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Insect Protein: Is it a Viable Alternative for Pet and Livestock Food?

Are the advantages of insect protein in pet food sufficient to overcome the headwinds to large-scale bug farming in the United States?

by Ken Tudor, D.V.M.

In the not-so-distant future, pet stores may begin carrying bags of “Grasshopper and Rice" or “Mealworm and Potato" pet foods on their shelves. Food suppliers for poultry and fish-farming producers may offer “Chick Cricket Meal" or “Fry Fly Meal." Population growth, climate change and agricultural, fishing and hunting methods are having a great impact on the worldwide protein supply. The move to feed our pets the same as ourselves is also adding even greater demand for protein. A sustainable and nutritional solution being considered is the use of insects as a protein source for pet food and certain livestock.

Insects have long been part of the natural diet of some pets and livestock. Cats and dogs are known to hunt and eat insects. Bugs are a significant food source for small wild cats, as it was with their ancestors. Insects are also a major food source for chickens and fish, so feeds containing insects are quite logical.

But are the advantages of insect protein sufficient to overcome the headwinds to large-scale insect farming in the United States? What might be the future role of insect protein in pet and livestock food?

The Case for Insect Protein in Foods

Although still a niche market in America, there is a growing demand for insect protein—for both human and pet consumption. This pales to entomophagy (a.k.a. insect eating) worldwide, where nearly one-third of the global human population includes insects as part of the daily diet. Insects, particularly mealworms, regularly provide non-U.S. populations protein and omega-3 fatty acids comparable to the amounts found in meat and fish.

Other sources for protein and omega-3 fatty acids are plentiful in the United States, so marketing for insect products here is primarily targeted at human sensitivity to environmental concerns and sustainable agricultural practices. And the case is compelling.

Insect farming is much more efficient and sustainable. Most insects can be raised using waste from slaughter plants, grain mills, food processing plants and restaurants. Raising livestock requires much greater resources. It is estimated that 70 percent of grains and cereals produced are fed to livestock. It is also estimated that each pound of meat requires 2,400 gallons of water.

Insects are very efficient in food conversion. Crickets require only one-half pound of food to produce 1 pound of body weight. It takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef, 10 pounds to produce 1 pound of pork and 5 pounds to produce 1 pound of fish and chicken. Eighty percent of a cricket’s body is edible, compared to only 55 percent of the body of poultry and pork, and 40 percent of the body of cattle.

Thirty percent of the world land mass is presently used to graze or raise food for livestock. Insect farming requires far less land use. The farms themselves can be contained in relatively small facilities.

• Insects emit fewer greenhouse gases and ammonia than livestock, making insect farms much more environmentally friendly.

Worldwide, an estimated 1,900 species of insects are considered edible. They inhabit a wide variety of climates. Such biodiversity and environmental flexibility makes insect farming much less restrictive than raising livestock. Large buildings with controlled environments are also possible. This allows production in urban industrial sites with local access to an ample supply of food waste. The farms could be conjoined to pet and livestock food manufacturing facilities and reduce transportation costs.

Other major concerns such as animal welfare and diseases of livestock that can be transferred to humans are unlikely with insect farming.

Many species of edible insects naturally cluster in large groups. This eliminates animal welfare concerns that are common with farming practices of livestock. Little is known about the pain perception of insects. This, combined with an indifferent or disgusting attitude toward insects, is unlikely to evoke public concern regarding the methods of killing insects.

Livestock harbor diseases that are contagious to humans. Zoonotic diseases including bird flu, West Nile virus and mad cow disease have caused widespread epidemics in many parts of the world, including the United States. Such zoonotic-disease potential is unlikely with insect farming. Insects are more distantly related to humans than mammals, and they are cold-blooded. This makes the adaptation of zoonotic diseases in insects difficult.

Headwinds for Insect Protein

Despite the compelling case for feeding pets and livestock insect protein, there are significant headwinds for their widespread use.

