Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

Bugs may offer an environmentally friendly alternative to soy and fishmeal when it comes to feeding livestock

Philip Taylor knew that when the black soldier fly began mating under artificial light in his hatchery at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado, something important was happening.

“For the mass production of larvae there needs to be a large and consistent source of eggs,” he explains. Taylor, a fellow with Duke University and INSTARR, needs a lot of larvae for his investigation into how insects can be used as an alternative protein source in animal feed.

Photo of Black Soldier Fly HatcheryPhoto by Philip Taylor Taylor is investigating the impact of environmental factors, including light intensity and spectrum, on fly reproduction.

Using ultraviolet light, humidity and temperature, Taylor is trying to influence mating and egg production among the black solider fly. The goal is to mimic the subtropical and warmer temperate climates where these flies naturally occur, and Taylor is confident he’s found the light bulb that provides just the right balance. He says he’s already achieved about an 80 percent reproduction rate, which is the highest he knows of under artificial conditions.

Taylor’s research is motivated by his belief that insects can be the cornerstone of a new-and-improved food system. He’s not alone in touting this great source of protein; putting edible insects on the menu has garnered plenty of media attention recently. Feasting on these healthy little buggers could help feed a growing global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and reduce the environmental impact of eating meat.

But if chowing down insects isn’t your cultural norm, the option might sound kind of gross, and so far, insects haven’t really caught on in the United States. Maybe one day most Americans will get there. But, in the meantime, why not use insects as a protein source in animal feed to replace fishmeal and soy?

The good, the bad, the ugly

Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, Taylor was always outside exploring. As an adult, he’s taught family farmers about crop rotation in Malawi and researched the impact of palm oil cultivation in Costa Rica and Southeast Asia. Through these experiences and his studies in ecology and evolutionary biology, he came to see the act of eating as the most intimate way people interact with nature. But, Taylor says, “The story around food is complicated. There are good things. There are bad things. There are ugly things.”

Taylor sees beauty in the black soldier fly. He focused on animal feed rather than edible insects because Americans’ love affair with meat is too strong (even though our consumption seems to have peaked and eased up), and animal agriculture has a huge impact on the environment. “It’s really hard to get away from meat,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t believe in the edible insect market, but there are far greater environmental impacts in feeding animals and I see greater potential.”

Taylor is currently running one hatchery and one small refinery (he’s using grant money to build a bigger one, at 2,000-square-feet). A female black solider fly in Taylor’s hatchery will lay between 600 and 1,200 eggs. Once hatched, the larvae eat there for a few days before being moved to a refinery at Black Cat Farm, a 130-acre organic farm just outside Boulder where they consume food scraps collected from Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler that provides the scraps for free. The flies mature, then are killed, dried, and ground up into a powder rich in protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. They are then fed to chickens on the farm.

This bugs-as-feed concept could provide an exciting alternative to the current animal agriculture model. Before slaughtering livestock, ranchers fatten them up with food usually made with fishmeal and soy. This poses a problem because more than one-third of fish caught from the ocean are ground up and added to feed and the world’s fisheries are collapsing. Soy is no better as it’s prompted massive deforestation to free up land for this monocrop.

No commercial facility to process insects for animal feed currently exists, so drawing a direct environmental comparison with soy or fishmeal feed is hard to do. But when you consider that no fertilizers or pesticides are required, no land — besides that to house the insect breeding and processing facilities — is needed, and little water is used to raise insects, it’s not hard to find environmental benefits. Greenhouse gas emissions are also lower — the biggest source would be trucking food waste to refineries to feed the insects, likely from nearby sources. “Insects win out on all those fronts,” Taylor says. “The real issue becomes scalability.”

Considering that one-third of food grown around the world ends up spoiled or thrown out, the use of food waste to feed the flies could make a significant dent in the waste stream. In the United States, food is the largest source in the municipal solid waste stream. “Our biggest achievement is the compost pile? I mean, come on,” Taylor says.

Black Cat Farm co-owner Jill Skokan isn’t concerned about her chickens eating the experimental insect feed. “In fact, it is quite natural for the chickens to search for grubs, chase crickets and munch on flies,” she says.

Building on momentum

As Taylor carves at his niche with animal feed (he knows of only one for-profit company based in the US making insect animal feed, called EnviroFlight), other entrepreneurs are trying to make money by wetting the American appetite for insects. Exo raised funds on Kickstarter for a cricket protein bar. Chapul also makes cricket protein bars and its founder did a TEDx talk on edible insects.

Six Foods makes “chrips,” which are chips consisting of beans, corn, peas, chia seeds and cricket flour. Three women founded the company (named so because “six legs are better than four”) while in search of a moral and sustainable way to consume protein. Cofounder Laura D’Asaro, a vegetarian, ate a caterpillar while studying abroad in Tanzania; a woman was selling them on the side of the road. It tasted like lobster. Turns out her friends, Rose Wang and Meryl Natow, had also experimented with eating insects.

“As a Western society, we think of bugs more as pests than dinner, and at first people thought we were crazy for starting a food around something that many Americans are terrified of,” D’Asaro says. To get people over the ick factor, they first ground the insects into a dish that resembled ground beef. That didn’t quite work. So they opted for a more familiar form — chips.

Their crickets come from farms where they undergo standard nutritional and microbial testing, like any other animal farm. But, like animal feed, standards for insects in commercial foods remain vague with the holdup due partly to a lack of understanding about allergies and toxins.

As an academic, Taylor isn’t consumed with trying to start a company. His immediate focus remains instead on researching the economic viability of insect protein and on building a body of research to support his thesis that insects are a viable alternative to soy and fishmeal.

He recently received a $25,000 grant from the University of Colorado Boulder to incorporate insect protein into feed for broiler chickens and test the effectiveness and safety compared to other feed options. He says a coordinated collection of research from feeding trials — Taylor knows of several others taking place across the country — is needed to get insects on the US Food and Drug Administration’s inventory of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredients for animal food. Without this designation, companies must prove that food additives are safe, which can often require extensive testing. “We assume [insects] are nasty critters and it takes a bit of knowledge to get past that,” Taylor says, noting that while houseflies are disease vectors, black soldier flies are not.

Until insects get GRAS classification, Taylor is going to keep trying to convince people that the black solider fly is really something beautiful to behold.

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