Driving Innovation in Insect Farming
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Insect farming is garnering increasing interest in the agri-food sector as the world looks to meet the growing demands for protein in a more sustainable manner. Just like with plant and livestock farming, insect breeding programs can significantly enhance yield and quality, helping the industry to scale.
What benefits can insect protein offer? How are regulatory frameworks impacting innovation in this field? And what can be done to drive further advances? Technology Networks had the pleasure of speaking with Thomas Farrugia, chief executive officer of Beta Bugs Limited – a company specialized in black soldier fly breeding – to answer these questions and more.
Anna MacDonald (AM): Can you tell us about some of the main benefits of insect protein compared to animal or plant sources?
Thomas Farrugia (TF): I’ll primarily talk about “insects as feed”, i.e., used as a protein source for feeding fish, pigs and chickens, whose feeds primarily comprise soya and fishmeal, amongst other ingredients.
In this context, insect protein has been shown to be a sustainable protein source that can be grown with less environmental and physical footprint than soya or fishmeal. In parallel, insects can be grown on food waste, or substrate streams that are less amenable to animal production, saving waste from going to landfill, whilst also promoting circular economy. Due to these features, insect protein has also been shown to be carbon negative.
Regional protein production also means reinforced supply chains, meaning that our economies will be less dependent on imports of animal feed ingredients, alleviating pressure on the agri-food supply chains.
Lastly, insects form a natural part of animal diets, meaning that it is a protein source that can be readily digested and accessed by animals.
AM: In what areas do you see insect protein making the most impact?
TF: Insect protein stands to make the most impact in diets which require high quality protein whilst seeking to minimize the amount of environmentally impacting ingredients such as soy and fishmeal. Our industry will have to play the long game due to insect protein being produced at a higher price than existing ingredients. This means that it will initially be included in animal feeds at lower amounts, but will gradually increase as our industry scales, and as further links between insect protein and animal health are evidenced.
AM: What challenges does the insect industry face? How is Beta Bugs working to address these?
TF: For our industry to really need to contribute to the agri-food sector, this means producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of insect meal on a yearly basis. This means that the main challenge that our industry faces is to scale, and to then consistently produce large quantities of high-quality protein, without dropping a beat.
As an insect genetics company which develops and distributes black soldier fly breeds, it is our mission to help our industry scale. We do this by improving black soldier fly performance.
To our customers, who grow our genetics, this means that they can do more with less – produce more larvae from the same amount of feed, in less time, and using the same-sized facility. Scaled over an entire industry, this means that we can improve industry outputs with existing infrastructure.
AM: Can you explain why Beta Bugs chose to work with black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) over other insect species?
TF: Black soldier fly is primarily the most farmed insect for the “insects as feed” sector, with an ever-increasing number of new market entrants diversifying into the space. By working on this species, this is where we’re able to create the most impact for our sector and enable it to scale.
AM: What traits are currently being improved through classical breeding? What are your thoughts on the use of genetic modification techniques to incorporate other advantageous traits in the future?
TF: Our current focus is on quantity traits such as growth rate, development time, eggs laid per female fly and survivability of baby larvae. We improve these through selective breeding, which means identifying the top performers in populations and then ensuring they pass their genes to the next generation. In other livestock and plants, these traits are characteristically influenced by multiple genes, meaning that selective breeding is the best way to improve them.
Genetic modification is something our industry has already looked at earlier in 2020, when an academic group in China published the results of knocking out specific larval and fly genes using CRISPR CAS-9. However, it has not been taken to scale. In effect, developing further genetic modification for our industry is all about leveraging all the biotechnology R&D undertaken within academia – particularly for fruit fly and the control of insect pests.
Whilst genetic modification does offer scope for creating new traits which are not yet present (or have a very limited occurrence) in nature, the use of genetically modified insects in animal feed would need to fit within our existing frameworks and standards – meaning that if our industry went this route, then we would need regulatory changes to occur. Alternatively, if insects are being used in other industries that are separate from the agri-food sector, e.g., for the production of biofuels, recombinant proteins or chemical compounds, then there will be less restrictions around the genetic modification of insects, since we will not be directly consuming them.
AM: How are regulatory frameworks impacting innovation in this field?
TF: Existing regulatory frameworks were not initially developed to take insect farming in mind – after all it has only recently emerged as an industry.
However, regulators and legislators across the globe have definitely taken into account the impact that insect protein can have on the global agri-food industry and are accordingly making the changes to allow this innovation to come to market – both at national and continental levels. These changes have largely been facilitated through the dialogue of legislators with industry membership bodies which represent the interests of insect producers. There will be more changes to make in specific fields or regions – for example in Europe there is a need to broaden the range of substrates used for rearing insects, which will also allow our industry to scale further.
AM: What can be done to encourage greater investment and drive further advances in agricultural breeding programs?
TF: Breeding organizations are inherent innovation engines – after all, breeding is a key part of driving through improvements in yield and quality within our existing agri-food systems. Without it, our industries will stand-still.
In the face of the global challenges that face us as a human race, we need to be able to develop plant and animal breeds that are more tolerant of a rapidly changing climate, or which can enable more sustainable ways of producing food.
Viewed from this lens, it’s not a case of “can we fund breeding programs”, but a case of finding the best ways to resource the organizations behind them, so that they can keep developing better breeds. Without them, our agricultural systems will not be able to adapt as fast in the face of increased environmental pressures and societal demands.
Thomas Farrugia was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.