A sustainability check for insect products

27-03-2019 | |
Insects can be fed with different types of materials, ranging from grains to clean byproducts from the food industry. Photo: Emmy Koeleman
Insects can be fed with different types of materials, ranging from grains to clean byproducts from the food industry. Photo: Emmy Koeleman

For the first time, a life cycle assessment has been done to see whether the use of insects for animal feed is more sustainable than using conventional protein sources such as soy and fish meal. All About Feed talked to one of the researchers about the outcomes.

The interest in using more sustainable feed ingredients is growing, fuelled by the environmental impact of soybean meal and fish meal. This has spurred the research and production of more sustainable feed ingredients such as insect meal. But what is the real difference between the old and the new protein sources for animal feed in terms of sustainability? A research team from the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland have therefore carried out a so-called life cycle assessment (LCA) of food industry side streams transformation via Hermetia illucens (Black Soldier Fly, hereafter called BSF) into intermediate products applicable for feed and food purposes. One of the researchers that worked on the LCA is Dr Eric Schmitt from Protix, a leading insect producer, based in the Netherlands. “In general, insects are more efficient than other livestock because they are cold blooded and many insect species can grow quickly. The BSF is particularly sustainable because it stops eating before it becomes an adult, so it is very efficient at storing nutrients, which is convenient for harvesting. They can also eat a very wide range of diets, can convert (food) waste streams and they grow very fast. This is the reason why the BSF is often the preferred choice of insect for companies to work with. But it is not only the (food) waste conversion that makes them interesting. Some studies showed that insects grown on certain grain diets also show positive results in terms of greenhouse gas emission for example, as shown in earlier work from Oonincx,” Dr Schmitt explains.

Assessing the level of impact

Most of the insect production schemes in Europe fall within a conceptual scheme, similar to animal production:

  • feeding
  • growing
  • processing
  • distributing
  • consuming

While insects are considered a source of protein with a lower environmental impact than meat products, previous research showed that in certain cases their environmental impact might be similar to chicken and pork products, e.g. nitrous oxide emissions (Oonincx, 2017) and land use (Smetana et al., 2016). However, the level of impact highly depends on the diet, production system and species, as some of them lead to increased emissions compared to others (Oonincx, 2017). “The goal of our study was therefore to look at the environmental impacts of insect based intermediate products (usable for feed and food) and to provide guidance on how the insect industry should move forward to become even more sustainable,” explains Dr Schmitt. The LCA study is based on a dataset of BSF production and processing (2015-2017) from a pilot plant from Protix producing above average volumes. The researchers looked at the production of raw materials (feed for BSF), feed processing and storage, cycle of BSF development (egg production, larvae hatching, growing, larvae harvesting) and processing of outputs into a few products: organic fertiliser, fresh puree, protein concentrate and fat.

Insect diets and energy – biggest factors

The LCA study explains the 2 most effective ways to improve environmental sustainability of insect products. These are:

  1. using more sustainable feed for the insects
  2. good engineering practices.

The LCA looked at the production of BSF fed on the side-streams diet. The diet consisted of commercially available side-streams from the food industry (milling, alcohol production and brewery). The greatest sources of impacts in all categories were feed production (feed for the insects) and energy use (growing of the insects). For the BSF puree these made up 43% and 36.5%, respectively. This ratio, whereby feed production had a slightly higher impact than energy, was observed for the other products as well, except for BSF meal, where 55% of all environmental impacts were associated with production of electricity used along the production chain and 38% of impacts was allocated to insect feed production. This difference was because of the energy requirements needed in the additional processing steps to transform BSF puree to BSF meal. Insect fertiliser (IF) and BSF fat were co-products of BSF puree and BSF meal production. Fertiliser production, even at the pilot scale was more environmentally favourable compared to conventional organic fertiliser.

Insects can be fed with different types of materials, ranging from grains to clean byproducts from the food industry. Photo: Emmy Koeleman

Insects can be fed with different types of materials, ranging from grains to clean byproducts from the food industry. Photo: Emmy Koeleman

Optimising insects’ diets

The authors write that one of the ways to make insect farming more sustainable is to look at the diet that is fed to the insects. The EU laws allow insects to be fed protein-rich side-streams from the food processing industries. “This is a good thing of course, but these food by-products are also completely or partially suitable for other livestock. The use of non-utilised side-streams for feed that are unsuitable for conventional livestock can reduce the direct impact of BSF production again by a quarter we saw in the LCA study,” Dr Schmitt explains. So should legislation allow more types of ingredients for insect production, and in particular ones that are not competing with livestock feed? Dr Schmitt says that the insect industry can develop quite a bit further without major changes in the regulations regarding the products used to feed the insects. Dr Schmitt: “There is enough volume of allowed feed ingredients on the market that insect producers can use. In my opinion we could also rethink the way we separate certain waste streams from restaurants for example. Some are now restricted but could be logical to allow, but risks should always be managed. I think it is important that the food processing industry makes cleaner separations of risky and non-risky organic residuals, but to make this work on a large scale is easier said than done. This is why Protix is working with local partners that supply insect feed ingredients to us to improve the logistics and quality control of certain streams so that they do meet regulatory restrictions. This gives us access to more organic waste and we still work according to the rules set for insect production in the EU.” As for the new factory that Protix is building in the Netherlands, this has led to a complete changed of the recipe – to using feeds that are going into the bioreactor. We replaced about 70% of our diet with more sustainable streams.”

