With little volatility in price and proven to substitute well for fish meal in marine fishand shrimp, insect meal production is poised to rise as a major aquafeed ingredient
By Martin Zorrilla
The idea of animals eating insects is not very revolutionary. Afterall, insects are a natural food source for an enormous number of animal species in the wild. The revolutionary part is integrating insect-based products into our global food supply chain and scaling them up into the right markets. Significant advances have already been made; just this year the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) announced that its members had produced 6,000 tonnes of insect protein in 2018. As the industry grows, the Asia Pacific region is well positioned to become a major producer, as well as consumer, of insect protein.
Potential of insect protein in Asia
While most commercial insect protein companies are based in Europe, a growing cohort have chosen to open or move to Asian countries. The Bangkok-based Asian Food and Feed Insect Association (AFFIA) has 12 members producing insects for animal feed, although most are not yet producing in commercial quantities. As the fledgling industry scales up, it may present the region with away to lower import-dependence as well as production costs.
Over the past decade dependence on imported feed ingredients has grown, reaching up to 75-80% in countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. In 2017, Chinese demand for protein ingredients grew by 7% while its soybean meal production fell by 1.5%. Meanwhile, government-led efforts to incentivise soy and corn production in countries like Indonesia have not succeeded in creating a meaningful domestic supply. Most Asian countries lack the large tracts of farmland required for soybean production, and the region’s already depleted fisheries means that fish meal production can only decrease.
Insect protein production, on the other hand, is ideally suited for the region. It requires little space, thrives in tropical environments and is not limited by raw materials. Insect farming is carried out in highly controlled systems within factories where one square metre can produce more protein than one hectare of soybean production. The vertical farming systems are growing increasingly efficient and rely on waste as an input, a readily available raw material that is not subject to extreme price fluctuations. The availability of manufacturing resources and low operating costs in the region will help the nascent sector to grow quickly, which it will need to do to disrupt an industry that produced 1.07 billion tonnes of feed in 2018.
Production methods and safety
Most insect companies are commercializing products from one insect: Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) or BSF. These large innocuous flies do not need to feed as adults, which leads them to accumulate and store proteins and fat in the larval stage. This combined with their fast growth rate and ability to eat a broad range of organic waste make them ideal for mass production as a novel protein source.
At its factory in Johor, Malaysia, Nutrition Technologies produces a >50% protein meal (Hi.Protein®) from black soldier fly larvae (BSFL). These larvae are reared on factory-grade food waste in a vertical farming system that ensures traceability and product safety. The larvae undergo only 7 days of high-growth rearing after which they are processed into protein meal and oil. The insect manure, also known as, ‘frass’ is harvested for use as a premium organic compost. Products are sold in Malaysia as well as exported to Korea, Japan and Europe.
Most insect producers, including Nutrition Technologies, follow the regulations created by the European Union (EU 2016/429) which stipulate that insects should only be fed on plant-based substrates or a selection of approved feed ingredients. Risk assessments conducted by the European Commission as well as academic studies have generally found that BSF meals have a low risk profile. Mycotoxins and pesticides do not seem to bioaccumulate in BSF and pathogenic bacteria are reduced or eliminated during feeding. However certain heavy metals have been found to bioaccumulate in insects and processing steps are needed to ensure the microbiological safety of insect products.
Insect production has grown enough that standards are now being modified to apply to their production. Most notably, the GMP organisation now certifies insect production facilities and published an updated Risk Assessment of Insect Protein meals in 2018. On its website, the organisation states: “GMP International supports the use of insects and insect products in feed, provided that the safety is assured.”
The environmental sustainability of insect production has been a driving force in the sector’s emergence. This is in part because the product could drastically improve aquaculture’s environmental image around the world. Multiple studies have shown that BSFL meal outperforms conventional protein feeds on environmental variables like lower CO2 emissions (1.24 kg CO2 eq), ecotoxicity and land use. In a 2016 ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ of BSFL proteins, Smetana et al. (2016) concluded that “The production of insect-based protein powder… based on food by-products, is 2-5 times more environmentally beneficial than that of traditional products.”
