Insect feed could slash agricultural carbon emissions
The global agricultural industry is at a reckoning. Food emissions are a massive slice of our carbon emissions. To stay within the world’s net zero carbon budget, agriculture must become the target of urgent interventions.
Food production, processing, distribution currently contributes 26% of total global emissions. Of total food emissions, livestock and fisheries together account for 31 %. Yet this figure only covers activities conducted on-site at the farm, such as turning previously carbon-storing natural habitats to grazing pasture or fuel consumption. When we include the off-site carbon costs of animal feed production, the carbon emissions related to livestock would go up 6% to 37% of the food system’s total.
Feeding animals is a carbon intensive activity thanks to the general unsustainability of intensive crop cultivation. Like growing crops for humans, crops for animals are cultivated in vast monocultures needing huge quantities of fossil-heavy fertilisers and pesticides. Then there is the carbon released when habitats are converted to farmland. The most common animal feed is soybean, which is grown largely in places like Brazil. Here, the acreage devoted to this plant would formerly have been biodiverse forests capable of locking up planet-heating gases in its vegetation and soils.
There are a lot of hungry mouths to feed too: globally, the total weight of livestock outweighs that of wild mammals by a factor of 15-to-1. Figures like this have led environmentalists to point the finger at meat farming as one of the major emissions culprits behind the fossil energy industry. In response, the meat and aquaculture industries are trying to find ways of cutting down emissions. One way is by looking to lower-carbon animal feed.
Insects for animals
Many climate startups are serving the demand for planet-friendly livestock feed. One of the most promising are insects- one of the lowest-input, lowest carbon sources of protein.
Among the most cost-effective species to cultivate are the black soldier fly Hermetia illucens, the house fly and the yellow mealworm Tenebrio molitor. Helping their popularity as feed is the fact that these creatures will feast on pretty much any organic substance: from wastepaper to straw. They also need far less water and land than crops like soy.
These bugs are tiny protein factories that can turn cheap wastestreams into dense packets of nutrients. Larvae are particularly rich in proteins, fats, amino acids, and fatty acids as well as minerals. For these reasons, Insect proteins are now earmarked as a nutritionally viable and sustainable alternative to fishmeal or soybeans for pig, poultry, and feed.
Inflation and legislative tip in insect feed’s favour
Inflationary pressures might be opening up new demand for these insect animal feeds as conventional feed volumes are down and input costs go up.
Alternative sources of cheap protein cannot come quickly enough for the European poultry industry in particular which is particularly vulnerable to rises in feed prices. Right now in the UK, feed is making up 70 percent of total production costs for pig farmers, where historic figures lay between 60-65 %.
Further boosting the fortunes of the insect feed industry are legislative moves in the EU to allow insect protein to bed fed to poultry and pigs for the first time, following 2017 legislation that allows insect feed in aquaculture.
insect-based animal feed would also align with one 2019 FAO recommendation for transitioning to lower carbon livestock production: the redirection of organic waste to animal feed.
Does it work?
A British startup called Better Origins is already supplying farmers with black soldier larvae feed. Their mission is to tackle food waste – their insects eat it – and break the link between livestock feed and deforestation.
Their break came when organic farmer Charles Mear vowed to go green on his chicken farm in Cambridge shire. Sourcing all his other poultry inputs as locally as possible, Mears was at a loss for where to find local animal feed to replace the imported soy. That was until he came across Better Origins.
Mear’s farm and Better Origins embarked on a pioneering partnership. Charles agreed to host a mini-insect farm on his land, housed in a repurposed shipping container unit. The larvae are reared using thermal cameras, AI, heat, and waste feedstock.
Switching to larvae feed was an unequivocal success: the chicken began displaying natural foraging behaviours, seeking and pecking in the earth long after mealtimes.
Fotis Fotiadis, founder and CEO of Better Origins, explained why these new feeding behaviours were so significant: “Normally improved welfare outcomes come at a cost to productivity, but that’s not the case with feeding live insects. This is what chickens have evolved for millions of years to do, hunting and pecking around for their food.”
What’s more, the farm has not had to use antibiotics on their flock. The feed boosted the birds’ immune systems. The aim now is to replace 5% of the bird’s soy feed with insects.