Optimising the art of insect production

Next to looking at insect feed critically, good engineering practices are key to making insect farming a sustainable practice. To reduce the energy use of insect farming, a range of things can be done. The use of better equipment and selective insect breeding are some of them. “Next to changing the feed while working on the LCA, we also redesigned many of the systems at Protix to obtain higher energy savings than the 25% given in the research paper. I won’t make any claims about how big the savings are, we are pretty conservative and will do another analysis in a couple of years when we have some more long-term data, but I am optimistic that we will beat the projections in the paper,” Dr Schmitt explains. He adds: “Efficient farming practices and genetics also have an impact but neither are accounted for in our LCA research because it is hard to put a concrete estimate on what their contribution to impact reduction will be. Protix does work on Smart Farming software for various applications that will probably reduce impact, and our partnership with Hendrix Genetics to improve the performance of the insects we sell should have that effect too. But again, we need more data before we make really bold claims about how big those effects will be.”

The use of insect meal in poultry diets is not yet allowed in the European Union. Photo: Peter Roek

The use of insect meal in poultry diets is not yet allowed in the European Union. Photo: Peter Roek

Better than fishmeal and vegetable meal?

But what about the sustainability of insect meal when used in fish diets and livestock diets, compared to other protein sources such as fishmeal and vegetable proteins? Fishmeal production is markedly different from land-based protein production as its production does not require additional inputs of land or water, and energy is primarily from nature. On the other hand, it is noted for its damage to biodiversity and ecosystems. This makes it difficult to compare with land-based proteins. Overall, the LCA study indicated that insect proteins showed lower impacts than fishmeal over most of the impact types. Plant-based proteins are among the most sustainable. In the mid and long term, insect proteins could be environmentally competitive across most of the impact types, but again a switch to sustainable feed and more efficient production or use of renewable energy is vital to gain the beneficial position compared to plant-based proteins. There were two exceptions to this pattern: fresh water depletion and land use. Insect production, even at the baseline showed lower impact estimates in these categories than soybeans and with the efficiency gains in next-generation production it became competitive against rapeseed cake. Therefore, while the outlook may be that it will require mid (2-5 years) to longer term improvements for BSF proteins to achieve impacts as low as plant-based sources across many types of impacts, in locations where water and land are scarce, or habitat destruction for agriculture is an issue, BSF production may already be a preferable protein source.

Organic waste and renewable energy in the mix

“We have learned from this LCA study that we can improve further to make insect farming even more sustainable. Our new Protix plant in Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands, is designed with significant improvements on that front. Overall, I strongly believe that using insects is a good sustainable way to lower the impact of food production. It gets even better if we can find ways to use other and more organic waste products in insect farming. Furthermore, I really like the long term scenario in the LCA study, showing what happens when you add renewable energy into the mix. Soy and fishmeal both get a lot of free energy from nature, which is great, while most other land-based proteins require man-made energy inputs. By switching to renewables we can make significant steps forward in further reducing the environmental impacts from feed and food production by levelling the playing field,” Dr Schmitt explains. And what about the ideal location to grow insects? Dr Schmitt explains that two types of locations seem particularly attractive for insect farming. For starters, locations with high population density – these often have quite a lot of food waste and are limited on resources like water and land, which BSF production is more sustainable than any of the other protein sources we produce in large volumes. “If you look at Brabant (the south of the Netherlands), where Protix started, we have a lot of people and livestock and import a lot of feed, and resources like land are tight. BSF production makes a lot of sense here, but also in a place like Beijing or Singapore or Mexico City. Secondly, insect farming can be done at locations which are far away from the food chain and produce a lot of waste, Some locations produce a lot of agricultural output and process it, think of a region in the middle of Brazil. Shipping the organic waste out is a costly matter. If the abundance of waste is fed to insects then a higher value product with a smaller volume can be economically produced and shipped.”

Integration in food chain

The insect industry is on the verge of transitioning from pilot scale to industrial scale production. Producers at the pilot scale have focused on stable, safe production to demonstrate the potential of their production process. Now it is time to move into the next phase. Consequentially, the full potential for environmental impact reduction from insects still lies ahead. “The insect sector has improved and grown a lot over the last years. The biggest challenge for now is that we make sure that insect farming becomes fully integrated in the existing food chain. The LCA study we did shows that insect production is a sustainable way forward for the feed and food industry and this is helping us to gain trust along the whole food chain,” Dr Schmitt concludes.

The original paper: ‘Sustainable use of Hermetia illucens insect biomass for feed and food: Attributional and consequential life cycle assessment’ has been published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 144, May 2019.

Join 26,000+ subscribers

Subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated about all the need-to-know content in the feed sector, three times a week.
Emmy Koeleman Freelance editor