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Animal Feed Made from Maggots Might Save the World

Most factory farm animals are raised on soy and fishmeal, but a UK outfit is trying to change that with a sustainable and easy-growing source of protein: maggots.

by Gareth May
05 September 2014, 4:38pm

Photo via Flickr user Massimiliano Calamelli

In the future, the world will be ruled by the cryogenically frozen brain of Boris Johnson, X-Factor will have crowned its first Martian winner, and we'll all eating hamburgers made from cows reared on maggot meal instead of soya and fishmeal.

Right now, only one of those dreams is on the table and that's because some folks down in York are currently studying fly larvae in the hope of stopping the world's food scarcity problem. They best hurry up. Predictions say there will be three billion extra mouths to feed by 2050.

MUNCHIES chatted with Elaine Fitches, PROteINSECT project Co-ordinator to find out how maggots are going to save the world.

MUNCHIES: What are you guys actually doing up at the PROteINSECT project? Elaine Fitches: The PROteINSECT project is focused on the potential of insect protein as an animal feed ingredient. We're evaluating whether fly protein is suitable for use in pig, poultry, and fish feed. Focusing our research on the house fly (Musca domestica) and the black soldier fly (Hermetia illuscens).

Why flies? Existing scientific literature suggests that fly larvae could be a suitable component of animal feed as they have a high protein content and also contain other nutritionally valuable products such fats and minerals.

Fly larvae are a cost effective source of animal feed protein because they can be grown successfully on organic waste products such as animal manure. They are capable of converting this low-value organic waste into high-value protein.

So you're rearing flies to create animal feed? We're carrying out fly larvae rearing for several reasons. We are trying to optimise sustainable insect production techniques, for example by evaluating the best type of substrate on which to grow flies. We are also investigating how protein can be efficiently extracted from fly larvae. Furthermore, we are rearing fly larvae in order to generate enough material so that nutritional data can be gathered and safety tests can be carried out.

How's it going so far? Preliminary results suggest that protein from fly larvae could be suitable for inclusion in animal feed and thus could make a valuable contribution to food security.

Why is it imperative to look for alternative sources of protein now? The need to find additional sources of protein for animal feed is driven by the increasing global population and the rising demand for meat and aquaculture production. In Europe, we currently have a protein deficit with 80 percent of animal feed protein being sourced from non-European countries which leaves farmers vulnerable to market price fluctuations.

At present, soya and fishmeal are the major sources of protein for animal feed. Can't we just increase production on these rather than buggering about with maggots and flies? The amount of land available for soya production is finite whilst concerns over marine overexploitation have resulted in declining fishmeal availability also leading to rising prices. Therefore it is vital that we find additional, sustainable protein sources in order to assure future food security.

Although maggots are insects, is there an ethical argument that you're using them as test subjects? Have there been any protests against what you're doing at the lab? Since insects are invertebrates, ethical concerns are limited. They are already being reared at a commercial level for angling and as pet food. Insects including fly larvae are a natural component of the diet of some fish species and monogastric animals such as poultry and pigs. Moreover, poultry and pigs reared under free-range systems will frequently consume insects.

Another consideration must be consumer sensitivities. Do you think people will be happy to eat meat reared on, what is essentially, insects? Insects are currently used as animal feed ingredients in many countries including China and across Africa. Cultural acceptance is one of the major challenges facing the introduction of insect protein into animal feed in Europe. However, results of a recent public survey conducted by PROteINSECT revealed some encouraging results. Specifically, 72.6 percent of those asked said that they would be willing to eat pork, poultry or fish products derived from animals fed on a diet containing insect protein.

I understand food safety is a key part of the investigation. What fears are there concerning maggots and food safety? We're carrying out a comprehensive assessment of potential safety risks associated with insect larvae grown on organic waste. This includes testing for a range of contaminates such as heavy metal residues and veterinary medicines. Additionally, tests for allergenicity and microbial safety will also be conducted.

So there are concerns that animal feed developed from fly larvae could harm the animals? Animal feeding trials will be conducted to determine the suitability of insect protein as an animal feed ingredient. It is hoped that evidence of safety will help facilitate changes in EU law to permit the inclusion of insect protein in animal feed.

Wouldn't it just be easier to bypass the utilisation of insects' potential as a natural ingredient in high-protein feed for animals and utilise their potential for human consumption instead?Although there is increasing interest in the human consumption of insects, PROteINSECT is firmly focused on investigating the potential of insect protein as an animal feed ingredient rather than the direct consumption of insects by humans. In regions where entomophagy is practiced, such as South East Asia, insects are often considered a delicacy and are consumed out of choice rather than necessity. But due to the challenge of consumer acceptance of entomophagy in the West, in the short-term at least, insects are likely to make the greater contribution to food security as in ingredient in animal feed.

Thanks for speaking with me.

Food Shortage