Animal feed and pet food production is increasingly competing for resources (land, water and fertilizer) with human food and fuel production, urbanization and nature. Seventy percent of the world’s agricultural land is already directly or indirectly dedicated to meat production. With a growing world population and increasingly demanding consumers, can we still produce sufficient animal protein in the future?
This is not a new question; back in the 1950s and 1960s the “World Protein Gap” was considered the major cause of infant mortality in lower income countries. One approach then was to look for new sources of high-value protein.
The clearest example of research-driven innovation was the start of large-scale mycoprotein production by Marlow Foods, which launched its Quorn brand. While there seem to be enough protein sources and ideas to feed the world, entrepreneurship, cooperation and critical mass are essential.
A Dutch Case Study
Who should drive initiatives focused on increasing development of protein sources—industry, government or both via public partnerships? Many factors are at play, so let’s consider a case study from The Netherlands.
Around 2010, in Europe, the Dutch government tried to initiate a discussion about increasing attention on proteins and food security. The government felt a responsibility but also saw a business opportunity. Rotterdam, one of the largest ports on the globe, transships enormous amounts of soy, tapioca, canola and palm for further processing to oils and animal feed stuffs in The Netherlands and other parts of Europe.
Furthermore, the Dutch food industry is one of the largest exporters of meat and dairy products in Europe. In the 1990s, a substantial amount of innovation subsidies were granted to Wageningen University (owned by the Ministry of Agriculture) to work with industry on meat substitutes and alternative protein sources and processes, which has led to numerous innovations, start-ups and 15 brands of meat-free products.
A major reason for government focus on the issue of proteins was, however, parliament pressure from a small party called “Party for the Animals.” With two seats out of 150 in parliament, this party put animal welfare and alternative proteins on the Minister’s agenda. The public voice for animal rights and action programs to promote vegetarian foods could not be denied. Meat consumption was constantly put in a negative perspective.
The Ministry regained control over the debate by broadening the scope of the discussion toward a protein issue, rather than a pro or against split. Since 2010, government has facilitated many more public-private partnerships in alternative proteins. Four-year research programs have started in algae growing, insect farming and duckweed and grass protein isolation.
The government has realized that seeding money is needed to accelerate innovation in areas where many issues need to be solved before breakthroughs can take place. Small companies alone cannot influence and change legislation or break other barriers. The government asked small and medium enterprises active in alternative proteins to start and organize a cooperation or association like other protein players in the dairy and meat industries.
It was not easy to establish unity and organize one voice, yet, the association The Planeet was shaped in 2012. It is the first association of producers of new protein products for the food industry in the world. The Planeet unifies the know-how and entrepreneurial power of 25 innovative producers. The mission is to achieve a sustainable breakthrough of new protein products by sharing knowledge inside and outside the organization.
In 2010, the Dutch government could, however, not motivate other European countries to put protein on the agenda of the European Commission. Protein was and is not an issue in Southern Europe, where consumption of meat-free products is negligible and public awareness and sense for the relevance of animal welfare is limited. In this region the number of meat lovers is far greater than in Northern Europe. Change does not come fast.
Nevertheless, three years later a substantial part of the upcoming EU innovation agenda, called Horizon 2020, has been set aside for food protein-related research cooperation between European universities and industries. This year innovation projects will be granted. Another important backing for a step forward in innovation is the fact the European Parliament has adopted a resolution to address the EU’s protein deficit, stating that urgent action is needed to replace imported protein crops with alternative European sources. Currently, more than 80% of the protein requirements for livestock rearing in the European Union is imported from non-EU countries.
New Usage: Removing Barriers
Edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans. Insects have a high food conversion rate; for example, crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and half as much as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.
Insects also emit less greenhouse gas and ammonia than conventional livestock and they can be grown on organic waste. They can be a potential source for conventional production (mini-livestock) of protein, either for direct human consumption or indirectly in recomposed foods (with extracted protein from insects); and as a protein source into feedstock mixtures.
The FAO has been working on topics pertaining to edible insects in many countries since 2003. The focus has been on generation and sharing of knowledge with experts through meetings, networking and multidisciplinary interactions (e.g., stakeholders working with nutrition, feed and legislation-related issues) with various sectors.
In South Africa and China, animal farmers are already using insects as a low-cost and highly nutritious animal feed. Nutrition experts are investigating how this protein-rich feed can be introduced to farmers in Europe through a research project called PROteINSECT. As fly larvae are a natural component of the diet of fish, chicken and pigs, this project is focusing on rearing two species of fly and conducting feeding trials with these animals. Fly larvae grown on a range of organic wastes have the ability to reduce the volume of that waste by up to 60%, providing an additional benefit to waste management and the environment.
In May 2014 the first world Insect Conference will be organized in The Netherlands in close cooperation with many stakeholders.
However, there are still some scientific and cultural obstacles that need to be overcome to develop the industry and thus supply. The following key areas for research and development have been defined by FAO experts:
1) Mass-production technologies:
- Increase innovation in mechanization, automation, processing and logistics to reduce production costs to a level comparable with other feed and food sources.
- Develop feeding tables for insects and the nutritional value of substrates.
- Conduct more extensive life cycle assessments among a vast array of insect species to enable comparisons of insects with conventional feed and food sources.
- Maintain resilient genetic diversity to avoid colony collapse in insect farming systems.
2) Food and feed safety:
- Investigate the potential of insect allergies in humans and the digestibility of chitin (a principal constituent of the exoskeleton of insects).
- Expand data on the nutritional value of edible insect species and their contributions to animal and human health.
- Research the risk of potential zoonosis, pathogens, toxins and heavy metals (through the use of bio-waste streams) from entomophagy.
- Develop means of increasing shelf-life.
- Develop voluntary codes and regulatory frameworks governing insects as food and feed, as well as human health and animal welfare at national and international levels (e.g., the Codex Alimentarius).
- Improve risk assessment methodologies for risks related to mass-rearing and wild gathering in order to safeguard against the introduction of alien and invasive insect species to wild populations.
4) Consumer acceptance and education:
- Support entomophagy in cultures where it is already prevalent.
- Conduct comprehensive research into the ecology of species promoted for consumption or farming.
- Educate consumers on the benefits of entomophagy.
- Develop new ways of integrating insects into the diets of a broad range of consumers through the creation of insect-based products.
- Promote insects as a supplement to feed.
At present, EU law prohibits the inclusion of protein derived from insects in animal feed, with the exception of feed intended for fish or shellfish. As evidence of efficacy and safety of insect protein increases, through research and lobbying activities, it is hoped that insect protein will also be permitted in pig and poultry feed in the future, particularly as these animals already consume insects as part of their natural diet. Meanwhile, the city of Amsterdam signed a strategic cooperation with an entrepreneurial company, Jagran, to build an insect factory or farm to process organic waste into insect powders and ingredients.
Innovation is Timing
Business is all about timing. The idea can be great, but the result for adoption will depend on many factors that are not always directly related to, for instance, a new technology for extracting insect proteins. New value chains need to be developed in farming insects; environmental risk analysis is important; legislation amendments are needed as well as critical mass of seeding money and the belief in a possible positive contribution at the government level. In the insect (protein) case it seems there is now enough critical mass for further progress.
Bridge2Food is active in organizing protein platforms for the food, feed and pet food industries considering supply & demand, health & nutrition and technology & innovation: www.bridge2food.com.