food sustainability

The other use for insect protein: animal feed

During the summer I did some investigation into insect foods, and tried a few of them out. I learned a lot from it, discovered some new tastes, and you can look back at the series if you want to know more. So far I haven’t tried anything that’s going to become a staple part of our diet. Not yet. And while the family have been brave and tolerant, they’ll probably be pleased to know that there’s nothing else on order at the moment.

But there is one obvious use for insect protein that we should talk about, and that’s animal feed.

Insect protein is high quality, nutritious and much better for the environment than other forms of meat. It can be produced cheaply, and because you can raise insects on waste products from the food industry, it fits neatly into a circular economy. For example, a company called EnviroFlight has been piloting a process where they raise maggots on the waste grain from breweries and turn them into animal feed.

It might not be easy to convince people to eat insects, but you won’t have any trouble feeding them to a chicken. Chickens eat insects out of choice, so let’s start with feeding them to poultry. They could replace the soymeal in chicken feed, reducing pressure on farmland or leaving more for humans to eat directly.

Many fish eat insects too, and at the moment farmed fish are often fed fishmeal as a protein component in their feed. This is a completely perverse aspect of the farmed fish industry – smaller wild fish such as sardines and anchovies are caught and ground up to feed to larger fish such as salmon. This is a thoroughly inefficient way to produce meat, with three kilos of wild fish needed to produce one kilo of farmed fish. Since demand for farmed fish is rising fast, the price of fishmeal is rising too, and the industry is looking for alternatives. Vegetarian fish is one obvious solution. Another is to feed them insects instead, and we can relieve pressure on the world’s fish stocks.

Chickens and fish are a good start, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used in pet food too. I know staunch vegetarians and even vegans who buy meat-based pet food for their dogs or cats. Whatever the TV ads might tell us, there’s no need to be feeding prime cuts of meat or fish to pets. Your cat is not as discerning as you think. When you’re not looking, it goes out in the garden and catches moths. Our cat used to catch and eat cockroaches, so trust me – it’s okay to feed insects to your cat.

Besides, a house cat living in the wild could catch insects and eat them. Could it catch a cow? Or a tuna fish? It could not. Feeding these things to your cat is thoroughly unnatural, and says more about the way we anthropomorphize our pets than it does about animal nutrition.

Not that you’ll be scooping up maggots to feed your cat. It doesn’t need to look any different from the pet food you buy already. A company called Conscientious Cat is working on it. Entomo Farms has a line of dog treats called Chirpies. There are a number of others. It’s on its way.

There’s clearly a role for insect protein in livestock and pet food. The main problem in Britain and the EU is that it isn’t legal at the moment. The BSE crisis in the mid-90s, also known as ‘mad cow disease’, led to extensive re-writing of the rules on what could be fed to animals. Much of that was sensible, but in the panic a lot of good ideas were also discarded. Since all processed animal protein was banned from feed in response to BSE, insects are off the menu. Strangely enough, a chicken eating a grub as it’s scratching around for itself is fine, but if I feed the grub to the chicken, I’m breaking the law.

Farming regulations will eventually catch up with this issue. There are trials in the EU at the moment, including the ProteInsect research project. As Britain bails on the EU, we’ll probably need to do some agitation of our own on it at some point.

As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, eating insects can be very normal. But if you’re not convinced on insects as food, you can still support insects as feed.

5 comments

  1. The only ‘fly in the ointment’ (sorry!) that I can see in this beastielicious diet you are promoting is the recent German study reporting a 75% decline in the insect population https://theconversation.com/insect-armageddon-five-crucial-questions-answered-86171 Should we leave the insects to the birds etc (and your cat) as humankind is wreaking enough havoc with pesticides, deforestation etc….? Not sure how the necessary scale of production, beyond niche food, could be achieved, which raises even more questions.

    1. Falling insect numbers in the wild is a concern, and that German study raises a lot of questions. But for the most part we’re not talking about catching wild insects, either for feed or food. They would be farmed in controlled environments, and wouldn’t affect insects numbers in the wild either positively or negatively.

      None of it needs to distract us from the task of reducing pesticide use and finding more insect-friendly forms of farming either.

      1. Hmmm….’controlled environments’ eh? Feeding on a monoculture crop say rather than their ‘natural’ food perhaps? I’m not against the idea, just unsure of the practicalities and deeply worried that Monsanto might cast a beady eye (sorry again) over this…..

        1. In the post I use the example of EnviroFlight. They use the grub-like larvae of the soldier fly, which eats waste matter in its natural environment. When farmed, they are fed on food waste, brewery and bakery by-products, things that are very similar to what they would eat in nature. They’re not fed on crops, generally speaking.

          Controlled environments are necessary because flies and grubs are small, and one has to keep them contained or they’ll all escape!

          Sure, Monsanto might muscle in on this. But right now insect feeds are a direct challenge to Monsanto and feeds based on GM soy.

  2. Jeremy, please keep banging on about this. It makes a great deal of sense to me. As someone who has eaten both cooked and live termites in west Africa (its impotile to turn them down when offered by a tribesman), I have no problem with eating insects myself (prefereably cooked!) and certainly think they should be good animal feed.

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