Thu, Apr 19, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Insect farms gear up to feed soaring
global protein demand

Snacking on bugs is not an appealing prospect for many people, so introducing insect protein further down the food chain could be a more palatable option

By Karl Plume  /  Reuters, LANGLEY, British Columbia

Illustration: Mountain people

Layers of squirming black soldier fly larvae fill large aluminum bins stacked 10-high in a warehouse outside Vancouver. They are feeding on stale bread, rotting mangoes, overripe cantaloupe and squishy zucchini.

Yet this is no garbage dump. It is a farm.

Enterra Feed, one of an emerging crop of insect growers, will process the bugs into protein-rich food for fish, poultry and even pets. After being fattened up, the fly larvae will be roasted, dried and bagged or pressed to extract oils, then milled into a brown powder that smells like roasted peanuts.

The small, but growing insect farming sector has captured attention and investments from some heavyweights in the US$400 billion-a-year animal feed business, including US agricultural powerhouse Cargill, feed supplier and farm products and services company Wilbur-Ellis and Swiss-based Buhler, which makes crop processing machinery.

Fast-food giant McDonald’s is studying using insects for chicken feed to reduce reliance on soy protein.

“This pioneering work is currently at the proof-of-concept stage,” McDonald’s sustainable supply chain manager Nicola Robinson said. “We are encouraged by initial results and are committed to continuing to support further research.”

The fact that such global food production giants are turning to insects illustrates the lengths they will go to find alternative sources of protein that are profitable and sustainable as animal feed or additives to human food.

Bugs are just one of many alternatives being studied or developed by major agricultural firms. Others include peas, canola, algae and bacterial proteins.

Global population growth and an expanding middle class have raised per capita meat consumption by 50 percent over the past four decades, fueling fears of a protein pinch. Traditional sources of the key macronutrient are growing increasingly unreliable amid a changing global climate and worries about the environmental effects of row-crop farms and commercial fishing.

Developing new sources of protein is a “long-term opportunity,” said Benoit Anquetil, strategy and technology lead for Cargill’s animal nutrition business.

“Sustainable protein is a key challenge, which is why Cargill is evaluating the viability of insects as part of the solution to nourish the world,” Anquetil said.

People tend to pivot from grain and plant-based diets to meat-based meals as they grow wealthier. The problem is that as meat demand grows, feed production needs to grow faster. It typically takes about 2kg of feed to produce 1kg of chicken. For pork, it takes 4kg.

Expanded cultivation of soybeans — the foundation of livestock and poultry rations for decades — is not a long-term solution because it contributes to deforestation and overuse of harsh farm chemicals.

In addition, supplies of fish meal — an aquaculture feed made from wild-caught fish and fish by-products — have fluctuated wildly with climactic cycles, overfishing and regulation to prevent it.

Nutritionists and scientists have long touted insect consumption for humans as a sustainable and cheap source of protein, but snacking on bugs is a stomach-churning prospect for people in many countries and cultures. Introducing insect protein further down the food chain might be more palatable.

The bug business still has a few hurdles ahead — like the yuck factor, even when the insects are fed to animals. Regulators would also need to be convinced that ground-up bugs will not introduce new toxins into the food supply.

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