Insect Farming: Growing Bugs for Protein

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the world will have to increase food production by more than 60 percent by 2050 in order to secure enough food for the estimated more than 9 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by then. Animal-based protein production is expected to increase along with this increase.

The ecological footprint of the production of animal proteins already is huge and a major contributor to the growth in greenhouse gases. Already, 70% of agricultural land and 30% of all land on earth are utilized to raise animals.

Insects can be mass produced with much lower utilization levels of land, water, fertilizer, pesticide, feed, energy, and other resources. These efficiencies have benefits toward reducing climate change and the destruction of biodiversity and the natural environment.

This leads to the  question if it makes senses to supply parts of that animal-based protein with insects, which have a much smaller impact on the environment.

In order for insects to play an appreciable part in the global food supply in the future, they can’t just be harvested in the wild – they need to be commercially farmed at a large scale.

What is Insect Farming?

Insect farming is the process of rearing and harvesting insects as mini-livestock in a designated area (i.e. a farm) by controlling the insects’ living conditions, diet and food quality. Insect farms raise insects for human consumption, animal feed, or used as feedstock for other products such as wax, honey, silk, or dyes.

Insect farming is different from insect harvesting. Humans have collected insects  in the wild for millennia as a natural resource and even semi-cultivated them by manipulating their habitats or developing efficient tools to collect them. Palm weevil larvae in the Amazon Basin, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and tropical Africa, caterpillars in sub-Saharan Africa, bamboo caterpillars in Thailand, eggs of aquatic Hemiptera in Mexico and termites in sub-Saharan Africa are all examples of semi-cultivated insects, the habitats of which are manipulated to a greater or lesser degree.

In contrast, insect farming involves breeding and growing insects in captivity and keeping them isolated from their wild populations.

Why Farm Insects?

Rising incomes and rapid urbanization in developing countries, particularly in Asia, are creating shifts in the composition of global food demand. Wealth is a major determinant in particular in the increase in global meat consumption. For instance, per capita meat consumption in China is expected to rise almost 50% by 2030 (from 49 kg per capita in 2000). This will also increase the demand for grain as feed for livestock as demands for grain and protein-rich feeds are closely related to meat consumption: For every kilogram of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed approximately 6 kg of plant protein.

This wealth-driven demand growth, combined with an overall growth of the world’s population and limited space for agricultural use, will also increase food and feed prices and will prompt the search for alternative protein sources, e.g., cultured meat, seaweed, vegetables and fungi, and mini-livestock (which includes insects).

Whether produced as animal feed or human food, insects compare favorably to other animal protein sources. However, if insects are to become a profitable dietary component for humans, large quantities of insects need to be safely produced on a continuous basis. This means that both insect farming and insect processing need to be highly automated.

conversion rates for animal food
Amount of land, feed and water needed to produce 1 kg of live animal weight and percent of the animal which is edible. (Source: https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12291)

Insects being farmed as mini-livestock result in lower emissions of greenhouse gases and ammonia than the production of conventional production animals.

Research results suggest that insects produce far fewer greenhouse gases than standard large livestock and are approximately on par with chickens on a per kilogram (kg) basis. However, these values are largely dependent on the type of feed. A life-cycle assessment of a commercial cricket farm in Thailand found that cricket production had a smaller environmental footprint than did broiler chicken farms and that the largest footprint hot spots were in relation to grain feed production for both systems.

Production of carbon dioxide equivalents (EQ.) during rearing of livestock and insects
Production of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents (EQ.) during rearing of livestock and insects. . (Source: https://doi.org/10.1111/nbu.12291)

Insect Farming for Animal Feed

According to the International Feed Industry Federation, global compound animal feed production was 1.187 billion tons in 2020, that’s up from 720 million tons in 2010. Insects can supplement traditional feed sources such as soy, maize, grains and fishmeal.

black soldier flies being reared in the lab
Rearing black soldier flies for animal feed.

Insects with the largest immediate potential for large-scale feed production are larvae of the black soldier fly, the common housefly and the yellow mealworm – but other insect species are also being investigated for this purpose. Producers in China, South Africa, Spain and the United States are already rearing large quantities of flies for aquaculture and poultry feed by bioconverting organic waste.

An insect-based diet for animals such as pigs, chicken/poultry, and fish can provide essential proteins, vitamins, and nutrients for the animals. The most common insects used for animal feed are black soldier flies, house fly larvae, and mealworms.

The European Union permits seven species of bugs to be used as feed/bait for fish: black soldier flies, houseflies, mealworms, lesser mealworms, house crickets, tropical house crickets, and field crickets.

There are also insect-based pet foods for animals like common dogs and house cats. Cricket flour is one of the most common ingredients in these types of foods.

