Insect protein, a promising solution to boost sustainable agriculture and food production

Sustainability and low environmental impact must be at the core of any new developments in the AgriFood sector. A promising solution involves using insects as an alternative protein source for animal feed, but also as food for human consumption.

Posted on: 12/05/2021

A tiny solution to a big problem

The global population is expected to reach more than 9 billion by 2050. To accommodate demand, current crop production will need to double. The expansion of agriculture is hindered by land availability, water scarcity and climate change. At the same time, agriculture, and in particular, livestock production is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With global protein consumption projected to increase over the next 30 years, and with meat and fish being key protein sources, sustainability and low environmental impact must be at the core of any new developments in the AgriFood sector.

As highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in their Edible insects report, a promising solution to address some of these challenges involves using insects as an alternative protein source for animal feed, but also as food for human consumption.

Currently, large areas of agricultural land are used to grow crops, such as soy, for livestock and aquaculture feed, competing for land and resources with human food production. These conventional protein sources are expensive, increasingly scarce, and have significant environmental impacts. Insects are rich in protein and fat and could be important sources of vitamins and minerals, making them a good alternative livestock feed.

Insects can be harvested from the wild or farmed. Insect production systems are efficient at converting organic matter into protein. In addition, insects can be fed on organic waste (e.g. food waste), converting it into a high protein and fat product, offering the opportunity to develop circular economy approaches. The combination of high protein content and low carbon footprint makes the use of insects as an alternative protein source for animal feed a promising solution to reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture.

The use of insects for human consumption is also receiving increased attention globally. Insects could substitute some of the protein we obtain from meat and fish. Edible insects are eaten in many parts of the world and research is focusing on ways to use processed insects, for example as flour, to produce nutritious food products. For example, an AgriTech Catalyst funded feasibility study was presented by Biopolymer Solutions Ltd during the Africa-UK AgriFood Innovation Missions 2020. The project investigated the use of locally processed insects in Africa to create a food product for human consumption. Other ongoing research in Africa is exploring the nutritional benefits of processed insect products, such as insect oil.

Innovation opportunities in Africa

The pig, poultry, and aquaculture industries are among the fastest growing agri-business sectors in many developing countries. However, current protein based feeds are limited in supply and costly. As such, there are significant opportunities for expansion of the farmed insect sector in Africa to support the growth of the livestock and aquaculture industry.

The development of new insect production technologies can provide opportunities to tackle multiple environmental and development challenges. One such case is the model adopted by Sanergy, a Kenyan based company that converts toilet waste into organic fertilizer using Black Soldier Fly larvae. Tackling different challenges, a team of researchers from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are investigating the nutrition and food security benefits that locusts may offer.  For months, locust swarms have impacted central and eastern Africa, the team aim to explore how to build sustainable businesses in the production of food and feed from locusts.

A range of insect species have traditionally been part of people’s diets in many countries across Africa, however there is limited understanding of the contribution of insects in food security and nutrition. There is a growing body of research on the nutritional value of traditional edible insects and on-going innovative product development.

Insect production in the UK

In the UK, innovation in insect production is growing and has received significant investment from UK Research and Investment (UKRI) in the last few years. A consortium called “Insectrial Revolution”, led by Entocycle, worth £10 million was established in 2020 to develop the first industrial-scale insect farm in the UK. They will rear black soldier flies on food waste to develop high-protein, sustainable feed products.

The UK is experiencing growth in many aspects of the sector, including insect farming, breeding and feed product development. Legislation is an important factor that impacts the current direction of  growth and development of the UK sector. EU legislation considers insects as farmed animals, which means they cannot be fed with catering waste or animal manure, restricting the potential for using insects to recycle waste. This regulation allows processed insect protein to be used as feed in aquaculture and live insects in poultry, but not yet as feed for other livestock.

Find out more about insect protein 

If you are interested in insect protein and collaboration between the UK and Africa, sign up for our upcoming event “Insect protein – Innovation and collaboration opportunities for Africa and the UK” on 16th June.

The event will explore the opportunities for collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing within the insect production sector across geographies. It’s part of AgriFood Africa Connect, which brings together innovative people and organisations across the UK and Africa.

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