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Technology For Insect Farming

Insects are farmed and processed as food for humans, pets and farmed animals. While insects traditionally have been harvested from the wild, industrial insect farming is a relatively new practice, and has largely focused on feed production for pets, livestock and as a replacement for fishmeal.

Insect farming has been realized worldwide at different technological levels. This can range from traditional manual, family-based insect farms in Asia to highly automated and technologically advanced industrial farms.

Currently, the insect industry consists of many small and only a few large companies. On the way to scaling up, design of the plant will be a critical success factor for climate control and to prevent transmission of pathogens and other contaminants. From breeding to hatching, rearing, and processing, a controlled environment under one roof is necessary to maintain production safety. Technology is key to achieving that.

For instance, FreezeM developed a revivable freezing system of eggs for long-term cryopreservation, and suspended animation of neonate larvae. Cogastro offers a digital and data-driven farming system to monitor farming performance. And Cricket Lab uses Internet-of-Things and automation processes to improve technology in cricket farming.

Rising Investment Levels in Insect Farming

Commercial insect farms, particularly in Europe, have seen significant investor interest, enabling insect companies to build larger-scale production facilities. Capital inflow to the sector accelerated after the EU authorized the use of insect proteins as an aquafeed ingredient in July 2017.

The increase in capital investments in insect farming companies
The increase in capital investments in insect farming companies. (Source: RaboResearch 2021)

Although edible insects tick all the boxes from a nutrition, health, and sustainability point of view, industry experts think that over the next few years,  insects have a larger potential as feed ingredient than as direct consumer food.

The case for insect farming

Food companies regularly discard their raw materials – fruits, vegetables, grain – because it is trimming waste, of insufficient quality, or due to overproduction.

This is called pre-consumer waste and can be as high as 30% of all food production worldwide. Normally it is deposed of in landfills or incinerators. Modern insect farms re-integrate this high-value organic material into the food chain by upcycling it into animal feed.

This is then fed to mini-livestock like black soldier flies or crickets (read more about cricket farming here). The insects rapidly increase their body mass by decomposing the organic waste they are fed. The insects are processed either already in their larvae stage or as fully grown, whole insects.

The byproduct from insect farming – insect droppings and exoskeletons, called  frass – can be sold as organic fertilizer for agriculture.

The most commonly produced insects are:

  • Mealworms, which have been commercial farmed for decades as fishing bait, pet food and recently for human consumption.
  • Black soldier flies, which possesses several unique features that have resulted in it being recognized as a model system for reducing waste as a means to produce protein.
  • Houseflies, which are one of the most farmed insects in China. The ability of housefly maggots to grow on a large range of substrates can make them useful to turn wastes into a valuable biomass rich in protein and fat useful as animal feed, and the residues can be used as organic fertilizer.
  • Crickets, which like mealworms, have been farmed for decades as fishing bait and pet food. In recent years, cricket protein powder has become a popular ingredient for human edibles such as energy bars, smoothie powders and snacks.
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Insect Farming for Livestock

There are significant environmental benefits from replacing soy, corn and fishmeal with insect products as livestock and fish feed.

This sector produces feed oil (for instance for aquaculture) and protein powders as feed ingredient for pet food and animal farming.

Insect Farming for Pet Food

There has long been a market for live and dried insects for reptile and bird food. More recently, powdered protein additives for dog and cat food products have reached the market. Currently, pet food is the largest market for insect protein.

Insect Farming for Human Consumption

Insects raised for human consumption are generally sold either whole, as a powdered additive, or in pre-made products. Examples include whole crickets, cricket flour, or a nutritional bar that incorporates cricket flour. Increasingly, insect protein powders are also incorporated into food products such as breads, pastries, snacks, spice mixes, and meat substitutes for burgers.

circular insect food economy
The figure is for illustrative purposes to show the circularity potential of insect farming. Feedstocks and end-markets illustrated here are not yet fully approved by regulators. (Source: RaboResearch)

Insect Farming Process

There are roughly three different business set-ups for insect farms:

1) Farms that purchase eggs or small larvae from a supplier and focus on the fattening and, if relevant, the further maturation of the larvae, all the way to mature insects.

2) Farms that cover the entire production process, from laying eggs to harvesting and the initial processing (i.e., drying) of larvae; and

3) Large-scale production facilities, which cover all steps of the production of insect larvae, as well as further processing steps (e.g., milling, de-fattening and the fractioning of proteins or fats).

