“Fishmeal has a limited supply, and aquaculture is continuing to grow,” said Andrew Loder, president of Wilbur Ellis’ feed division. “We see insect meal as one piece of a solution.”
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Fish farming is growing fast with growing consumer demand and increasing concerns about overfishing, resulting in catch restrictions in many depleted fisheries. Warming oceans in some areas have also disrupted supplies.
That means fish eaten by humans will increasingly come from farms—driving up demand and prices for fish feed.
Fishmeal is made from wild-caught anchoveta, herring and other oily fish that represents about 25 percent of a typical aquaculture feed ration, which typically also includes grains or soybean meal.
But fish farms cannot rely solely on crop-based feeds to nourish their naturally carnivorous stock.
“You can feed an animal all grain, and it will grow, but it may not grow as quickly and efficiently and may be prone to disease,” said Andrew Vickerson, chief technology officer at Enterra.
High in Protein, Fat
Insect farmers grow black soldier fly larvae and mealworms because they are docile, easy to grow, and high in protein and digestible fat.
Mealworms can be grown with little water and studies have shown they can “rescue” nutrients by consuming grains not fit for livestock production without passing on harmful toxins. Black soldier fly larvae also contain high levels of calcium and iron and can feed on a broad array of food waste.
Crickets, a favorite for human consumption in some countries, are by contrast picky eaters. They’re also noisy, and can damage nearby crops if they escape.
Enterra is expanding to a second commercial-scale plant in Calgary within the next year and targeting opening similar facilities in other North American cities every year for the next five years, with financing from Calgary-based Avrio Capital and UK-based Wheat Sheaf.
Protix opened its first commercial black soldier fly larvae plant in the Netherlands in 2017 and will break ground on a second facility there later this year, aided by a $50 million investment from Buhler.
Neither company would disclose the production costs or capacity, citing proprietary technology. But both said their insect feed prices are on par with to slightly above competing feeds like fishmeal.
Ohio-based EnviroFlight, a black soldier fly larvae producer, will break ground on the first commercial-scale insect meal production facility in the U.S. near Cincinnati later this year.
Humans have been eating insects for centuries, but the practice is not common in many western cultures and still spooks food regulators.
Black soldier fly larvae production has gained a handful of approvals in Europe, Canada, and the U.S., mostly for use in fish farms. Poultry, swine, and pet food regulations are not as far along.
“Since fish eat insects in the wild naturally, it is easier for consumers to wrap their heads around insects as part of the feed,” Cargill’s Anquetil said.
Thorough safety testing of insects as feed will be critical for consumer acceptance, said Thomas Gremillion, director for the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America.
“If there was a big change in how animals are being fed, I’d want to see some extra scrutiny of whether the animals were accumulating any kinds of toxins from the insects,” he said.
It will take years for the insect farming sector to scale up. But growing the business to even a small market share would make a big difference to the feed industry and the environment, said Robert Nathan Allen, an insect farmer and chairman of the North American Coalition for Insect Agriculture.
“If we’re replacing 5 or 10 percent of the proteins that are normally in those feeds with insect protein,” Allen said, “That’s a lot of resources saved.”