Buhler Protix
Bühler Insect Technology Solutions is located in Liyang, China, and already has begun operations. 
Photo courtesy of Bühler.
With global protein consumption at an all-time high and expected to continue its upward trek over the next several decades, the food industry is looking at creative, alternative sources to meet this demand, including pulses, algae and insects. That’s right, those annoying protein-rich pests that are unwelcome intruders in food processing facilities such as flour mills worldwide likely will be an important ingredient in the animal feed supply in the coming years.

While the thought of consuming a product containing insect protein may seem revolting to people in some parts of the world, particularly Western countries such as the United States, it has been accepted practice in other places such as China, which has for many years produced insect-fed poultry and fish. In some parts of Asia insects are even consumed directly as food, but it’s hard to imagine crickets or houseflies becoming a sought-after cuisine in developed western countries anytime soon.

In terms of its application as a protein source in animal feed, two game-changing events occurred recently that may transform it from being a regional practice into a more global one. In December 2016, the E.U. Commission voted to allow insect-derived protein into the aquaculture feed market. This went into effect on July 1, 2017. Shortly after the E.U. Commission’s announcement, in January 2017, Bühler, a leading grain and feed milling equipment manufacturer based in Switzerland, and Netherlands-based Protix announced a joint venture called Bühler Insect Technology to serve the insect processing industry. The companies recently announced plans to build the largest insect-processing plant on an industrial scale in Europe. The facility in the Netherlands will process black soldier flies and is scheduled to be operational in early 2018.

Initially, the focus of the joint venture will be on the larvae from the black soldier fly, nicknamed the “queen of waste transformation” for its impressive ability to transform organic waste products into high-quality protein. It eventually may expand into processing other insects for protein and lipids. That a company like Bühler, a recognized market leader in milling, which is one of the key steps in extracting protein from insects, is willing to invest in this joint venture speaks volumes about its potential. With meat consumption forecast to increase by 50% by the year 2050, Bühler calculates that the world will need an additional 265 million tonnes of protein each year to feed the world’s population. It says the looming protein gap could be partially offset by eliminating losses in the food value chain and increasing use of vegetable proteins, but that will not be enough. Bühler believes that by 2050, insects could account for 15% of global protein production.

Will insect-based protein become a significant force in the feed industry in the coming decade? My guess is yes. From a sustainability standpoint, growing insects requires a negligible investment of capital and land. Soybeans, on the other hand, which are currently the dominant source of protein in animal feed, require a great deal of land, water and labor. However, much like the hardline stance that’s been taken by consumers against GMO crops in places like Europe and Japan because of food safety concerns, there undoubtedly will be resistance to eating meat coming from animals that have been fed insects, which in some cultures are viewed as unsanitary. As it also has shown potential as a new source for producing biodiesel, it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, insect processing will have on the market for soybeans, the leading raw material in animal feed and biodiesel production today.

In a world where the number of mouths to feed is increasing and natural resources, including arable land, are dwindling, it only makes sense to explore using insects as an alternative protein source for animal feed.