Technology for Modern Insect Farming Companies

Given that each insect species is unique, with specific farming requirements, insect farmers need to adopt a species-specific approach. Most farms still operate on a small scale and often, especially in the Asian family-operated farms, knowledge and experience is handed down from one owner to the next.

The elements involved with insect production such as feeding, watering, handling, harvesting, cleaning systems, processing, quality control, packaging and storage can be improved significantly by adding technology. Especially the large commercial farms have begun adding smart software control systems that optimize the rearing environment and streamline processes.

A typical process and value chain for insect farming operations includes these steps:

Example of key process steps in a commercial operation for producing feed materials from Black Soldier Flies
Example of key process steps in a commercial operation for producing feed materials from Black Soldier Flies. (Source: Bühler Insect Technology Solutions)
Farming and Breeding

NextAlim in France provides insect farmers with healthy and performing young Black Soldier Fly larvae, ready for rearing, such as eggs, neonates or 7-day old larvae. The company is a specialist of Soldier Fly genetics and Soldier Fly breeding operations and specializes in neonates multiplication at an industrial scale.

Protenga in Singapore has developed a next-generation Smart Insect Farm™ system that makes insect innovation accessible to upcycle a range of agricultural and food manufacturing by-products into fully traceable insect protein. The company works with Black Soldier Flies to produce a high-quality insect protein meal for pet food and aquafeed applications; an insect oil rich in medium-chain fatty acids that provides easily digestible lipids for early-animal nutrition particularly in piglets, chicks, and shrimp; and a purely organic fertilizer full of organic matter, chitin and minerals made from insect castings, sheddings and fibers.

Micrento in the Czech Republic provides crickets live, frozen, dries and as insect powder.

Entocube in Finland develops technologies for rearing edible insects.

Cricket Lab in Thailand has built a production capacity of 3.5 tons of powder per month, making it one of the biggest cricket facilities in the world. Moreover, Cricket Lab farms and processes crickets with the most up to date technology on the market.

Better Origin in the UK has developed the X1 fully autonomous, modular insect farm powered by AI, which makes it low maintenance. The X1 produces up to five tons of insect protein from Black Soldier Flies per year from a range of biomasses.

Vandalsoft in South Korea also offers a container farm, similar to the X1, as well as TF-Controller, the company’s fundamental smart farm technology that controls water supply, heating and humidity for cricket breeding racks.

Protix in The Netherlands operates one of the largest insect farms in the world, a 14 000 square meter facility, that produces insect protein powder for animal feeds, oils and fertilizer. The company also develops smart insect farming technologies focused on software and hardware that can improve the efficiency and reliability of insect production. Specific focus is on development of an integrated software approach to feed and resource use to increase sustainability of the insect products.

Viscon Group in The Netherlands develops insect farming technology and software solutions that provide the backbone for an automated insect factory. The company’s experience in factory intralogistics automation ensures an optimized process, tailored to the needs of farming black soldier flies, mealworms, crickets and other insects.

Bühler Insect Technology Solutions develops automated solutions for large-scale insect farming operations.

Biotechnology and Genetics

Beta Bugs in the UK is an insect genetics company. They develop and distribute black soldier fly breeds improved for productivity to the insect farming sector.

Nutrinsect in Italy is a biotechnology start-up that, in  collaboration with research institutions, universities, partner companies, breeds crickets in a closed-circuit supply chain.

Insect Technology Group in the UK develops industrial scale insect-based technologies to upcycle organic feedstocks. Their Agriprotein division used the company’s black soldier fly breeding technology to produce protein meal, oil and frass for aquaculture and livestock feeds.

Insect Farm Management Software

Cogastro in Lithuania develops farm management software that is designed to support continuous, modular, and a wide variety of batch-based systems. It can be utilized for Black soldier flies, Mealworms, and Cricket installations. Multiple modules are included allowing it to be easily adapted and customized to any size of operation.

Vandalsoft in South Korea developed the TwinstarFarm Connect app that uses AI to provide automatic farming controls.

BugBox in Estonia develops fully automated mass-rearing technology and software for the edible insect industry.

How to start an insect farm

Entocube offers a Beginner Kit as a turnkey solution including everything you need to start your first cricket farm.  The farm requires 2 square meter space, an exhaust valve and an electric socket. The mini farm yields appr. 14 kg of crickets per month with 2-3h of labor time per week. The beginner kit also works for well for starting the cricket colony prior to setting up a larger farm.

Their large-scale EntoCube X-series automated cricket farming systems require approx. 50 square meters of space.