1. Is sustainability a powerful-enough marketing strategy?

Is the population of those concerned about the environment and sustainability enough to create a market demand that would make capital investment in large-scale, insect-farming facilities profitable? And if it were, what about the compromises that environmentally sensitive individuals make in their private lives? Most do not drive a hybrid Prius, but an ordinary combustion engine car. Would they make the similar moral exception for their pet’s food?

2. Overcoming the “Yuck" Factor

Entomophagy is disgusting to most Westerners, even for their pets. Are there unique nutritional advantages of insect protein sufficient to overcome the “yuck" factor? Analysis of insect nutritional value does not show it to be superior with the same variability of amino and fatty acid profile as found in different livestock meats. Without a compelling nutritional advantage, why would consumers overcome their “yuck" and welcome insect protein for their pets and the livestock they eat?

3. Quality Demands of Consumers

The economics of insect farming will hinge on feeding waste from human food processing plants and restaurants. But demands for “organic" and “GMO (genetically modified organism)-free" will present barriers. How do you raise an organic, GMO-free bug? Collect waste only from processing plants and restaurants that are also organic or GMO-free? How do you guarantee such quality? And what about potential contamination with toxins and heavy metals where food waste shares containers with other waste? Similar to the present fear of mercury toxicity in tuna, insects could become the initial step in the food chain for heavy metal accumulation in pets and livestock. And from livestock, eventual accumulation in humans! The alternative would be to turn to grains—which are less sustainable, difficult to grow organically on a large scale and the most intensely genetically modified.

4. Labor Costs

Large-scale insect farming presently exists in China and other Eastern developing countries. This puts them close to the biggest markets for insects and a cheap labor supply for production. U.S. wages would make farming as done presently prohibitively expensive. Certainly robotic, mechanized systems would be the norm here. That could create a significant headwind.

5. Hazards of Mechanization

Most certainly, insect farming in the United States will be mechanized, probably heavily reliant on stainless steel to ensure sanitation and on conveyors with steel belts, chains and gears. Mechanized conveyors create metallic dust and need lubrication with petroleum products. This puts insects in direct exposure to heavy metal and petroleum additives. In other words, the same food chain contamination mentioned earlier. Can these challenges be mitigated economically?

6. Regulatory Blessing

The wheels at the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) grind slowly. Although lacking enforcement powers, the group is responsible for defining and recommending what is and is not allowed in pet and livestock food. Regulatory agencies use these guidelines for enforcement. It takes years of discussions and hearings for the smallest changes to AAFCO policies (it has taken more than a decade to require calorie information be displayed on labels of pet food). Support for livestock feed may enjoy greater backing and a quicker response. However, until there are reams of research on digestibility and the bioavailability of insect protein for pet species, approval is unlikely. Precious little research is presently available about insect protein quality and digestibility among animal species. Potential insect producers may have to sponsor research to move the process along.

With continued increases in the world population and pet owners’ desires to feed animal companions similar to themselves, nutritional resources are dwindling. Alternative protein sources need to be considered. The evolutionary success of insects and their incredible ability to quickly adapt makes them a viable potential protein ingredient.

In the past six months alone, I have been approached for information by three different groups in the beginning stages of planning and/or testing insect protein-based pet products. Some are already soliciting venture capital for major manufacturing investment.

There is little question that insect protein will be available at a future time. The greater question concerns the potential for the market. Will it be a major player with many participants, or a minor or intermediate source with limited players and opportunities? Which industry, pet or livestock, presents the greatest potential? The first entrants that calculate correctly may benefit tremendously.

Editor's Note: For a free Report with more information on protein in dog food, click the colored text link.

A recognized expert and leader in pet nutrition, veterinarian Ken Tudor has written more than 200 articles on the subject. He also has a featured weekly blog on petMD, is published in major veterinary journals and is a frequent guest expert online. He is the founder and CEO of Hearthstone Homemade, a recipe and supplement program for pet parents wishing to feed nutritious homemade dog food.

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