Insect farms should be wary of potential environmental effects of

escapees, as well as the sustainability of feed and housing, said scientists..

Ecologists suggested that insect farms focus on developing idealsustainability practices before the insect-based pet food ingredient industrygrows too large to change easily. Meanwhile, arthropod agriculturalists aim toachieve just that at Ϋnsect’s fully automated pilot plant in France, where thecompany produces protein and oil from mealworms ( Tenebrio molitor ).

“Why not do it great from the beginning?” Åsa Berggren, ecology professor atthe Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, said. “Think aboutsustainability now, since it’s easier than once they [insect farms] arealready built.”

Berggren and her colleagues wrote a paper noting areas where the nascentinsect farming industry needs more research to establish best practices forsustainability. Trends in Ecology and Evolution published the paper.

Native insects as pet food protein sources

For one thing, insect farms should be wary of potential environmental effectsof escapees, she said. Errant insects could become invasive species.

Cattle, carp, horses and pigs all started as domesticated animals in theUnited States, but now cause ecological damage in areas where they haveescaped captivity. These invasive species, and many more non-native plants andanimals, cost the United States nearly US$120 billion each year, according toa 2005 paper in Ecological Economics.

“The issue is having non-native insects in massive amounts,” Berggren said.“So if they escape, they could do serious damage.”

Using native insect species would be a safer choice for agriculturaloperations than raising species that could escape and compete with indigenousinsects, she said.

For example, insect-based protein and oil producer Ϋnsect raises yellowmealworms. These arthropods are native to France and many other regions wherethey have been reared for decades as fish bait, Constant Motte, businessdevelopment manager for Ynsect, said.

Even for native species, escaped insects could cause problems of literallyBiblical proportions (Locust are edible, by the way).

Thousands of escaped native insects would still cause a sudden ecologicalshock and could inflict localized environmental damage, Berggren said.

In the case of the mealworms, the age of the insects limits their chances forescape.

“We raise them in confined buildings and our insects, mainly at the larvaephase, cannot escape from their trays,” he said. “It is a fantastic insectthat likes to be raised in a high density, social environment and at thelarvae phase it cannot fly or jump because it has no wings or legs. The riskof escape from this closed building is insignificant.”

Energy used in insect farming operations

Raising native insects in maximum security confinement could still harm theenvironment, if the energy used to maintain those facilities comes from fossilfuels. In January, conventional livestock rearing suffered criticism in aLancet Commission report that noted the environmental and human health costsof animal protein production. Instead, the report called for greaterconsumption of plant-based proteins. Animal agriculture advocacyorganizations, such as the American Feed Industry Association, refuted thereport.

However, beyond the debate, the resources used to produce protein from animalsaffect both the environment and the economy. Insects may provide a solution tothis dilemma, because of their potentially much lower resource needs thanmammals and poultry. At the same time, insects can provide a healthy range ofproteins and amino acids, along with other nutrients such as omega-3 fattyacids.

“There have been some studies done, and insects are lots better than cows andpigs,” Berggren said. “For the insects that have been tested, we can eateverything, as opposed to cows were we eat only half the animal, more or less…Insects can eat things people and other livestock can’t eat.”

Still, the resources used to rear insects needs further study to determine theoptimal way to produce the most insect-based pet food ingredients using theleast fuel and feed, she said.

Ϋnsect raises mealworms on safe, controlled, vegetable byproducts that are notintended primarily for human food, said Motte.

“Ϋnsect know-how includes mealworm physiology to develop a specific diet mixin order to use as little feed as possible for each kilo of mealworm.,” hesaid. “The Molitor are known to be very energy efficient and retain proteinfrom low nutritious feed.”

Likewise, when processing those mealworms into protein and oil, Ϋnsectendeavors to use as little energy as possible.

“The energy used to process the insects is very similar to the production ofpremium fish meal,” Motte said. “The main differences are the source ofprotein and the extraordinary freshness of the transformation process becauseour insect larvae are transformed just after the bleaching process; similar tothe shrimp industry.

“An important benefit of our technology is that there is no waste,” he said.“The whole larva is used.”

Even the insects’ excrement, called frass, can be used.

Renewable energy and fertilizer from insect protein production

As Mad Max found out in “Beyond Thunderdrome,” pig manure can be used toproduce energy from biogas.

Likewise, insect frass can be fermented into methane biogas, Motte said.

While methane is a potent greenhouse gas, fully combusted biogas can beclimate friendly since it doesn’t involve releasing methane stored in ancientdeposits.

“There is strong support at the moment in the EU to produce more biogas andbioenergy,” Motte said. “Frass could be used in that respect.

“The other option is to use frass as a great organic fertilizer to bring backorganic matter into the soil. We can then store carbon and create a stablehumus needed for the fertility of agriculture soils.

“Eventually, the uses would depend on the energy mix of each country,” Mottesaid. “In France where energy is highly decarbonized with nuclear andhydropower, the fertilizer application makes a lot of sense. In othercountries where coal is the major source of energy, it could be relevant,environmentally speaking, to have a mix of biogas and fertilizerapplications.”

Considering these and other ecologically positive potentials of insectfarming, Berggren said she doesn’t want to swat the industry. Instead, shecalls for further research to make sure the burgeoning bug business getsstarted on the right foot, or six feet in this case.

Source:Tim Wall PetfoodIndustry

Image: Bigstock

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