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Alternative proteins: Insects as a Nutritious and Sustainable Feed

Insects are able to recover nutrients from organic residues and bring them back into the food value chain, thereby contributing to a circular economy. Today, this sustainable solution is not only feasible – it can be realized on a large scale and in a very efficient way. 

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Mariana Nieto de León
Junior Product Manager
Bühler Insect Technology Solutions

Nine billion people are expected to live on our planet by 2050. To feed them all, we will need more than 250 million metric tons of additional protein a year – that is an increase of 50% compared to today. Providing this growing global population with protein requires new and innovative approaches as existing sources are overused and expanding them is problematic for the environment.

Added to the population challenge is the fact that we don’t use the food we produce very efficiently. Roughly one-third of the food intended for human consumption is lost or wasted every year. This accounts for approximately 1.3 billion metric tons of food that never reaches our tables. This is not only a loss of valuable nutritional resources, but also a challenge in terms of disposal. In many regions, landfill or incineration are the prevalent solutions for dealing with food waste, and they come with their own problems. There is an ongoing quest for new and efficient technologies to better deal with organic waste.

Insects offer a unique opportunity to address both challenges: protein supply and organic waste disposal. They are rich in protein, their production require little amount of energy and water, they don’t need much space to grow, they feed on underutilized food streams, and, for many animals, they are part of their natural diet. They are also excellent recyclers, able to recover up to 70% percent of nutrients that are otherwise lost and they bring them back into the food value chain, and they can be produced almost anywhere, as they do not need fertile land to reproduce.

For several years, Bühler has been researching and looking at opportunities to utilize insect protein for animal feed. Within that work, it was clearly identified that this young industry needs dedicated process technologies on industrial scale. In 2015 Bühler’s Chief Technology Officer Ian Roberts and Kees Aarts, the founder of Protix – a leading insect-production company based in the Netherlands – met for the first time. In early 2017, the joint venture Bühler Insect Technology Solutions (BITS) was established, combining Protix’s biological and genetic know-how on insect breeding and processing with Bühler’s global customer access, competent engineering resources and experience in project management. This synergy made it possible that the joint venture is now able to provide total solutions on large scale. The modular and automated systems enable the industrial-scale transformation of organic residues into high-quality products such as protein and lipids for animal feed applications as well as fertilizer suitable for agricultural and horticultural use. As a technology provider, BITS can help its clients to establish an industrial insect production in a timely manner.

An insect plant consists of the following three main sections:
1. feedstock preparation, which converts organic residues into a safe, nutritious feed for the larvae
2. rearing, in which the larvae are fed and grown
3. processing, which separates larvae into end products

According to Arcluster, insect feed market is predicted to top $1bn by 2022. In the past year, there have been more than 200m US$ of investments into the insect sector. Rising meat consumption, increased costs of protein sources, potential health and growth benefits and an increased focus on sustainability are all strong indicators for the expansion of insect-based products. According to ArcCluster, insect feed market is predicted to top $1bn by 2022. By 2050 it is anticipated that insects could provide 15% of the additional protein that will be needed by then.

On the short term, the animal feed sector is seen to have the biggest potential. Today about two thirds of the primary proteins go to animal feed and only one third is directly ending up on our plates. Several potential customers have already approached the company. They are interested in protein meal and the lipids that can be produced from insects, or they are looking for a better use of their organic by-products.

Black soldier fly larvae can be farmed on large variety of organic waste. Some examples of these residues include brewers spent grains, distillers’ grains, wheat/rice bran, bakery residues, fruits and vegetable discards, dairy residues, supermarket or kitchen waste, among others. The larvae then become a high-value nutrients source for animal feed.

Replacing feed ingredients with insects is not only more sustainable but also more efficient. Trials and studies have shown functional benefits of insect products such as faster growth and fewer diseases in some livestock species. Protein meal, for example has a balanced amino acid profile with very good palatability and digestibility, making it a very good protein source in aquaculture, which is the fastest-growing agricultural segment in the world. But also the pet food market offers great opportunities for insect protein. Insect lipids are high in lauric acid, a fatty acid that offers easy digestible energy and has antimicrobial activity. Therefore it is often used in feed formulations for young animals. Insect fertilizer, composed of the natural by-products of the larvae processing, has slow nutrient release over time with chitin as functional component that promotes plant growth and therefore can contribute to keep our soils healthy.

Bühler Insect Technology Solutions is currently building the world’s largest industrial insect-processing plant, while establishing a network of partners and a fully functioning supply chain. The engineering teams in China, Switzerland and the Netherlands are working on the facility at full-pace. Automation teams are creating completely new control systems based on Bühler’s state of the art, which will serve as a basis for all other systems of this kind. As a pioneer in the insect processing industry, it aims to participate actively in the definition of standards in terms of technology and production methods as well as to drive forward advances in productivity and food and feed safety.

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