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The pros and cons of insects as an alternative protein source in feed

Insects as an alternative protein source is a hot topic due to increasing focus on sustainable production and challenged supply chains. We take a look at some of the practical considerations for the feed industry.

 

Insects do have a lot going for them as a protein source. Farming insects could limit the land use requirement for animal feed production, freeing up land to grow crops for human consumption. Further, insects can be fed on organic waste and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the livestock industry by 50% by 2050. And the European industry interest organisation, International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF)1 , states that insects can contain up to 82% protein and have a diverse amino acid profile.

 
“The high content of digestible protein in insect larvae (in dry form) makes them a potent solution to improving protein self-sufficiency in animal feed,” states Joash Mathew, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs Manager at IPIFF. He adds: “Insects as feed have the advantage of already being a part of fish, poultry or swine animal diets. Numerous trials and studies on the impact of insects and their derived ingredients on the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR) of animals reflect the positive outcomes associated with their inclusion in fish, poultry, or swine animal diets.”

 

The cost of changing to a new nutritional profile
However, one of the major barriers to use of any protein alternatives appears to be the different nutritional profile and the cost of accommodating this into the animal feed production, particularly in handling the anti-nutritional elements.

Anti-nutritional factors

Anti-nutritional factors (ANF) are substances that adversely affect the digestion of nutrients. Soyabeans have their share of both non-protein related ANF for example, phytic acid and protein-related, such as trypsin.

 
In comparison, insects have significantly less anti-nutritional content.


Ioannis Mavromichalis, of Ariston Nutrition Consulting International sheds light on the nutritional aspect of using alternative protein sources to soya. “Nutritionally, soybean meal is number one for many reasons. It is hard to replace it due to it price and amino acid profile, and when we do, we have problems, mostly from new anti-nutritional factors, not lack of nutrients,” he comments. 

 

As an alternative protein source, insects are low in anti-nutritional elements compared to soya. “Insects are rich in protein, energy, and lipids, and, unlike plant ingredients, are poor in fibre and anti-nutritional factors,” according to a 2015 study2: Even so, after many years of using soya as a protein source for feed, the anti-nutritional characteristics are well-known and accounted for in animal feed formulations used around the globe. This can make replacement with new sources such as insects a complicated and costly business.

 
Mavromichalis explains that, given enough time and expertise, the industry can learn to use other sources of protein, but it will require investment. “While replacement with other protein sources is possible, it cannot be achieved at a break-even cost compared to soya. I think the issue of cost is the major hurdle, not the nutritional aspect,” he concludes.

 
 

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Politics and legislation pose challenges
Cost is not the only challenge to new alternative protein sources in animal feed. If insect protein production is to take off, legislation will need to catch up. For instance, EU legislation bans the use of proteins derived from farmed animals for use in feed for ruminant and monogastric animals. Commonly known as the EU ‘feed ban’, the legislation was introduced in reaction to the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis. 

 

On the other hand, concerns about issues such as the Amazon deforestation in connection with soya production and the strain on marine resources used in fish meal feed could weigh in favour of protein alternatives on the political playing field.

 

Aqua feed leading the way
With work clearly still to be done to bring insect protein into mainstream animal feed production, the price, availability and familiarity of soya is likely to keep it at number one as a protein source for some time to come. The exception could be for aquafeed for a number of reasons.

 
Legislation is coming into place. In July 2017, the use of insect proteins in aqua feed was authorised in Europe and according to the IPIFF, more than 5,000 tonnes of insects have subsequently been produced in the EU for fish production.

 
From a nutritional point of view, the anti-nutritional aspects of soya have complicated the use of soya as the ubiquitous protein source3 for aqua feed requiring the development of so-called protein isolate to provide an answer4. Insects can turn out to be the cheapest animal protein available.

 
Even more importantly, as the rising global population creates a seemingly infinite demand for fish, insect protein can hopefully alleviate pressure on finite and already hard-pressed marine resources currently used for fishmeal.

 

And hopefully, the learnings from the aquafeed industry can help pave the way for insects as a cost-efficient and sustainable protein sources in other branches of the feed industry.

 

 

References

1. https://ipiff.org/
2. Tran, G., V. Heuzé, and H. P. S. Makkar. "Insects in fish diets." Animal frontiers 5.2 (2015): 37-44.).
3. The Sustainability Conundrum of Fishmeal Substitution by Plant Ingredients in Shrimp Feeds Sustainability 2019, 11(4), 1212; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11041212
4. Effects of Replacement of Fish Meal by Soy Protein Isolate on the Growth, Digestive Enzyme Activity and Serum Biochemical Parameters for Juvenile Amur Sturgeon, asia-Australian Journal of Animal Sciences 012 Nov; 25(11): 1588–1594. doi: 10.5713/ajas.2012.12192

 
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