By: Martin Zorrilla – Director of Research & Development, and Nada Dhaoi – Nutrition Manager Nutrition Technologies Sdn Bhd *
Insect protein has taken center stage in the search of alternative proteins in animal feed. The novel insect-protein industry has scaled production in recent years, with a growing number of new companies appearing in Southeast Asia. Insect production offers the region an opportunity to decrease import-dependence while supporting local aquaculture producers with a price stable product. Meanwhile a growing body of evidence from commercial and academic trials illustrate that insect protein is a viable fishmeal replacement in carnivorous fish diets and in many cases results in improved immune response and gut health outcomes.
Over the past decade the feed industry has changed its perspective on insects. Insects in general were considered a pest or a nuisance at best, now they are seen as a pivotal ingredient that can transform the feed supply chain.
This change in thinking starts with the intuitive knowledge that insects are a major part of the diets of aquaculture species in the wild. That intuition is backed up by science, over a decade of careful trialing has demonstrated that insect protein is both highly digestible and palatable in the diets of numerous farmed species, from Salmon to Barramundi.
“Along with the science a growing cohort of growth-stage companies have emerged to transform insect production from lab scale to commercial scale manufacturing. Aqua feeds containing insect protein, although at low inclusion rates, are now available on the market and major players in the feed industry have dedicated teams working on securing supply.”
This year the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) announced that its 64 member companies alone had produced a total of 6,000 tons of insect protein in 2019.
While these numbers are still small compared to conventional commodities – most insect companies are now bringing their first commercial facilities online, marking the start of aggressive expansion.
Insect producers have attempted to mass-produce several species, including; mealworm, fruit flies and locusts, however the majority have focused their efforts on one particular species – the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens).
“The Black Soldier Fly (BSF) stands out among the world’s 120,000 fly species due to several key traits: they do not need to feed as adults so they accumulate protein and fat in their larval stage, they can feed on a remarkable range of organic material, and they produce large numbers of offspring (600-900 per female).”
Because of this BSF can be easily bred, fed on a range of organic materials and easily processed into nutrient dense products. Crucially BSF are a beneficial species: they are not-pests, they do not transmit diseases and are not attracted to human dwellings or food.
Taking Flight in Asia
The majority of insect protein companies are based in Europe, where the environmental sustainability of the industry has been welcomed by investors and regulators alike. However, Asia, Southeast Asia in particular, has been home to the second wave of innovation and development in the insect industry.
This is because the region is ideally suited to be a center of insect protein production as well as consumption. The insect of choice, the Black Soldier Fly, is tropical in origin and therefore performs well in the tropical countries of Southeast Asia.
“The region also allows for low operating costs and proximity to the factory-grade food by-products needed as insect feed. Asia accounts for no less than 50% of the lost nutrition in food the global food supply chain, much of it from the industrial food processing that can be used for insect production.”
Yet agricultural production in the region is limited compared to its growing population, creating an import-dependence problem that insect protein can help to solve. It is estimated that by 2030 Asia will be home to almost half of the global population but contain only one-quarter of the world’s agricultural land.
This has contributed to a reliance on imported feed ingredients like fishmeal and soybean meal, both of which are mostly imported from South America, to support growing livestock and aquaculture industries.
Over the past decade dependence on imported material has grown to 75-80% in aqua feed for countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. In 2017 Chinese demand for protein ingredients grew by 7% while its soybean meal production actually fell by 1.5%.
Meanwhile government-led efforts to incentivize corn and soy production in countries like Indonesia have not succeeded in creating a meaningful domestic supply. Most Asian countries lack the large tracts of farmland required for soybean production, and the region’s already depleted fisheries means that fishmeal production can only decrease.
In this context insect protein can play a crucial role as a scalable local supply of protein to support the continued growth of the aquaculture industry in Southeast Asian countries. Indeed a growing cohort of insects-as-feed companies have chosen to open or move to Asian countries.
The Bangkok-based Asian Food And Feed Insect Association (AFFIA) includes 12 members that are producing insects for animal feed. As the fledgling industry scales up it may present the region with a way to lower import-dependence as well as production costs.
“Our company, Nutrition Technologies, has always seen Southeast Asia as the epicenter of the insect protein industry. Founded in 2014, Nutrition Technologies operates in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam with further regional expansion in the works.”
Our production is currently centralized in Johor (Malaysia), where we operate factories producing a high quality protein meal (Hi. Protein®), oil (Hi.Oil®) and frass (Hi.Frass®) from Black Soldier Fly Larvae. These larvae are reared on agricultural and food-processing byproducts in a vertical farming system that ensures product safety and traceability.
The larvae undergo only 7 days of high-growth rearing after which they are processed into protein meal and oil. Within Malaysia our product represents one of the only locally produced protein ingredients suitable for use in Aquaculture.