Aquaculture, or fish farming, has increased rapidly over the past half-century. It has become a popular industry due to the high demand for fish products worldwide. However, there are ethical and environmental problems associated with fish farms – including pollution from fecal matter and escapee fish. Insect farming can reduce or eliminate the negative effects of fish farms by using insects instead of larger fish to feed other animals. This could potentially decrease pollution and overfishing if insect farming was adopted on a large scale.

How Does an Insect Farm Work?

The traditional, small-scale farming of most bugs is relatively easy to manage, requires little time and few inputs, and produces outputs quickly. The guiding principle for good insect farming is to produce healthy, high-quality insects, using management practices that are sustainable from economic, social and environmental perspectives.

Let’s look at an example of a cricket farm in Thailand (adapted from the FAO’s Guidance on Sustainable Cricket Farming).

Cricket Farm Asset and Equipment

Large commercial cricket farms should be in rural rather than urban areas. Small-scale and micro-farms may be compatible with urban locations. Make sure that your farm is not located near industrial areas where there is a chance that air or water contamination may occur. Also, in agricultural areas, cricket farms should not be located where there is a risk of pesticide contamination from neighboring agricultural production activities.

The rearing shed should follow common good farming practices with regard to hygiene and environmental control (air flow, temperature, waste disposal). Individual pens or enclosures including water and food dispensers should be suitable for the type of insects to be raised.

New farmers need to buy eggs or larvae from other farmers in order to start their production. After the first rearing cycle of crickets, eggs can be collected for use in the farm for the second cycle, and subsequent cycles. But consideration must be given to maintaining the health and vigor of the crickets and avoiding inbreeding within the colony.

Processing and packaging should be separated from rearing facilities.

Rearing Cycle Management

Each female house cricket can lay between 1 100 and 2 400 eggs which are creamy in color and 2 to 3 mm long. Eggs take 10 to 14 days to hatch into the nymph stage. The nymphs live between 40 and 45 days after molting to become adults. The adults can live for 40 to 55 days.

life cycyle for house crickets
Life cycle of the house cricket.

Different amounts of feed and water need to be provided according to these 3 stages. High protein feed promotes growth and sexual development. Commercial or concentrate cricket feeds are now available from agribusiness feed suppliers, but many farmers still use commercial poultry or fish concentrates. Commercial cricket feed, which is used during the first 15 days, is usually 14 to 21 percent crude protein. During the 15-to-30-day growth period, the feed offered to the crickets can be a mix of green vegetables and concentrates.

Once harvested, the crickets can be bagged alive immediately and sold to buyers. More common will be a gentle cooling down until they fall into a state of hibernation and then quick freezing them to kill them.

Environmental Concerns

All intensive livestock enterprises need to consider responsible disposal of waste products generated in the course of the farming operation. Cricket farming is no different and so good cricket farming  practice includes environmentally safe disposal and recycling of waste products. The type of waste generated includes dry concentrate feed leftovers, droppings or feces produced by the crickets and liquid waste in the form of effluent from the pen cleaning process and the water used to boil the crickets post-harvest.

Farmers need to carefully guard against diseases from outside their farms. This can be done in various ways, but it essentially means establishing a system of biosecurity for the cricket farm.

Record Keeping

Record keeping is an essential tool to facilitate analyses of various management practices, production history, production efficiency and other decisions made by farmers.

Records can indicate what went right and what went wrong in a farmer’s management system. They are an important tool for the farmer as well as for advisors and government agencies.

Farmers should keep records about various processes related to the production cycle. Good records can help guide future decisions and can identify improper management practices when production problems occur, such as at the time of disease outbreaks. Good records will help cricket farmers make decisions based on past experiences and assist in planning for the future.

If you want to delve deeper into this topic, check out the Essential cricket farmers book guide: A comprehensive beginners manual to starting a healthy nutritiously rich cricket farm that can turn to a profitable insect farming business.

The Rise of Insect Farming

More than 2 000 insect species are eaten globally, but most of them are just collected from the wild. Few species are farmed and, with the exception of silkworms, farming has never been studied and optimized to an industrial level.

Insect farming for animal feed and human food is a relatively novel activity. Insect mass production is a very blooming industry which is just starting, and there is not much information available regarding mass production. The earlier pioneers in insect mass production were Singh and Moore in 1985 who edited the Handbook of Insect Rearing, which has become the basis for the industrialization of insects.

The technology needed to efficiently farm insects is still in an early commercial phase. A number of challenges and precautions need to be considered when breeding and maintaining high-quality insect populations for food and feed.

This involves techniques typically used in domestic animal breeding programs including maintaining genetically healthy populations by allowing large population sizes, artificially selecting animals for breeding that possess valuable production traits and allowing natural selection to operate and thereby maintain high fitness and facilitate adaptation to the production environment.

