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Will The Cows Of The Future Be Fed On Bugs?

As world meat consumption increases, the world keeps using more and more land just to grow food for our livestock. What if they could eat bugs instead?

Will The Cows Of The Future Be Fed On Bugs?
[Top Photo: Egon Zitter via Shutterstock]

Most farmland isn’t growing food that people will eat. Instead, most farms–taking up around 30% of total land on the planet–are used to grow crops that feed livestock. A new project looks at an alternative: What if we fed chickens and pigs with bugs rather than land-intensive soy or corn?

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Insects can be raised using a tiny fraction of the space and resources of crops in a field, and they’re full of protein. So a large European study is analyzing whether bugs are a viable alternative for future farming.

“If soy takes two or three months to grow, you can grow fly larvae in two or three days,” says Elaine Fitches, project coordinator for PROteINSECT, the European Commission-funded study. “The turnover is much quicker, and you don’t need vast areas of land.”

Sathaporn Sumarai via Shutterstock

As the world population grows, and more people can afford to eat meat more often, total meat consumption is expected to roughly double by 2050. “This is an issue for food security,” says Fitches. “You’ve got the population growing and eating more meat globally, particularly in areas like China, and countries that are becoming more developed.

In China alone, people are eating around 25% more meat than they did in 2003, and will eat another 25% more in the next decade. Land the size of Oregon will be needed to grow enough grains and soy for feed to meet demand.

In Europe, most soy is imported, but bugs could be raised locally. In other parts of the world, growing livestock feed is one of the leading causes of deforestation and habitat loss. It’s also part of the reason for meat’s massive carbon footprint.

Insect feed probably wouldn’t work for every animal. But it’s a logical food for chickens–who already naturally eat bugs–along with some types of fish and pigs. For the PROteINSECT project, the biggest challenge is trying to figure out if using insects as feed is safe. They’re focusing on how fly larvae can be raised.

“What we’re looking at is what we call almost the worst case scenario in terms of potential food safety issues, which is growing them on animal manure,” says Fitches. “Manure could carry veterinary meds, bacteria, viruses. We’ve analyzed for PCBs, dioxins, pesticides…” Most startups in the space are raising insects on food scraps from processing–something much less risky–but the project wanted to test the most dangerous possibility.

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They’re also helping regulators better understand how a new bug-feed system could work. “One of the issues that the regulation people have is that they don’t know what the risks are,” she says. “So until they can identify the risks, and look at how those risks can be mitigated, then they can’t move forward with the regulations.”

The project is also looking at whether consumers in Europe, Africa, and China would be willing to eat meat if they knew the livestock had been fed bugs. So far, the answer seems to be yes, and it’s still an easier sell than asking people to eat bugs themselves. “it seems that the attitude’s quite positive,” she says. “I guess because people can see that food security’s an issue, and that sustainable protein production is a good thing.”

Several startups around the world are already beginning to plan for a bug-filled future, like Enviroflight in the U.S. or Entofood in Malaysia. For now, they’re still waiting for approval before bugs end up in meat production. Enviroflight expects to submit tests to U.S. regulators early in 2016.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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