Is the sustainability story taking the wrong turn? The case of insects in the animal feed

Growing up in the farming family was the privilege I always cherish, the corn fields, wheat fields, chicken and cow farm. What a experience it was.

In grade 8th , I used to wonder why my family use pesticides for the corn and why they were using only hybrid seeds promising high yields and not using local seeds, I thought local should make sense.

Photo: Private

Then came the year I went to university and made my first feed for chickens from scratch, grounded the corn, wheat, soybean and some other ingredients and then I had a perfect mix for egg laying hens. It was love at first sight, continuing of something which I have been watching my family doing.

Later, I noticed that wheat and corn which is staple food for some humans is becoming expensive for human consumption because animal feed is using them a lot. There and then, I learned that animal feed should not have any competition with the human food as animals diets could be formulated with the ingredient’s humans don’t use directly.

Years pass by, and there remains an anxiety, that when can we ever have those ingredients which could be truly sustainable and have no competition with humans. I remember thinking of it every single day.

The projections of human population going to be 10 billion by 2050 was an added stress. The great year of 2013 came, I got the chance and luck to do the master thesis for the topic I always loved, alternate feed ingredients, After brainstorming with fellow enthusiastic, I decided that there could not become anything more interesting than trying insects as feed ingredient for fish feed.

I was lucky that my Professor helped me to arrange the insects even though it was not so easy, as it was banned to use in the animal feed in Europe. After working with some hard grinding and pelleting, I got the perfect feed ready to be eaten by dear fish. Guess what?

Fish did not like it as I was so happy to replace the feed by 50 % insect meal compare to normal feed. The fish liked it in the start and after two weeks, they started to eat less and less. Later, when we opened the fish for more understanding, liver and intestine was swollen.
Upon doing sensory analysis, the aroma from the fish flesh was too strong to eat, and only 50 % participants of the panel managed to eat it happily and rest did not liked it too much.

So, what is the purpose of telling you this story?
The purpose to tell this story is that there are lot of people out there like me who care about alternate sources of food for animals and humans and this is a constant struggle which cannot be changed in one night.
Anyway, 2017 came and insects became main stream in Europe, as I was passionate about insects, I started pursuing the sector more eagerly, I networked with insect sector vigorously, been to some of the early production facilities, made small batches of test fish feeds for some of the insect producers.

In fact, I was all in, realising the potential and promise of the sector. But since the start of this journey, I saw that expect few, most of the insect producers don’t have any idea when they talk about fish feed and chicken feed. I remember listening to one of the founders of one of the big companies in the sector to date, we will put 70 % of insect in the fish feed as this is only way we can make truly sustainable feed. In another conference, another gentleman surprisingly from another big company in the sector was presenting completely wrong test results from the trial they conducted on the fish. In another instance, a friend of mine who was in one of the companies also making great claims told me, that he is pressured to produce the good results, as it is his duty that the fish should like its feed with insects otherwise it is his fault that the fish died because of too much insects in the feed.

Then I also noticed that some of the insect producers, were using chicken feed for the insects they were producing, I was lost after all this. Is it all about making a good story to impress the investors to invest in the business? Where is sustainability aspect in this approach. So how the sustainability story is taking a wrong turn?
Despite all the limitations, most of the insect producers in Europe are eager to have insects been used in the fish feeds despite there are other options. Let’s break it down….

Limitations in insect production at scale…. Remember, insects are also animals, if you farm them intensively, like other animals, mortality is going to happen. As some of the insights I have confirmed this that there is huge mortality going on in some of the insect farms.

Cannibalism behaviour, as it is not possible to raise the insects uniformly, the smaller larvae are been eaten by the bigger ones, hence you cannot predict the volume you can really produce in every production cycle. Moreover, like other animals, insects have disease outbreaks both viral and bacterial which can wipe out the whole farm population in no time.

Think about its effect on fish later on if the feed safety aspects are not been taken care of. Loopholes in the Marketing Well, by the way, do fish really eat black solider fly and yellow meal worm in the nature?
The answer is big No, they do eat insects, but they don’t eat the land-based insects like black solider fly (BSF) and Yellow meal worm (YMW).
How can we produce sustainable fish feed by using 1 to 2 percent of the insect meal and demanding the consumer in the supermarket for paying more in the long term?

If the fish could be only produced sustainable by using land-based insects like BSF and YMW, then why not we should use the by products from the land-based animals like poultry blood meal or poultry feather meal in Europe.

From replacing the fish meal 100 % and claims of same price of Insect meal to fish meal, what is happening now is that insect producers cannot keep up with the promise of delivering volume to Aquafeed.
I think it is very risky for whole supply chain of fish farming sector to rely on the insect producers’ story and selling this story to the end consumer because there are lots of loopholes in that. This is not sustainable in the long term. So what should be the solution? They say what is the point of just raising concerns and not suggest any solution?

The solution could be that please leave the complex food sector alone. Being disruptive tech entrepreneur and working for 5 to 10 times returns on investments is great but applying the same formula to food or feed industry comes with the great risk and cost.

Livelihood of many vulnerable people are on the line here. Let a regular person in the street have the access to cheap seafood which is already done very well by the established order. If you are investor, rather then you invest in the insect for feed bubble, invest in the other feed ingredients like fish processing waste. In Norway alone, we have over 0.5 million ton of fish waste been produced as the by-product of fish processing.

Single cell protein is also one of the areas where it makes more sense to go for alternatives. Ingredients like Algae are also promising but their prices has to come down significantly. Final note Not all the insect companies are same when it comes to their approach to Aquafeed. There are some good ones out there.

What I am seeking through my opinion and igniting the debate is balance. We need to have balance and right approach for long lasting sustainable solutions in the animal feed industry.

There should be balance between overselling the idea of these new ingredients and practical challenges involved in the process e.g. costs, long term supply and biological challenges. Now you might have questions or comments.