Insects – THE New Animal Feed in the EU
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The world population increases and so does the need for food. But along with the higher food requirement, food preferences also change and a higher demand for animal-based products is expected (1).
In order to breed more livestock, naturally, more animal feed is necessary. In 2016 alone, livestock was fed with more than one billion metric tons of feed. Approximately 44 % of the total animal feed was produced for poultry, followed by around 27 % for pigs, 22 % for cattle, and 4 % for animals in aquaculture (2).
Poultry is mainly fed with grains but also soy and fishmeal as a protein source. Pigs as omnivores are also fed with grains, soy and fishmeal, as well as with oilseed meals, root crops and legumes. Cattle as herbivores get grass and small amounts of grain and soy. Fish in aquaculture are mostly carnivorous, such as salmon and trout, and are commonly fed fishmeal in pellet form, but also soy, grains and legumes as cheaper protein and nutrient sources (3-6).
It is therefore apparent that fishmeal and soy are crucial parts of animal feed across the board. Approximately 16 to 17 million metric tons of wild fish (caught in the ocean) are processed into fishmeal and fish oil (including 5 million metric tons of fish trimmings) annually. The majority of fishmeal and oil is used in aquaculture to rear fish for human consumption (6). However, prices for fishmeal have risen due to high demand, and in consequence to increased production of fish in aquaculture, farmers started to rely more on protein-rich plant-based feed (6-8). The crops that are used here are mainly imported from non-EU countries. In fact, 70 % are imported from Brazil, Argentina and the USA. The import amounts to approximately 30 million metric tons annually, and soy is a major part of it. Significantly, 80 % of the world’s soybean production is used as animal feed (6,7)!
The downside of soy cultivation is the extensive strain on the environment, specifically drastic change in land use (vast deforestation), as well as decreased soil fertility, ruined biodiversity and the use of tremendous amounts of water (6). Utilizing an alternative to soy in animal feed could potentially reduce the negative impact of soy cultivation on the environment.
Overall, the need to find alternative protein-rich components for animal feeds is intensifying. Several alternatives have been proposed but one in particular seems very promising: insects.
Insects are the better animal feed
Insects in general consist of approximately 40 to 60 % protein and up to 36 % fat (9). They are naturally eaten by cattle, pigs, poultry and fish as part of their species-appropriate diet (7). It is, by no means, a novel idea to include insects in animal feed, specifically insect protein. However, in Europe during the 1990’s, there was a wide-ranging mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)) outbreak caused by feeding cows proteins from the remains of other cows, i.e. processed animal protein. Subsequently, almost all processed animal protein, including insect protein, was prohibited for use as animal feed in the EU. An exemption was protein from fish.
Nevertheless, efforts were made to change EU legislation and finally in July 2017, processed animal protein from insects was permitted for animals in aquaculture (EU-enactment 2017/893)… however, only seven specific insect species received approval!
Benefits of insects as animal feed
The utilization of insects for animal feed has several benefits.
1) Insect meal can be partly substituted for fishmeal and plant-based components in feed. The fishmeal that is used to feed poultry, pigs and fish in aquaculture is produced from wild fish caught in the oceans. Studies in livestock showed that insect meal could substitute fishmeal in feed to a certain degree (9), and therefore possibly reduce over-fishing.
Plant-based components have disadvantages compared to fishmeal, such as less palatability, anti-nutritional components, high fiber content and non-starch polysaccharides, and a low content of sulphur amino acids (9).
2) Insects require less space and energy for cultivation compared to soy. Compared to soybeans, insects are very efficient in utilizing energy. A study showed that the production of 1 metric ton of crickets, which equates to around 600 kg of protein, requires around 2.8 metric tons of feed and a surface of 3,100 m2. For soy, estimations suggest that the production of 1 metric ton, which equates to around 50 kg of protein, requires around 3,200 m2 of land and takes one year (9-11). The life cycle of the cricket species Acheta domesticus on the other hand takes only two to three months! Obviously, the cricket feed/substrate also needs to be calculated in order to estimate if rearing crickets would be feasible, ecologically and economically. But another appealing aspect of insect cultivation is that insects can feed on organic waste.
3) Insects have a broad range of substrates they can thrive on, such as food waste. In Germany, around 9.6 million metric tons, in Italy 5.7 million metric tons, in the UK 5 million metric tons, in France 3.7 million metric tons, and in all 28 EU member countries combined 31.2 million metric tons of food waste were produced in 2014. This consists of animal and vegetable waste (12). This food waste could be used to rear insects and represents a cheap and even revenue-generating substrate. Also, investigations showed that the larvae of black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens), one of the insect species that is approved for animal feed production, reduced the volume of organic waste by up to 60 % in just 10 days (7).
However, EU legislation does not allow the utilization of food waste as a substrate for insects that are meant for animal feed production (according to EG 999/2001 and EG 767/2009) due to the risk of chemicals and toxin accumulation in the insects. These potentially hazardous substances could subsequently accumulate in animals further along the food chain and generate allergens or, even worse, disease.
4) Insects can be cultivated all year around. Unlike most crop plants used for animal feed that are primarily grown in the field and are therefore seasonally restricted, insects can be reared all year around indoors. They would however require stable temperatures for optimal growth and development.
5) The use of insects as animal feed could lead to less dependence on imported raw material. This could subsequently result in a more stable market of animal feed in the EU. This is especially important as the demand of Asian countries for raw materials continuously increases. Additionally, the American countries that are the major producers of soybeans are not governed by the strict regulations of GMO use of EU legislation (6,7).
Sometimes, implementing changes to improve handling of environmental and ecological issues can be motivated by financial gains. In 2014, 980 million metric tons of animal feed were produced, and in 2016, production increased to over 1 billion metric tons worldwide. This translates to a value of approximately $460 billion (approximately €390 billion) (13,2) and makes the animal feed sector a lucrative branch for innovation. For animals in aquaculture in particular, feed production is also constantly increasing. Here, more than one million metric tons with a commercial value of almost €3.4 billion were produced in the EU alone in 2012 (7). As the EU is the no. 1 fish importer worldwide (14) and also imports most of the feed for animals in aquaculture (13) (valued at US$54 billion in 2014, which is approximately €45.6 billion), a domestic production of sustainable feed would be highly desirable.
In summary, insects are an attractive source for high protein animal feed that could substitute for soy and fishmeal in particular, the production of which in the current quantities is clearly detrimental to the environment, and contribute to meeting the ever-growing demand for animal-based products.
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