UK needs to wake up to the insect protein opportunity

Insects represent a sustainable livestock feed alternative but British regulation is stuck with the same barriers erected in response to ‘mad cow’ disease in 2001, say Rachel O’Connor and Peter Smithers.

In the face of changing weather driven by climate change and the resulting heightened competition for food, there is considerable pressure on the agriculture sector to farm sustainably and regeneratively.

The use of insect protein in animal feed is one of the ways in which the agriculture sector can create a better future for farming, protecting our food systems and our landscapes.

It is estimated that 40 percent of the UK’s arable land area is used for growing crops for livestock feed and more than 3 million tonnes of soya is imported into the country each year to feed these animals, which equates to 850,000 hectares of land use outside of the UK. Most of this imported soya comes from South America and is considered a major contributor to deforestation.

There is huge potential for a large proportion of crops grown for livestock feed to be replaced by insect protein. This would free up land both in the UK and globally, easing the competition for land. Moreover, the use of insects in our food system can help the transition towards a circular economy.

Insects have a natural ability to efficiently convert organic matter into high quality protein. As a direct comparison, to produce 1kg of cricket protein requires 1.7kg of feed; producing the same amount of beef protein requires 10kg of feed. Other factors such as the land required, water consumed and maturation time display similar economic advantages.

Despite this potential to address the pressing issues of food insecurity and sustainable farming, the industry faces significant barriers to commercialization, which will have to be overcome if insect protein is to become a viable livestock feed source.

Along with limitations in the mass production of insects, UK legislation has fallen behind that of the EU and is acting as another significant barrier to progress.

Legislative barriers

In the UK, the regulation of insects in animal feed predominantly derives from EU law. Since a ban on processed animal protein as a livestock feed was imposed in 2001 in the wake of the BSC (mad cow) crisis, soy and fishmeal became the bedrock of animal feed in Europe.

However, since Brexit, EU legislation has forged forward to recognize the role that insects have in the feed system for pigs and poultry (acknowledging that insects form a natural part of the diet for both of these animals). Meanwhile, the feeding of insect protein to chicken and pigs remains prohibited in the UK (except as live larvae in chicken feed). There are also regulatory restrictions on the use of food surplus as feed for insects.

As well as its potential to act as a sustainable source of livestock feed, the insect protein industry also presents a great opportunity for farmers looking for alternative ways to diversify their businesses.

Scaling production

Of course, without the capacity to mass produce the quantity of insect feed that is required, the industry won’t be able to fully commercialize, regardless of any new legislation.

The development of the insect protein industry in the UK has demonstrated how adaptable the sector can be at providing on-farm solutions. We are already seeing mobile insect production units being deployed on farms to feed crop and food surplus to soldier-fly larvae, which is high in protein numerous essential nutrients and used as feed to laying hens.

Furthermore, the UK hosts some of the leading experts in the use of insect protein to tackle food security, climate change and biodiversity loss, who have dedicated many years to moving this sector forward. The country also has the ability to utilize this industry to make a circular food system that reduces waste and provides highly nutritious feed.

But it is not just proteins that insect farming produces, as the feacal material (frass) produced by the larvae is a valuable fertilizer and soil conditioner while the insect exoskeleton is rich in chitin which is being developed as a bioplastic.

There is, however, a huge challenge in producing the quantities and consistencies that are demanded in the feed market. The slavish commitment to ensuring that a feed product has the same formulation, look, smell and consistency is problematic when the industry is best deployed by converting discarded food sources into high-quality protein. Those food sources are variable by nature – we would be missing the point if we did not recognize the high versatility and adaptability of insects to convert what would otherwise be waste food into protein in this way.

The industry requires safe, traceable, reliable substrates to rear insects. Again, the legislation around this area needs to be addressed to both ensure the integrity of the food supply chain and substantially reduce the nutrient loss that our food system currently produces.

Rachel O’Connor is a partner in the agriculture team at Michelmores.

Peter Smithers is a retired entomologist and ecologist who has been an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society since 2011.