The world has a poop problem. A large. By 2030, it will be a 3.7 billion ton per year problem and that’s just the feces produced by farm animals. This is a lot of poop in any way, especially considering that many countries are already struggling to deal with it.
Much of this excess excrement can be used as crop fertilizer. However, this is difficult to do in areas like the Netherlands or northern Italy, where there is a lot of livestock and little arable land. The alternative is to move manure to areas where it is needed. Another solution? Feed it to insects.
It happens in nature, so why not? Animals only use around 60 percent of the energy and protein in animal feed, and they excrete the rest. Where you and I might just see a steaming pile of feces, Jason Drew sees nutrients and opportunities. He is Co-Founder and CEO of Insect Technology Group, a company that has been growing Black Soldier Fly (BSF, the most common type of insect used in animal feed) in South Africa since 2009. He believes manure would make a great feedstock for insects, which could then be used as animal feed. “What do people think happens in the wild? A real farm chicken will definitely have eaten [insect] Larvae that were raised on faeces, ”he says. “The logic is there.”
In the wild, flies like the housefly or the black soldier fly live on manure. It has just the right amount of nutrients and moisture and is the perfect growth medium for your larvae. In spring and summer, when the temperatures are warm, they go from egg to adult in just a few weeks. “It has been tested for over 150 million years,” says Drew.
That’s the theory. So what about the practice? Insect farms are commercial operations and, like any other business, must balance their inputs and outputs. There are three main outcomes from insect breeding: protein, fats, and insect dung (also known as frass, which can be used as fertilizer), with protein making the greatest gains. Raw materials have a major impact on the final composition of the insect, especially the protein content. Therefore, insect farmers need to develop raw materials that not only achieve the highest yield, but also the optimal composition for their target market. Too high a fat content can lead to a shorter shelf life or the need to degrease the insect, for example. Pet food manufacturers will also have specific nutritional needs and expect a consistent product.
This balancing act piqued Dennis Oonincx’s curiosity. As a scientist at the University of Wageningen and in the Netherlands, he researched the use of insects as food and feed and considered which nutrients insects could obtain from manure. “What I want to know is, if you have a ton of manure, how many larvae will you get? How Much Protein? How can you optimize the yield? In other words, does it make commercial sense to grow insects on manure?
MultiCycle, one of the Insect Technology Group companies, has been experimenting with pig and chicken litter as a feedstock for several years, and Drew says manure definitely works. It would most likely need to be mixed with other raw materials like food waste, but this would have to be worked out by the individual manufacturers (most insect farms have developed proprietary raw materials that can vary with the season to accommodate different waste streams).
Of course, manure is not without its disadvantages. Drew says they had some disasters at MultiCycle, including killing all of their larvae once after feeding insecticide-contaminated chicken litter. “The chickens were fed insecticides to avoid contamination of the poultry farm with flies. We didn’t know. Now we’re not accepting dung from farms that use insecticides. “
Oonincx also explains that some pathogens, such as the coccidia parasite, which is commonly found in chicken litter, are not digested by some species of insects. In such cases, insects would have to be processed before they can be used as animal feed.
Many regulators, particularly the European Union (the US and China are a bit more relaxed), shy away from the prospect of allowing manure-fed protein in their markets. Insects have been approved for use in pet food, poultry feed and Aquafeed in Europe and North America since 2017. Their high protein content and favorable amino acid profiles (similar to other animal proteins and better than vegetable proteins) make them desirable alternatives to polluting proteins like fish meal (which contributes to overfishing) and soy (a leading driver of deforestation in South America). However, their use as animal feed is subject to strict conditions, including feeding options (currently agricultural waste and pre-consumer waste excluding meat and fish).
The EU’s caution is understandable: since the BSE crisis in the 1990s there have been strict restrictions on the inclusion in animal feed. Insects are considered farm animals and are therefore subject to the same rules.
At a recent seminar, Sabine Jülicher, Director of Food and Feed Safety and Innovation at the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety of the European Commission, emphasized that health and safety are the top priority for the Commission when it comes to approving new insect products and raw materials on the market. The use of animal by-products in insect raw materials was still in the reflection phase, she said at the meeting. “It’s a consideration, but I don’t have a timescale. It is the most complex and requires the most preparation. “
The controller isn’t the only one who is careful. The insect sector itself – in Europe at least – is in no hurry to allow manure as a feedstock and continues to work on the essential task of allowing insects as food (the European Food Safety Watchdog confirmed that the yellow mealworm was safe for human consumption in January 13) and feed (pet food and Aquafeed are already allowed; poultry and pigs are expected to follow in 2021). “From a business perspective [manure as a feedstock] is not a low hanging fruit, ”says Oonincx. “[Insect companies’] The approach is, “Let’s put hazardous materials aside first and focus on what’s safe and overcome the hurdle of acceptance first.” We need to make sure that all animals are properly fed and ensure the safety and suitability of this alternative protein. “
The use of manure as a substrate is listed on the International Platform for Insects as food and feed. However, the EU roadmap for the use of insects as feed comes last on the list (priority is given to past foods including meat and fish, followed by catering waste and slaughterhouse products).
One way to get around health and safety concerns and make the manure revolution a reality is to use the insect products for non-food applications like pet food or industrial lubricants. However, that would mean losing to Aquafeed in the high-end protein market. The regulation of pet food can also be very strict, and industrial applications – such as cosmetics and biofuels – are new territory for now.
Kees Arts, CEO and Founder of Protix, the largest BSF facility in the world, says these new markets will be worth keeping an eye on, but he believes the real potential for insects lies in the food chain. “Insects cover the full spectrum of nutritional uses, from proteins to antioxidants, and we believe we are just scratching the surface.” He believes that insects could be used to bio-stabilize or biodegrade manure, where insects would help break down dangerous constituents or reduce the initial mass, but the focus wouldn’t be so much on the harvested larvae. “We believe there is a future for it, but it’s not our mission. Our priority is bioconversion and we focus on controlled, hygienic and safe environments. “
However, Oonincx considers it a terrible waste not to use the larvae, which is why he is determined to continue research on the subject. Regulation, he says, usually catches up with research and industry: legislation on the use of insects as food in Europe, for example, is only just getting through, although insects have been on the market for almost a decade, with various (perfectly legal) loopholes. Drew is bullish too. “Five or six years ago when you were talking about insect protein, you looked at people like you were very weird. Now they think it’s cool. More people know about it, and for those who already know, they think, ‘Shit, why not? ‘”, He says. “It’s a step-by-step process: first we fed insects with grain [from brewers], then mixed food waste, then in ten years everyone will think it’s perfectly normal to feed them manure. And then we come to human waste. “
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