These 7 principles make responsible use of farmed insects possible

Published on
November 16, 2022

Farmed insects should not be fed with residual streams that can be fed directly to livestock, such as agri-food residues, as this will create unnecessary competition for feedstocks. It is more effective to concentrate efforts on rearing insects destined for feed on streams not generally fed to livestock, such as manure and food waste. This is one of seven key principles researchers of Wageningen University & Research present in the scientific journal Nature Food to guide the responsible use of farmed insects as livestock feed.

The demand for farmed insects is increasing and there are high expectations of their potential to contribute to sustainable livestock production. Insects fed with the by-products and food waste generated within current food systems can produce biomass rich in valuable proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. The insect biomass could potentially replace conventional feed ingredients that negatively impact climate and biodiversity, such as soybean and fishmeal. A holistic approach is critical to shape this developing sector and avoid mistakes made in the past. Therefore, the authors proposed seven key principles for responsible insect farming.

Avoid needless feed competition

Avoid needless feed competition is one of the key principles. ‘Recovering and reusing waste streams for edible biomass should be prioritized over other uses’, says researcher Alejandro Parodi Parodi, ‘in order to maximize the production of biomass edible to humans with the lowest environmental impact’. Ruminants, for instance, consume a variety of crop residues, and monogastric animals such as pigs have been traditionally fed on by-products from the food industry. To avoid competition, insects should only be fed streams that are not traditionally fed to livestock.

Nowadays, many large-scale insect producers are attaining high insect yields by feeding insects with customised diets made of a mix of different livestock-edible streams. This promotes feed competition with conventional livestock when insects are reared for feed. Therefore, the insect production sector and relevant stakeholders should shift their focus towards optimizing low-quality feeds to attain higher insect yields.

The environmental benefits of using insects are founded on their potential to turn organic residual streams into valuable feed or food. However, even before using insects as the recyclers of our food systems, preventing food waste should be prioritized. Preventing the generation of waste was proposed to be tackled not by insect producers, but by policy makers, governmental agencies, the private sector and civil society organizations.

Ensure farmed insects are safe

It is also important to ensure feed and food safety. Many of the abundant organic residual streams that could be consumed by insects potentially pose feed and food safety risks. Such risks should first be identified by research, and in case of risks we must invest in developing strategies that reduce or eliminate them (e.g., waste segregation, pre-treatment of residual organic streams, and larval processing).

In regions such as the European Union (EU), strict regulatory frameworks for food and feed safety exist, and therefore farmed insects can often only be fed with the same feedstocks currently allowed for conventional livestock, leading to feed competition between insects and conventional livestock. As soon as more experimental evidence on safety is available, regulatory frameworks must be revised and adapted accordingly, as is already happening in countries outside of the EU .

Anticipate trade-offs

The researchers aim for positive environmental consequences and to improve livestock productivity and/or welfare by feeding them insects, though there will be trade-offs between these goals. Researcher Allyson Ipema has demonstrated that ​Broilers fed live fly larvae generally show more natural behaviour and develop healthier legs. Ipema: ‘But if insects must be reared and fed alive to benefit conventional livestock welfare, there is a clear trade-off between insect and livestock welfare that must be considered’. Accounting for insect welfare is just an example of an anticipated trade-off the researchers have identified

All authors propose that these principles should be discussed now, as the insect rearing sector is just emerging. Parodi Parodi: ‘Farmed insects have the potential to contribute to the transition towards sustainable food systems, but for that to happen, we need to use them properly.’