Climate change is forcing everyone to adapt to new ways of living, whether that’s reconsidering transportation, where we live and even what we eat. Researchers at Texas A&M University are even helping the livestock industry rethink what it feeds to animals.
Jeffrey Tomberlin is a professor of entomology, and is leading collaborative research on the sustainability of insect farming for Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
He says some insects, including the black soldier fly, have the potential to be a much more environmentally friendly source of food for livestock, instead of traditional feed like grain.
One reason is that black soldier fly larvae are good at converting what they eat into meat on their bones, so to speak, for whatever consumes them later. Other animals aren’t as efficient, which means they have to take in much more food in order to get the same amount of “meat” at the end. That makes the larvae good, low-maintenance, high-energy feed for livestock.
“With insects, it’s a two-to-one [biomass] conversion rate, so it’s highly efficient,” he said.
Also, they have short lifecycles. So, instead of a farmer waiting to grow a grain crop, and harvesting that crop each year, “crops” of insects can be harvested almost daily. And that food is more readily available to cattle and other livestock producers, Tomberlin said.
“An insect farm can be vertical. You can take an acre of land and build vertical, and you can mass-produce every single day,” Tomberlin said.
Insects are also great consumers of food waste. The black soldier fly, for example, can often be found in compost heaps. Tomberlin says food waste is the third highest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. (Tomberlin did not address the fact that livestock emit large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. But changing how they eat could help reduce those emissions.)
What he and his colleagues are focused on now is helping insect producers iron out problems with cultivation, and answer big industry questions like, How do we produce 20 tons of insects in a day? Or, How do you produce insects that are high in protein and low in fat?
“We will work on those kind of questions, and help these companies optimize their process, while doing it safely,” Tomberlin said.
And for Westerners who aren’t so sure about eating bugs, or for feeding them to livestock, Tomberlin says it’s much more common than some may realize.
“The ideas of insects as a food is not something uncommon to a majority of the world,” he said.