What is it like to eat insects?
Crunchy. Like buttery popcorn. The fat adds the buttery flavour and the chitin, or exoskeleton, provides the crunch. Delicacies include smoked termites, eaten like peanuts. Red ants taste like spicy lemon. You can even grind up insects to make gluten-free flour. Are you squirming yet? Or does this sound delicious? Eating insects divides us, but it’s not just people who can eat insects.
Nick Piggott, founder and CEO of Nutrition Technologies, an insect farming operation in Johor, Malaysia, likes crickets the best. But he’s most interested in insects for their business potential, not their taste.
“Last year, we raised 8.5 million USD and we are about 6 months away from opening the largest insect protein factory in Asia, which will produce 200 tonnes of black soldier fly protein a month,” says Piggott.
How does the production of insect protein work?
Farmers raise insects on organic waste otherwise destined for overburdened landfill sites. Common choices of insects to farm are black soldier fly, mealworm, and crickets. The insect larvae eat through the waste and are then harvested, dried, and made into pellets. The strong-stomached black soldier fly larva is amongst the most popular as it can digest almost anything.
What is the potential market for insect protein?
Although much of the hype is around insects in the human diet, Hans Woldring, Principal Natural Resources and Agricultural Specialist at the Asian Development Bank (ADB), says the big market is animal feed. “We are now at the stage where over 50% of the fish we eat are farmed rather than harvested from the wild,” says Woldring, “and that proportion is only going to increase.”
Already, the People’s Republic of China produces almost 81% of the world’s fish and Asia overall produces 40-45% of the 320 million tonnes of meat produced globally each year.
Four reasons why insect protein has a future
#1 More secure food supply chains
Covid-19 has exposed the fragility of global food system. Locally produced protein can mitigate that. “We are considered an essential business, so our factory in Johor, Malaysia, is staying open at 50% staffing,” says Piggott, “but supply chains for animal feed have been badly disrupted.” Food supply chains can also become more robust by providing greater diversity of ingredients and sources of nutrients.
#2 Tackles the waste problem
In developing countries about 78% of solid waste is organic – discarded food. Black soldier fly larvae will eat almost anything organic, with good results for nutritional value. “When we started out, we ran experiments to see if black soldier fly would absorb toxins from waste,” says Piggott. The flies proved clean.
#3 Nutritional profile
Black soldier fly larvae protein is nutritious at about 50% crude protein and 35% fats. Its amino acid profile is similar to high-quality fishmeal – but while conventional fishmeal can vary in quality, insect protein is consistently high-quality year-round.
#4 An alternative source of income for farmers
“I’m really excited about insect-based protein,” says Woldring. “Along with alternative meat products, they provide a route to free up agricultural land to be used for ecosystem management”, where the government pays farmers to plant crops that produce clean air and water, such as timber. Farmers can also start up small scale insect-farming operations using their own organic waste, such as kitchen waste or chicken manure.
What are the obstacles?
The IPIFF, a European non-profit that promotes the use of insect protein, says the biggest challenges for the production of insect protein are scalability; meeting consumer expectations on quality and price; and government regulation.
When Piggott was working with Mekong Delta shrimp farmers, he says, he needed to go and visit farmers with the local agricultural officials. While the local agricultural authorities were excited, the local farmers had more questions about the changes to feed formulation. Piggott had to build trust through face-to-face meetings with farmers.
And even if regulations ease, marketing the product to smallholder farmers may not be easy.
“Once insect protein producers have overcome the regulatory hurdles and tested the quality of the food alongside local agricultural authorities,” says Woldring, “they will need to make the business case to aquaculture pond owners and farmers.”
Seeing the future
The global insect protein market is projected to reach a value of 1.4 billion USD by 2024, growing at 12% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). “We already have a wait list of feed manufacturers, many from the US, ready to purchase our insect protein for their feed formulations when our factory opens in six months,” says Piggott.
In the bigger picture, global livestock feed, animal feed additives, and pet food markets are expected to grow by a combined 21% in the next 5 years, up to 606 billion USD. With Covid-19 driving supply chains towards diversity, the insect protein market is well positioned to account for a sizeable portion of that growth.