Upending the perception that greener farming inputs means sacrificing profit margins, Fotiadis, one co-founder of Better Origins, calculates that adding in larvae can boost profit by £0.80-£1 per year as it increases productivity and quality of eggs laid.
Mears confirms claims of improved productivity with insect proteins, noting that fewer chickens are laying unusable eggs on the floor these days after beginning their insect-based regime. Shell strength has also increased 3%.
Mears’ experience accords with the science. A detailed nutritional comparison of insect versus soymeal and fishmeal found optimistic results for a lower carbon feed future.
Although fishmeal tops the league in terms of crude protein content, six commonly cultivated insect species have more of this macronutrient than soymeal: silkworm pupae meal, black soldier fly larvae, yellow mealworm, lesser meal worm, house cricket, banded cricket, and Jamaican field cricket. In terms of fat content, these species also far outstrips soymeal except for the lesser mealworm. The black soldier larvae is higher in calcium than even fishmeal.
In short, insect feed is just as nutritional as the common soymeal option, with any shortfalls easily made up by micronutrient supplements. The nutritional profile of insects also depends heavily on what they are fed.
Scaling insect feed: a work in progress
To unlock these benefits, of course, the problem is scaling. The industry today is full of small to medium scale enterprises around the world, including those like Better Origins. However, larger enterprises are getting off the ground.
Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, the two global food trading giants that collectively earned around $14 billion in profit in 2022, backed French insect protein firm InnovaFeed in 2022. The two food companies granted $250m in a series D for the company to build the world’s largest insect livestock feed facility in Decatur, Illinois.
InnovaFeed is already a big player, holding a site in Nesle, France which it plans to expand with the new capital. Already, the site in France has a capacity of 15, 000 tons of insect protein per year, enough to feed 400, 000 tons of fish, poultry, and pigs.
Their feeds, based on protein from black soldier flies, serve the poultry, pig, aquaculture, and pet industries as well as the plant fertiliser market.
The company is readying itself for a boom in demand over the coming decade. Their optimism is backed by market research forecasts: Modor Intelligence says that the insect feed market will grow 11.7% between 2018 and 2028,close to the 11.2% mark proffered by Zion Market Research. Allied Market Research goes even higher, predicting a CAGR of 24.5% from 2022 to 2031.
InnovaFeed is not the only one starting to expand. Aspire Food is another dominant insect protein provider, working with cricket protein. In 2021, it secured $13.1 million from Next Generation Manufacturing to set up a plant in London, Ontario. In July 2022, Aspire Food’s Ontario plant came online as the world’s largest dedicated cricket production plant in the world, aiming to output 14, 330 tonnes of cricket per year. The new plant deploys climate controlled indoor vertical agriculture that fuses industrial-scale IoT, sensors, ASRS, and AI.
Livestock and the green transition
A growing number of people advocate an end to livestock agriculture altogether for a carbon neutral world. Cattle farming in particular is a particularly carbon intensive form of agriculture, which many say must be reduced in favour of plant cultivation. No matter how meat is produced, it will generally always be more carbon efficient for humans to consume plant-based crops instead.
Supporting these claims are startling statistics on land use savings that would ensue if the entire planet were to go vegan: agricultural land use would drop from four to one billion hectares – the same area as North America and Brazil combined.
However, animal ethics notwithstanding, there are key environmental arguments for retaining some meat production in a carbon-neutral world. One compelling argument for retaining lower-intensity meat farming through the green transition is the livelihoods argument. Manure from livestock production can support crop productivity in regions where there is low mechanisation and poor soil.
Of course, the problem of livestock-related emissions does not primarily stem from the 500 million pastoralists or the one billion smallholder livestock farmers worldwide who rely on livestock for protein and income. Emissions reductions should be the burden of modern, intensive farms built on huge amounts of grazing land and feed.
The jury is still out on the extent to which scaled insect farming could slash the carbon emissions of the most intensive livestock farming sectors around the world. There are also questions around how quickly insect proteins could scale to make a substantial dent in global agricultural emissions.
What could help the push towards lower carbon animal feed is the high value of the market: while the global biofuels market, a far more scaled industry, was valued at $110 billion in 2021, the figure for global animal feed was $482.1 billion.