On June 11, Dutch company Protix opened the world’s largest insect farm in Bergem op Zoom, a small town in the south of the Netherlands.
Founded in 2009 by Dutch consultant-turned-entrepreneur and current CEO Kees Aarts with co-founder Tarique Arsiwalla, Protix focuses on breeding insects to be used as animal feed.
In specific, the new 14,000-square-meter production facility will scale up the breeding of black soldier fly larvae, which are known for their high nutritional value. At harvest time, the larvae are ground into a paste and processed into products that can be used as animal feed or pet food. Right now, European Union laws don’t allow the use of insect protein to feed farm animals other than fish (they allow the use of live insects and insect oil).
Breaking down the regulatory barriers is one of Protix’ top priorities for the near future. With this aim, in 2012 the company set up the IPPF (International Producers of Insects for Feed and Food), an organization that lobbies for less strict EU regulations on the use of insects as animal feed. The rolling back of the EU regulation that prevented the use of insect protein in fish feed in 2017 was the first victory for IPPF.
Alongside Protix, another important IPFF member is Ynsect, a French startup that breeds mealworms (the larvae of Tenebrio Molitor, a beetle). The same day Protix opened its new farm, the European Commission announced that it had provided €20 million in backing for Ynsect to build a new fully-automated production plant.
Evidently, the hope is that this news will bring momentum to the sector, accelerating the removal of European restrictions.
A more sustainable way of producing meat?
One of the reasons behind the urgency of using insects as animal feed is that it’s expected to make meat production more climate-friendly.
As known, intensive animal farming has a heavy environmental impact. One of the biggest reasons for this is the crop-based feed the animals eat. A staggering 70% of the world’s soy production is fed to animals, with damaging consequences in terms of land abuse, deforestation, and calories waste.
As highlighted by a 2017 WWF report, in 2010, the British meat industry needed an area the size of Yorkshire to produce the soy used as animal feed. But if global demand for meat grows as expected, soy production would need to increase by nearly 80% by 2050.
In Brazil, which with an expected 2018-2019 crop of 114 million tonnes is the world’s largest soybean exporter, deforestation related to soy production has been responsible for around 29% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2010. Just to give a more tangible example, more than a football field of Brazilian rainforest is cut down every hour to produce livestock feed for Europe.
And it’s not just soy. According to Protix, for every kilogram of farmed fish, farmers use more than a kilogram of wild-caught fish to feed them while it’s believed that around one-third of all fish caught worldwide is used as animal feed (marine ingredients lobby groups counterclaim that the amounts of fishmeal recovered from the by-products of fish processing are increasing and that fish used as animal fish are “small, bony fish” not apt for human consumption).
At the opposite of soy and fish, insects can be used as “natural upcyclers.” At the new Protix farm, for example, black soldier fly larvae eat low-grade food waste (like rotten fruits and vegetables) that is turned into high-end protein and fat, an example of the so-called “circular economy.” Insect breeding also allows maximizing of resources use, to grow a tonne of larvae, you just need six days and 20 square meters.
Earlier this year, a research team composed of scientists from the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland carried out a thorough assessment of the environmental sustainability of black soldier fly larvae as human food and animal feed. The conclusion? Insect protein shows lower impact than fishmeal over most of the impact types considered by the research.
At the same time, the assessment indicates that plant-based proteins (like soy or rapeseed) are at the moment still more sustainable than insects over several impact types. However, with a switch to even more sustainable insects’ diets and the use of renewable energy, the research suggests that this could change over the next years. Furthermore, insect protein is already markedly better than soy when it comes to water and land use.
It's then evident that more research is needed to make insects as animal feed a widespread sustainable alternative to fish and soy. Propitiously, on June 13 the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research announced a contribution of € 3.5 million to the University of Wageningen to study the use of insects as animal feed.