A creepy-crawly food revolution
Long considered pests, insects are now on the menu for farmed fish and poultry in Kenya and Uganda, where scientists are looking for cheaper, healthier ways to boost animal growth and develop the local economy
Posted by Brian Owens on March 22, 2017
Raising chickens or fish in Africa can be an expensive proposition. Most of the money goes into just keeping them fed, which accounts for 60 to 70 per cent of the cost of rearing the animals.
“Around here the high cost can discourage farmers from using high-quality feeds,” says Komi Fiaboe, an agricultural entomologist at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi, Kenya.
The feed’s most expensive component is protein, which usually comes from imported soybeans or a combination of imported and locally sourced fishmeal, and the cost of the latter has doubled in the past couple of years. So researchers in Uganda and Kenya are investigating a cheaper, local alternative that could reduce the price of feed while providing economic opportunities in the region: insects.
But first they have to solve three problems: They have to show insects are at least as nutritious as the protein in existing feed; they need to determine whether enough insects can be grown to satisfy demand; and they need to get regulations in place to allow insects to be used as feed. Fiaboe and his colleagues are working on a project to find solutions to those problems.
After being boiled and toasted to kill any harmful microbes and ground into flour to be mixed with conventional feed ingredients, insects turned out to be a very good source of protein. “Most have a higher proportion and higher quality of protein than fishmeal,” Fiaboe says, adding that the insects also had more fatty acids, considered a nutritional advantage.
The insect feed also led to better results when tested on fish and poultry. Tilapia raised on feed that had 33 per cent of its protein come from insects had higher growth rates after four weeks than fish raised on conventional feed, while chickens raised on insect feed produced more and better quality eggs, says Fiaboe.
But those results won’t matter if farmers can’t get enough of the bugs. In Kenya, for instance, substituting 30 per cent of the protein found in fish feed would require 50,000 metric tonnes of insects every year. In Kenya, for instance, substituting five per cent of the fishmeal protein in poultry feed would require between 27,000 and 32,000 metric tonnes of insects per year.
So Fiaboe and his colleagues are working on ways to quickly grow lots of insects in a small space. The best option they’ve found so far is to use the black soldier fly. Not only is it a nutritious option for fish and chickens, but it also multiplies quickly and is simple to rear. A 10-by-5-metre screen house, filled with stacked trays of fly larvae, can produce two metric tonnes of insects per month.
The flies have other advantages, too. They aren’t a nuisance species that spreads disease or blights crops, and they can be raised on barley waste from local breweries, so they don’t compete with humans or livestock for food. Fiaboe is also testing other insects, including silkworm pupae, which are usually discarded once their cocoons are harvested, and crickets.
The relatively small area needed for an insect-rearing operation means it could provide economic opportunities for women and young people. “Women and youth face barriers in access to land, so if you only need a small area to grow insects,” says Jemimah Njuki, a senior program specialist with the International Development Research Centre, which is supporting Fiaboe’s research along with the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research. “That could be potentially huge for youth employment.”
Commercial feed companies were already enthusiastic about including insect protein in their products, says Fiaboe. They were just waiting for someone to show that the bugs were a good nutritional option, and for proper regulations. In many places insects are considered impurities, but there are no regulations governing their use in animal feed in Kenya or Uganda.
The project’s leaders have been working with the Uganda National Bureau of Standards and the Kenya Bureau of Standard in developing guidelines for including insects in livestock feed. If all goes well in that process and in ramping up production to the required levels, insect-based feeds could be on the market in both countries within one or two years. “The idea is to move the science alongside the standards development process,” says Njuki, “so the rules are in place when the technology is ready.”
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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