Insect farming to improve sustainability in the agri-food sector: the FLIES4VALUE project
Insect farming and sustainability challenges
According to FAO, by 2050 human world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion; meat/fish consumption is set to increase by 50-76%; consumption of feed by farmed animals will increase by 70%; the availability of feed materials will decrease and their price will increase; the land area will not be enough to sustain all the livestock. Therefore, the demand for protein and lipid sources is huge and sustainable solutions are urgently needed to cope also with the climate emergency.
On the other side, about 1/4 to 1/3 of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted along the entire supply chain, from agricultural production to processing, distribution, retail up to food services and households. Besides being a serious threat to food security and a clear example of very inefficient use of resources, biowaste management also represents a big issue. In the food recovery hierarchy, many steps should be taken to empower people to better manage food in restaurants and households. Some industrial uses and composting are currently being implemented. However, are there sustainable alternatives that allow a real valorization of the heterogeneous agrifood side streams?
Nature makes no waste. Any type of organic substrate is used as a food source by some heterotrophic organisms. Among insects, flies are the most efficient scavengers, specializing in thriving on all kinds of decaying material. Fly larvae are excellent bio converters, able to quickly and efficiently transform large quantities of organic substrates into biomass rich in proteins, lipids and chitin, useful for various industrial purposes. In addition, being rich in plant nutrients and bio-stimulants, the frass can be used in agriculture.
Compared to the traditionally bred animals, insect farming is much more sustainable. Insects have a much higher feed conversion rate and edible share, and rearing insects means much lower global warming potential, water footprint, land and energy use. Importantly, insects provide high-quality nutrients, antioxidants and other bioactive compounds that can benefit animal and human health.
Italy: a case study
At UNIMORE, the interdepartmental centre BIOGEST-SITEIA, in collaboration with other laboratories of the Emilia Romagna high technology network, is working to exploit the potential of insect decomposers in applied research projects with a view to a circular economy. In ValoriBIO, we identified the operating conditions for the sustainable valorization of chicken manure by optimizing the growth of black soldier fly (BSF) larvae (Hermetia illucens) and by assessing the soil amendment properties of the larval frass. The proteins extracted from BSF prepupae were used for the production of biodegradable biopolymers.
In FLIES4VALUE, BSF larvae are raised on a mix of by-products from vegetable and dairy supply chains, specially optimized to maximize larval yield and carotenoid pigment content (Fig. 1). An integrated pilot plant is created for mass production, suppression and functional stabilization of BSF larvae, making them readily available for feed use. The feed obtained, in addition to proteins and lipids, provides the hens' natural pigments ideal for obtaining eggs with intensely coloured yolk, thus reducing the use of synthetic pigments, which are expensive and have a negative impact on the health of the hens. The parameters of BSF larvae fed hens and the quality of the eggs are being evaluated. Furthermore, through biorefinery processes of the larval biomass, high added value compounds and extracts with high enzymatic activity, of great interest for the food/feed industry, will be obtained. To maximize the exploitation of resources in a circular economy perspective, the frass is used as a soil improver for crops and is being evaluated for the potential of biomethanation. The environmental/economic impacts of the system are quantified to assess its regional industrial feasibility. Regarding social acceptance, according to the survey carried out as part of the project, the idea of eating eggs obtained from hens fed with insect-based feed is welcomed by Italians (Fig. 2).
It is worth mentioning that the industrial applicability of research projects on insects as bio converters is currently limited in the European Union, due to specific regulatory issues that prevent the use of manure and any substrate formally recognized as “waste” as feed for animals (and farmed insects are subjected to this rule as well) (Regulation (EC) No 999/2001; Regulation (EC) No 767/2009) and, on the other side, restrict the use of the insects’ protein fraction only for pet food and fish farming (Commission Regulation (EU) 2017/893). However, the good news is on its way, as the EU Commission authorisation on the use of insects processed animal proteins (PAPs) in feed for monogastric animals (i.e. poultry and swine) is upcoming (expected in October 2021).
Insect farming is a key step on the path to improving sustainability in the agri-food sector and this change in the regulation will help reduce the EU protein deficit and thus improve the sustainability and competitiveness of the European livestock sector.