In Europe the main source of protein for poultry feed is from soybean, mostly imported from Brazil. The demand for meat and eggs is increasing, and there is a growing need to secure a reliable and environmentally sustainable protein source. Insects are a natural part of the diet for poultry, and an excellent source of essential amino acids and a range of micro-nutrients. We have seen huge improvements in insect rearing and processing, and in our understanding of feed nutrition, so are insects truly now a feasible option for Europe?
Poultry production is generally considered to be more efficient and less environmentally damaging than ruminant livestock farming, and it is going to play a key role in feeding the ever growing human population. This will also mean feeding larger numbers of chickens, turkeys, and other poultry, which are already counted in the billions globally each year. By increasing the diversity of feed inputs, poultry producers can reduce the risks associated with any single supply chain and reduce their ecological footprint.
The ban on animal protein in livestock feed following the BSE crisis in 1996 remains in force, and this extends to insect proteins. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opinion paper published in October 2015 concluded that any risks associated with insects in human food supply chains are comparable with current mainstream livestock sources, but this would depend on how the insects themselves are reared. Legal changes have already been made for fishmeal to be used in poultry feed, and many believe that a further amendment, allowing insects to be used as feed, is on the cards.
A lot more research is needed to address an overall lack of knowledge in this area. While there have been studies showing the benefits of insects in livestock feed, we need to build on this to reflect the potential impact a change on this scale could have. There is a lot of work to be done to ensure ingredients will be safe, legal, publicly accepted, and sustainable. There are challenges ahead, such as the lack of legislative clarity, questions over the scalability of insect production, and whether consumers will accept such changes in poultry production. So far the information we have is promising, and suggests that insects could make a useful contribution within poultry production as part of the feed supply chain.
Are insects a feasible option for helping to secure our livestock feed supply chains? Perhaps we are not quite there yet, but the day when ‘insect fed’ chickens are sold alongside corn fed may not be as far away as you’d imagined.