The environmental benefits of insect meal have been used to market specialty animal products in the European Union. In 2018 Feednavigator reported that the insect producer InnovaFeed launched a brand of ‘insect-fed fish’ in Auchan supermarkets in France. The project collaborators, which include the feed company Skretting, desire to restrict the label ‘insect-fed fish’ to mean: fish that have at least doubled their weight while on a diet with a minimum of 50% fish meal replaced by insect meal.
These marketing campaigns do seem to speak to, a subset at least, of consumers. Multiple surveys have recorded European willingness to preferentially select food like chicken and fish fed on insects. While consumer attitudes towards sustainability in Asia are not yet on par with those in Europe, much of the farmed aquaculture species are exported to the EU and US, and there is potential for western buyers to positively influence the upstream purchasing of their suppliers. The approach sets a positive example for the feed industry as to how openness about ingredients can be rewarded by an increasingly environmentally aware customer base.
Nutrition and functional benefits
Insect protein meals owe their status as a fish meal replacement to a profile of essential and non-essential amino acids that is very similar to that of fish meal. A typical BSFL meal can contain 3.77% lysine, 0.90% methionine, 0.40% cysteine, and 2.26% threonine on an as sampled basis. In one recent study with Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), Belghit et al. (2018) found that the apparent digestibility coefficient (ADC) of amino acids in BSFL meal to be comparable to that of fish meal and noted in particular the high apparent bioavailability of arginine (ADC of 91%).
Belghit et al. from the Institute of Marine Research in Norway used BSFL meal to replace fish meal in the diets of Atlantic salmon during its seawater phase. They found that the insect meal was able to replace 100% of the fish meal in salmon diets without negative effects. Similar results were reported for the European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) by Magalhãesa et al. (2017) where there was no significant impact of up to 45% fish meal replacement.
Large studies on species of high interest to producers in Asia have been less abundant, but nonetheless promising. Cummins et al. (2017) found encouraging results when using BSFL meal as a fish meal replacement in the diets of whiteleg shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei) up to 25%. A 2017 industry-sponsored study at Kasetsart University in Thailand found that insect meal in whiteleg shrimp diets increased weight gain, lowered feed conversion ratios and increased survival when challenged with early mortality syndrome (EMS). The study used mealworm protein to replace fish meal in 5 isonitrogenous diets with varying inclusion rates. When challenged with Vibrio, the treatment with a 50% fish meal replacement had a 90% survival rate compared to 56.7% in the control diet.
The shrimp trial is not alone in showing that insect meals have a positive impact on fish and crustacean health. A study by Terova et al. (2019) from the University of Insubria, Italy found that BSFL meal increased the diversity and richness of gut microbiota in rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The authors suggested that the effects were due to the presence of chitin (a polymer found in insect cuticles) in the insect meal. The study used BSFL meal at 10%, 20% and 30% inclusion rates with no effect on growth performance compared to a control diet with fish meal. Crude protein digestibility was high and ADC above 90% for all treatments.
Despite recent increases in the availability of insect protein, it remains difficult for potential consumers to gauge the price point of the products. Prices quoted tend to vary depending on the geography of the company, with higher prices tending to center in Europe, and the targeted market of the producing countries. However, some BSFL producers, including Nutrition Technologies, have already been able to price their products competitively against, or lower than fish meal of an equivalent grade.
In addition to a lower price point, insect meal should exhibit less year-on-year price volatility than products like fish meal. The price stability of insect meal is due to their production in controlled environments which are isolated from weather changes. Waste inputs are readily available and easily interchanged if there are any increases in price. It is our hope that this stability will ultimately lead to less volatile compound feed prices, allowing farmers to plan with greater financial certainty.
With more and more insect producers coming on-line and establishing larger facilities as well as regulations and industry acceptance moving in the right direction, there is a bright future for insect production in the region.