The scalability of the system means that we can substantially reduce the dependence on imported protein ingredients in countries like Malaysia without requiring large tracts of land to do so. Our facility in Johor Bahru can produce more protein in one square meter than a hectare of soybeans can yield in the same amount of time.
Applications in Aqua feed Insect protein has emerged as a clear front-runner in the race to develop alternative proteins for aquaculture feed. The reason for this has always centered on its ability to replace fishmeal. Unlike plant-based alternatives insect protein is both highly palatable and highly digestible for carnivorous species.
However, as a natural food source that many aquaculture species have evolved to eat, insect protein has a much greater role to play than as a protein source alone. Recent research has demonstrated a range of beneficial effects on aquaculture species when insect protein in used in feed, including positive changes in micro biota and gut health.
A growing body of research has demonstrated that insect meal as an alternative aqua feed ingredient in aquaculture seems to be promising both at technical-productive level and at consumer acceptance level. The evidence in favor of insect protein comes both from academic and commercial trials.
“Black soldier fly protein meal has been tested in commercial salmon feed produced by Skretting Norway and was first tested by Nordlaks in 2018, where fish showed the same growth performance when fed on BSFL protein as with traditional protein sources. In 2019, Le Gouessant Aquaculture and a European insect company succeeded in 100% fishmeal substitution with insect protein in rainbow trout feed without negative effects.”
While insect protein has been shown to have a suite of potential roles in aqua feed, most academic studies have focused on its potential as a fishmeal replacement. Belghit et al. (2019) investigated the use of partially defatted BSFL meal used in total substitution of fishmeal (FM) in the diet of Atlantic salmon.
The authors found that a 100% replacement of FM by BSFL meal was possible without negative effects on growth performance, feed utilization, nutrient digestibility, liver traits or the sensory qualities of the fillet. Insect meal has also been proved to be a relevant protein source in shrimp diets.
Renna et al. (2017) showed that a partially defatted BSFL meal can substitute 50% FM in rainbow trout diets without impacting growth performance. Many other studies investigating BSFL meal in different fish species have demonstrated its relevance as a FM replacement (as shown in Figure 1).
When considering alternative protein ingredients, digestibility is often a sticking point. Yet insect protein does not appear to have this issue, with several studies showing that insect protein has digestibility levels comparable to fishmeal and certainly higher than animal protein sources such as feather meal and meat and bone meal.
High apparent digestibility coefficient of protein (up to 90%) of BSFL meal has been demonstrated when replacing FM in rainbow trout, Terova et al. (2019).
“A recent study has been conducted by Lin and coauthors (2004) who found the apparent digestibility coefficient of protein comparable to that of fishmeal when fed to orangespotted grouper. A landmark study by Belghit and co-authors from the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, found that inclusion of BSFL meal in Atlantic salmon diet had no effect on AA digestibility compared to control diets with fishmeal.”
In a trial with European seabass, Magalhaesa and coauthors (2017) found that arginine, histidine and valine digestibility actually increased in diets containing BSFL meal. The results above demonstrate that the residual presence of chitin in insect based diets and which is hardly digested by many fish species doesn’t have a huge impact on insect digestibility.
Terova et al. (2019) reported that insect meal (BSFL meal) positively modifies trout gut microbiota not only by increasing the amount of beneficial lactic acid and butyrate-producing bacteria but also by increasing Actinobacteria which are often identified as chitin degraders.
However, insect protein is much more potential than as a highly digestible fishmeal replacement. Evidence is growing that insect products improve immune response and modulate fish microbiota. Some of the most exciting research has been in shrimp, where insect meal has been shown to increase resistance to disease and improve immunity.
Motte et al. (2019) reported that shrimp fed diets in which FM was replaced by mealworm meal showed a lower mortality rate than those who received diets including only FM after a challenge with Vibrio.
“The treatment from this study with a 50% FM replacement with insect protein resulted in a 76.9% lower mortality rate than the control diet, suggesting that insect meal could have immuno-stimulating benefits.”
The immunological benefits of insect though to be related to their chitin content, which has been found to be an immuno-stimulant for both shrimp and fish. Besides chitin, insect meal and BSFL meal, in particular, is rich in lauric acid, a mediumchain fatty acid with antimicrobial properties.
It will be some time before insect protein shows up in every aqua feed product ingredient list. But the question is increasingly when and not if it will do so. With production on the rise, companies in the feed industry are increasingly playing an active role to support the new industry and its promise of an environmentally friendly price-stable alternative to conventional ingredients.
Ultimately insect protein has many contributions to make not only to feed companies and end users but also to the countries where production occurs.
For further information, visit: www.nutrition-technologies.com