Ironies of food, the future of livestock may pass through the same worms that farmers have been fighting for decades in the form of pests. Not figuratively. Not literally. There are companies that already look at the larvae as a “lifesaver” in the face of the challenges facing the sector. It can still be disturbing for us to find a good plate of tenebrios on the table, but the truth is that they are a food rich in protein and can help farmers to raise their cattle without grasses that have a great impact on the environment.
The challenge now for its production to gain pace and to be able to offer increasingly competitive prices is: How to achieve fat, nutritious and, above all, fast-growing worms?
And above all, is the change so important?
The grassland challenge. The livestock industry faces the future with an important handicap: its environmental impact. And at least one part is related to feeding animals. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations —FAO— the sector consumes some 6,000 million tons of forage, grain and animal feed each year. It is estimated that one third of the world’s cereal production is devoted to livestock. In practice, these figures have a consequence: they require extensive farmland.
A report published by Science reveals that between 2000 and 2019 the fields of corn, rice and other crops have gained more than one million square kilometers globally, especially in Africa and South America. Half of that land grew at the expense of trees and natural ecosystems. By displacing forests, savannahs and jungles, farms “take” spaces that previously stored carbon. Not everything is dedicated to cattle, of course; but this one does take a part. Soy derivatives, one of the crops that are motivating the change in land use, represent 4% of animal intake.
Food, measured in CO2. The FAO calculates that livestock generates 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions of human origin, a percentage that some studies even raise several points. How is it generated? The majority (62%) originates from cattle, mainly with the methane it produces during digestion, behind 44% of emissions. Another 10% is related to manure management and 5% to energy consumption.
The remaining 41% is directly related to the animals’ own feeding; that is, the carbon dioxide (CO2) attributable to grasslands, feed production, the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides with which the land is treated, and the transport of the merchandise itself. Land use change alone explains approximately 5% of all CO2 emissions.
A problem with signs of growing. The challenge, in addition, can be aggravated. Despite the rise of alternatives such as plant-based or laboratory-based meats, the 2021 Agricultural Outlook report by the OECD and the FAO forecasts that the world supply of meat will increase to 374 million tons in 2030. Specifically, its authors foresee a rise in production in China, Brazil and the United States and an increase led by poultry production.
And then the bugs came. Against this background, there are those who see insects as a clear alternative to supply livestock. A study published in 2019 in Animals cites among the most “promising” species the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), the yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the common housefly (Musca domestica) to feed poultry, pigs and fish and outlines some advantages, such as their nutritional value, the low level of greenhouse gas emissions generated by their production or the limited space required to raise them.
Other authors highlight among the strengths of insects their high protein content, which forms part of the natural diet of birds, pigs and fish, their immunological advantages, the low greenhouse gas emissions they generate —”Only 1 % compared to ruminants”, they highlight—, or the very possibilities of their cultivation. “They can be raised on a wide range of substrates, such as agricultural streams and food waste. They can be the missing link towards greater circularity in agriculture and the food industry.”
Food for animals… and humans. Insects are not only outlined as food for livestock. In the world there are already more than 2,000 million people who include worms and beetles in their menu and there are voices that have an impact on their advantages, including those that make them an option for chickens and pigs: they are nutritious, they produce body mass at a good rate and can be eaten practically whole, with little waste. All this, added to the saving of land occupied during breeding and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Companies that already exploit the market. Today there are already firms, such as Ÿnsect, Buggy Bix or Tebrio, in Spain, that exploit the potential of breeding insects for food. The sector has an important business niche in pet food —pumpkin and worm biscuits for dogs are sold in Australia; and in Europe Tomojo sells sweets supplemented with larvae—, but its production is very low when compared to other sources of protein. According to data from IPIFF, a European organization that defends the interests of the sector, in the EU today “a few thousand tons” are produced with a global investment that exceeds one billion euros and the generation of more than a thousand jobs of employment, between direct and indirect.
The sector, which expects to skyrocket its figures to reach 30,000 jobs by the end of the decade, received a key boost last year when the European Commission (EC) accepted insect meal as a source of protein to feed pigs and poultry. . The progress is added to what had already been achieved four years earlier, in 2017, when it was authorized to feed fish. The decision opens a gigantic market to the sector. In Spain alone, it is estimated that there are more than 88,400 pig farms and 20,700 poultry farms, a figure that has been reached after years of growth.
The great challenge: adapt and gain efficiency. The problem for the sector is that it still has to adapt if it wants to meet a greater volume of demand. As recognized to the Efe agency in 2021 by Jorge de Saja, general director of the employers’ association Cesfac, producing insect flour at an industrial level “can have a very significant impact on the sector”, but requires more R&D. Gaining efficiency is also the goal of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming —CEIF, for its acronym in English—, a recently created organization based in the US.
Lower costs to gain attractiveness. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is to lower its cost. As Wired points out, the low production levels in which the sector still operates keep insect prices high, which represents a challenge when it comes to competing with soybeans, cereals or other traditional alternatives to feed the livestock.
How? Achieving meatier insects that grow faster. Scottish startup Beta Bugs is working on more productive versions of the black soldier fly. “What we have is a kind of raw material that can then be improved through selective breeding,” he tells Wired. “The insect’s accelerated life cycle, which is ready two weeks after hatching, makes that task easy. Although it has been farmed commercially for the past decade, the black soldier fly has not yet been genetically enhanced for large-scale production.” , note on your website.
Relying on genetics. The French company Ÿnsect, in full expansion, announced in January the Ÿnfabre program, which it presents as “the first industrial genomic selection program applied to the mass breeding of insects”. The program, developed with the CEA-Genoscope center, and with funding of 4.34 million euros, makes use of phenotyping and genotyping tools and seeks to generate “resistant and high-yield” mealworms.
It is not the first step of Ÿnsect to achieve copies with features that help you improve your business and gain efficiency. The French company has already identified, for example, a strain of buffalo worm with a growth rate 25% faster than the original strain, an advantage that, it acknowledges, “increases the production of farms, as well as the efficiency of resources.”
Image | Pascal Debrunner (Unsplash) and Harish Shivaraman (Unsplash)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism