The latest buzz: ‘Insect Valley’ opens in Antwerp province

Summary

Insects hold the key to waste clean-up and food security, according to Kempen Insect Valley, a new co-operative that unites researchers, universities and business

The future is creepy-crawly

According to scientists, insects are the future – not only as food for people, but also as a sustainable source of raw materials. They have the potential to form the basis of a new sustainable value chain and could play a key role in the transition to a bio-based global economy.

These are big claims, but insects do have a number of odds in their favour. They emit virtually no greenhouse gases. They require little water and space. And they can be fed with all sorts of organic waste, converting it efficiently into high-quality raw materials, like proteins, fats and chitin. Chitin is the primary component of exoskeletons.

These sustainable materials can be used in the food and feed sector and have multiple industrial applications, such as the manufacture of drugs. But, while the potential of insects has been recognised for some time, their immediate application on an industrial scale has been slow.

Now it looks set to accelerate, with the creation of the Kempen Insect Valley, officially launched last week and supported by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The Valley covers two separate but linked projects.

The first, the Kempen Insect Cluster, is a project headed by the Kempen Chamber of Commerce (Voka), the Belgian Insect Industry Federation and insect-breeding company Millibeter.

One million larvae a week

“The Cluster is an open co-creation platform where companies can test the potential of using insects for the bioconversion of waste, and consequently develop new products and services together,” explains Renilde Craps, director of Voka Kempen. “We are convinced that insects have the potential to form the basis for a new value chain, and we want to be ready to move to such a new bio-based economy.”

Millibeter has already gained experience with the cultivation of the black soldier fly, to convert waste and manure into raw materials for the chemical industry and for animal feeds. “We are hatching one million black soldier larvae a week,” says Johan Jacobs, the company’s CEO. “The larvae are fed with residual waste before becoming sustainable food for cows, chickens and fish. We are also extracting fats from the larvae as a basis for making soap.”

The intention of the pilot project is to show the market that scaling-up is possible and that they can begin to realise the valuable potential of insects

- Mik Van Der Borght of Insect Pilot Plant

Running in parallel to the Cluster is the Insect Pilot Plant, a collaboration between the Geel campus of the University of Leuven, the Thomas More University College in Kempen, and the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (Vito).

“We have reared, harvested and processed insects on a laboratory scale,” says Dr Mik Van Der Borght, project co-ordinator of the Insect Pilot Plant, “but there is a clear need for a pilot plant as an intermediate step towards industrial production.”

The pilot plant, he continues, “will process insects to produce high-quality raw materials as a step towards industrial production”.

While the pilot project will process “tens of kilograms” a day, he says, a larger dedicated plant “could eventually process up to one tonne of insects a day. The intention of the pilot project is to show the market that scaling-up is possible and that they can begin to realise the valuable potential of insects.”

Flies on steroids

The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) may look like an overgrown housefly, but it couldn’t be more different. Indigenous to the Americas, this insect does not enter houses, does not bite or sting, does not eat waste, does not regurgitate on food and is not associated in any way with the transmission of disease.

In other words, it’s a totally harmless fly. The winged adults only live for a few days, to mate and lay their eggs, which hatch into larvae. And this is when scientists suddenly become very interested.

Black soldier larvae can live for several weeks, and during that time they consume huge quantities of food waste or animal manure. One square meter of larvae can get through about 15 kilograms of food or manure a day.

Global warming weapon

What’s more, they devour this waste quickly, before anaerobic bacteria get a chance to transform the waste into methane. Also, they prevent the huge release of CO2 into the environment that bacteria would generate if the waste were composted or dumped in landfills.

That’s not all. These fat grubs contain 42% protein and 35% fat as well as amino acids and minerals. This makes them highly suitable for livestock feed.

As a component of a complete diet, black soldier larvae have been found to support growth in chicks and are suitable as a replacement for soybean meal in poultry feed.

More than 1,900 species of insects are used as food, including beetles, caterpillars, ants and grasshoppers

Since chickens need protein, minerals and vitamins in their diet, insects in general – and black soldier larvae, in particular – have the potential to supplement that component of their dietary requirements in a sustainable and cost-effective way. They have also been found to be an excellent food for fish.

By 2050 there are likely to be nine billion people on the planet. It’s been estimated that to feed everyone – and there are already one billion malnourished people – current food production will need to almost double.

However, new agricultural land is scarce, oceans are already overfished, and climate change and water shortages are likely to significantly affect food production. New ways of growing food need to be found.

Food for thought

Insects already form part of the traditional diet of at least two billion people. More than 1,900 species are used as food, including beetles, caterpillars, ants, grasshoppers, locusts and crickets. They are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content.

The composition of unsaturated omega-3 and six fatty acids in mealworms, for example, is comparable with that in fish, and the protein, vitamin and mineral content of mealworms is similar to that in fish and meat. Insects are often consumed whole but can also be processed into granular or paste forms.

Gathering and farming insects can offer employment and income, either at the household level or in larger, industrial-scale operations. However, regulations governing insects as food and feed sources still need to be created or fine-tuned.

Initiatives like the Kempen Insect Valley, say the organisers, can play a major role in Flanders and beyond to help overcome the existing challenges and bottlenecks, enabling the huge potential of insects in enhancing global food security to be fully realised.

Photo courtesy Voka