Insects as animal feed? For example, caterpillars and worms are really sustainable

Insects are in the spotlight as a sustainable source of protein. Grasshoppers, mealworms and locusts are slowly making their way onto our plates – and in large parts of the world insects have long been a regular part of the diet.

But insects can also be used as animal feed. The use of this can be even greater than for human consumption. Insects for animal feed can also be bred with all kinds of waste streams from the food system, such as green waste from households or manure. For example, insects can help make the food industry circular, and they are a sustainable alternative to soy or fishmeal, which animal feed is now filled with.

Exactly what you do with these insects and how you raise them makes a big difference to their sustainability. In the leading scientific journal Nature Food, researchers from Wageningen University (WUR) propose seven principles for the responsible use of insects in animal feed.

Also read: Garbage-eating insects provide Africa with animal feed, fertilizer and jobs

1. Prioritize waste reduction

Insects are useful in processing waste streams from agriculture, the food industry and households into new, usable nutrients. But, the researchers point out, it is always better to avoid creating waste in the first place. Reducing food waste should be a top priority. Insects are only a climate-positive solution to waste that is truly unavoidable.

2. Avoid competition

In a circular economy, food waste can be recycled in all possible ways. Think of food for humans, food for animals, fertilizer and medicine. The researchers are in favor of treating food waste in such a way that it yields the highest yield of nutritional value with the least possible impact on the climate. In practice, this means that the food streams end up back on our plate with as few intermediate steps as possible. Competition between different waste processors does not necessarily contribute to the most efficient treatment of organic waste.

3. Farmed insects must be safe

Farmed insects feed on waste streams. And waste streams are – as the word suggests – not always clean, healthy and safe. Among other things, it may contain heavy metals, pesticides, pathogens and drug residues. It is important to examine these risks and determine which application is most suitable. It is possible, for example, that a certain waste stream does not lead to healthy insect products, but is suitable for use as bio-based building material or as biofuel.

4. Adjust regulations

The rules still stand in the way of efficient utilization of waste streams for the breeding of insects. In most cases, the EU only allows the feeding of insects with products that have also been shown to be safe for livestock. This creates competition for animal feed between livestock farmers and insect farmers. If it has been shown that it is safe to use green waste as food for insects, the rules must be adjusted accordingly. On the other hand, the researchers are also calling for stricter laws and regulations: The government must set rules so that farmed insects do not end up in ecosystems where they transmit diseases to native species, or displace them.

5. Focus on processing low-value flows

It is tempting to offer insects as nutritious food as possible. This is an easy path to the highest possible yield. But it creates much more competition with other processors of food waste, such as livestock farming. It is therefore wise to focus on insects that can also live on a somewhat sparse diet. This may be possible through genetic modification so that insects reproduce faster or use nutrients more efficiently. It certainly applies: Make sure that the legislation is at least as well regulated as in conventional agriculture.

6. Anticipate compromises

Insects are not only useful in treating waste streams that would otherwise end up in the landfill. Feeding insects can also have a positive effect on livestock growth and animal welfare. For example, offering insects stimulates natural behavior in chickens and pigs, which are challenged to peck and root through the soil. But the way insects are treated in animal feed determines the effect it has. Grinding insects into meal usually improves livestock growth, while whole insects elicit natural behavior. Compromises must be made between them, which must be scrutinized again and again.

7. Consider the welfare of insects

Science is finding more and more evidence that insects have all sorts of cognitive and emotional capacities. Therefore, the welfare of insects should be taken into account when assessing the sustainability of the sector. The welfare of insects can be compromised by feeding them the wrong nutrients or by treating them while they are alive. The researchers are therefore in favor of taking ethical perspectives into account in the development of the insect industry.

Also read: Innovative experimental garden grows food based on insects and waste streams

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