The other challenge is to find suitable feed substrates for large-scale insect farming. Organic side streams with a negative value, such as manure, or urban and catering waste, are of interest. There are legal considerations to be taken into account, but it should be investigated to which extent they are justified, i.e., whether chemical and biological contaminants should be considered a real problem for food safety.

Also, consideration is to be given to the various purposes for which the products from the insect industry can be used: left-over substrate as fertilizer;  the larvae/prepupae as food and feed;  edible oils in food and feed applications or oils in cosmetics, bio-lubricants, or biodiesel;  proteins in food and feed applications but also the technological applications such as bioplastics; and the chitin and chitosan in biomaterials and biomedical applications

Insect Farming Around the World

Thailand has emerged as one of the few countries with a high number of insect farms, of which the majority are cricket farms. There are close to 20,000 cricket farms in Thailand, located in 53 out of 76 provinces, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The business model that has come to be the norm is a family-owned micro-farm, also called a Small Scale Livestock Farm – SSLF.

cricket rearing in Thailand
A typical Asian smallholder rearing system for crickets.

A medium-size farm producing 500 to 750 kg of harvested crickets per cycle (each harvesting cycle is 4-5 weeks) may generate a revenue of 50,000 THB to 75,000 THB (1,650 USD to 2,500 USD) per harvest, with a profit that can reach 50%.

Thailand’s largest cricket farm, The Cricket Lab, according to their statement, is also the ‘biggest cricket farm in the world’ in terms of production capacity. Based in Chiang-Mai, Thailand, the start-up farms crickets (Acheta domesticus) using vertical farming techniques, before processing them into cricket flour for the food industry.

Another up-and-coming cricket producer in Southeast Asia is Vietnam, thought to be host to at least 200 cricket farms, some traditional, but others, like CricketOne, taking a more innovative approach. CricketOne is rearing crickets in second-hand cargo containers, and feeds the crickets mostly with agricultural by-pass products, including cassava leaves, as part of an environmentally friendly approach.

In China, insect eating is common in roughly half of the regions. Silkworms, which have been farmed for 4,000 years, represent 500,000 tons per year of fresh pupae (75% of the worldwide production). China also farms large quantities of mealworms as pet food, with very competitive prices. Aside from silkworms and mealworms, insect farming is not documented and probably less common than wild harvesting.

South Korea is famous for the consumption of silkworm pupae (locally called “Beondaegi”) and it is now expanding to crickets and other insects. Korean Edible Insect Laboratory (KEIL) recently created energy bars with mealworms among the ingredients, and a start-up named Edible Inc. serves bug dishes in their Seoul restaurant and produces some bug snacks with nuts. The Korean government has already established legal measures to support the edible insect industry.

Farming crickets for food in western countries is a new development which did not exist as little as ten years ago. From the outset, the western insect farming model focused on optimizing breeding activity to reduce human labor. Compared to the Asian cricket micro-farming model, the large scale industrial approach observed in the west is completely different, and it is currently hard to predict which will become the business standard.

Due to the restrictive and unclear EU regulations, there are very few insect farms rearing insects for food in Europe (e.g., only in Belgium, France, Holland, Finland). There are, however, large farms rearing insects for feed, for example Ynsect (France), Protix (NL) and Agriprotein (UK). They mostly rear Black Soldier Fly larvae. Between 2016 and 2019 these companies raised an average of more than 100 million USD each in funding from investors, numbers never seen before in the edible insect industry.

Ÿnsect is currently building its third production unit, the largest vertical farm in the world, in Amiens, France. The farm will be completed in 2022 and will produce 100,000 tons of insects annually, which will be used to supply wet pet food. The company has raised $425 million in funding from leading global investors and is exporting its products worldwide.

Other players in Europe are Entocube in Finland, Enorm in Denmark, and Kreca in The Netherlands.

The Canadian company Entomo Farms is the largest cricket farm in North America. They sell dry insects and cricket flour to most of the edible insect start-ups in the US, where there are about 40 small to medium-size cricket farms and less than 10 large ones (>100,000 sq ft of rearing space, rearing >1 billion bugs per year).

Other notable insect farming companies are Beta Hatch (USA), Entocycle (UK), nextProtein (France) and Aspire (USA).

There are some safety concerns regarding feeding edible insects to your house pets. These foods have a weak shelf life which causes concerns. Insects easily collect contaminants, germs, diseases, etc. One must be careful when decided on an insect-based diet for their pets.

Insect Farming at Home

And finally, if you want to explore growing insects yourself at home, try out the Hive Explorer mealworm farm from Livin Farms: