5 Ways That Insect Farming Contributes to Sustainable Food Systems and Improves International Development
With the global population expected to gain an additional 2 billion people by 2050, food production systems must adapt to meet growing demand while using less land and water. Fortunately, alternatives to current, “traditional” fish and poultry production systems already exist that can generate nutritious food while using resources more efficiently and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
One of these alternatives is insect farming.
Studies have shown that insects can replace or complement ingredients traditionally used in fish, swine, poultry and pet food, such as soy and fishmeal, offering a sustainable substitute that is high in protein, fat and a variety of nutrients including omega-3 and essential amino acids.
Currently, the black soldier fly is the most widely farmed insect for animal feed due to its rapid production cycle and high concentration of protein. After the eggs hatch, it takes only six days for the larvae to reach its maximum body mass. The larvae are then harvested, dried, and distributed to animal feed processing centers. To date, there have been no reports of major disease outbreaks in a black soldier fly production unit, making their larvae an ideal candidate for production globally.
Other commonly farmed insects for animal feed include grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms and termites. Small-pilot projects and large industrial companies have been established all over the world to develop and strengthen the prospects of insect production.
Here, we highlight five ways that farming insects for animal feed can contribute to sustainable food systems and improve development goals such as social and economic empowerment, food security and climate mitigation.
1. Circular Model Systems
Insect farming is an extremely efficient form of agriculture production because insects can be reared entirely on organic waste while requiring minimal inputs of water and raw materials. Some insects such as the black soldier fly produce a natural by-product termed “frass” that can be treated to create an organic fertilizer. By recapturing nitrogen and phosphate from the organic waste and producing by-products that can be integrated back into our agricultural systems, insect farming can help us close nutrient loops and foster circular economies. Insect farming can also create biofuels, waxes, resins and dyes as by-products.
2. Social and Economic Empowerment
With proper training, families can use small-scale insect farming to transform local organic waste into high-quality animal feed that they can then sell at local markets. Insect farming can also be done in small areas with very minimal inputs, making it an ideal form of agriculture for women, youth, and other marginalized groups who often have limited access to space and resources. With improved technology, insect farming is also becoming easier to scale up, which provides opportunities for economic growth and development.
3. Increasing Food Security
Whether farmed in the backyard or on an industrial scale, insects can provide high-quality animal feed at an affordable price with the use of fewer resources than soy or fishmeal. Due to insects’ rich nutrient levels, feeding or supplementing with them can boost the health and development of farmed animals and fish, making it more likely that they will make it to harvest. By switching to insects as feed, agriculturalists can reduce the amount of land needed to grow animal feed and potentially free up to 50-90 percent of agricultural land. This additional land can be used for growing other vital food crops, especially in regions where agricultural land is scarce.
4. Food Waste and Climate Mitigation
Growing insects on food waste is a great way to make sure we capture benefits from all food produced and reduce methane emissions. Each year one third of global food production is either lost or wasted, resulting in economic losses of roughly $940 billion worldwide and contributing 8-10 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the methane released from the waste sitting in landfills. Over a 20 year period, methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change, but the good news is that methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere so reducing it now is one of the most effective ways to limit global warming. Insect farming is one cost effective way to reduce food waste and GHG emissions in places where USAID works by utilizing our organic waste as an input and creating a nutrient-dense, high-protein product in its place.
5. Reducing Land and Marine Degradation
By using insects as a replacement or supplement to traditional animal feeds such as soy, we can reduce the amount of land required for growing these feeds, in part because insects can be farmed vertically and in urban environments. Insect farming can help mitigate land degradation and may even minimize spread of zoonotic diseases that are linked to increased human contact with wildlife in land-cleared areas. In addition, insect farming can alleviate the overharvesting of marine fish stocks for fish meal, which reduces degradation of marine ecosystems.
Barriers and Opportunities
While insect farming can improve agricultural sustainability and provide social and economic opportunities for developing countries, scaling up production has been relatively slow. Until the potential risks such as disease, spread of invasive species and bioaccumulation of toxins are proven negligible, policy makers, developers and the public will be cautious to support the commercialization of insect farming for animal feed. Addressing these concerns through improved regulatory frameworks and biosafety procedures, capacity building and marketing, we can pave the way for the expansion of insect farming for animal feed, revolutionizing the way we do animal agriculture at both household and industrial scales.