of insect flour. The flour is shipped dry and at room temperature. The freeze-drying will not be the most common form of insect product handling. Again, compared to livestock products, the majority of meat products must be moved and stored in cool temperature.

Nathan Isberg, a chef, is also interviewed in the article. He says, among other things:

“Insects are less and less a realistic response to our current agriculture. Reducing protein consumption would be a better answer”

This is a true statement, but the problem here is that the demand of protein is expected to grow, not reduce. The growth is driven by the growing middle class of big countries like China and India. From my perspective there is very little that can be done to change people’s desire for proteins, so the answer is not to hope for and promote less protein consumption, but to provide a new protein source; the insects.

“These crickets you get from farms—they taste like fish because they’re being fed fish food. So you get a cricket, you feed it fish, and you feed the cricket to the fish and you get a fish. That’s the reality.”

Well no, that is not the reality. First of all, crickets are not fed to fish. If a fish farm is using some insects for feed it is the larvae of black soldier fly, not the cricket.  Feeding fish based products to crickets is expensive and cannot be done on a large scale and expected to be profitable. There are multiple better ways of feeding crickets than with fish meal.

Ps. If Mr Isberg’s last comment is really true and there is an insect farm feeding crickets fish meal and a fish farm feeding crickets to fish, please, farmers – do yourselves a favour and contact me! I can give somefree tips to save you a lot of time and money. Or maybe just read a book, like Mass Production of Beneficial Organisms.

Links to the article  “Are those edible bugs actually sustainable?”:

http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/factory-farmed-insect-how-vulgar/