Edible insects: a close-up on the different breeding systems

Common practice in many Asian, African and Central American countries, the production and consumption of edible insects has been taking over Europe, and Western countries in general, in recent years. And this, under the impulse of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

This UN organization promotes the use of insects in human and animal food as an alternative to meat. The latter is too energy intensive.

And with the recent relaxation of European legislation, we can expect a relatively rapid development of entomoculture, i.e. the breeding of insects for human and animal consumption.

What are the main entomoculture techniques currently available? What are the stakes of this sector and what are the regulations governing it in France? Here are some answers.

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Edible insects: entomoculture techniques

Hand harvesting in the wild, in the forest, is the traditional way of capturing insects (termites, ants, larvae, butterfly caterpillars, crickets, beetles) to eat.

Today, while this method remains the most practiced in the world, the concept of raising insects for human consumption is relatively new. Edible insect farming is also being experimented and practiced around the world.

Some of the major edible insect farming and semi-rearing systems include those listed below.

Improved natural production

It is not strictly speaking breeding, because the insects remain in their natural habitat. However, thanks to some work, the habitat of the latter is modified and improved for food purposes. The objective of this technique is to modify the behavior of the insect and thus promote its development in quantity and quality.

Insects from improved natural production are not held in captivity or isolated from their wild counterparts.

This type of production exists in the Amazon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico and sub-Saharan Africa, among others.

The family mini-farm

Domestic breeding of edible insects can allow a family to :

  • Improve your own nutrition.
  • To make money by selling their surplus production.

It is called mini-livestock because this type of activity involves small animals (small mammals, amphibians, reptiles or invertebrates, including insects) weighing less than 20 kilos, raised for the potential nutritional or economic benefit they offer to the household or family business. These small animals are therefore to be differentiated from pets, because they are bred for domestic use or for profit. They can also be used to feed pets.

Mini-farming of edible insects requires little technical and financial investment. In addition, insect farming requires very little land, unlike the farming of livestock, whether large or small.

Industrial breeding

When the production of insects amounts to at least 1 ton per day, in fresh weight, it is called industrial production.

This was agreed at the “International Expert Consultation on the Assessment of the Potential of Insects as Food and Feed to Contribute to Food Security” held at the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) headquarters in Rome, Italy, from January 23 to 25, 2012.

The industrial production of insects for food and feed is relatively recent.

However, such an undertaking, in order to be successful, requires huge investments, as each species of insects raised requires a personalized treatment.

These essential investments include

  • Research on the biology of each insect raised.
  • Rearing conditions (controlled air conditioning, optimized light exposure, etc.).
  • The formulation (for each insect) of artificial food, modified to increase their nutritional value.
  • The development of automated processes.
  • The supply of high quality food.

It should be noted that, as soon as insects are intended for human consumption, their food cannot contain any element that is harmful to humans. Therefore, they must be organic.

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Insects of industrial breeding: required characteristics

In order to be mass produced, each insect must, according to the FAO, have certain characteristics:

  • A good ability to reproduce and grow rapidly, in terms of weight and quantity per day.
  • High egg-laying rate.
  • A short development cycle.
  • High survival rate of immatures.
  • A high feed conversion rate (amount of feed required to produce a 1 kg weight increase).
  • The ability to live in high density conditions.
  • High resistance to diseases.

Among the small beasts that meet these conditions are the black soldier fly (animal food), and the mealworm (food for humans and animals).

Finally, it should be noted that because mass production systems have vulnerabilities, the exclusive use of a single insect species is not recommended.

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The challenges of entomoculture

Intensive conventional livestock farming (or meat animals) may become environmentally unsustainable in the coming decades. However, due to a rapidly growing world population (9 billion inhabitants in 2050), the search for new sources of protein has become very urgent.

400,000 tons of snacks are crawling under our feet! These are all sources of essential nutrients for humans and animals intended for human consumption.

Entomoculture for animal feed

The use of insects for animal feed has a number of advantages:

  • The conversion of food into body mass, in these small invertebrates, is particularly strong.
  • Little food is needed for them to grow.
  • They can be raised on organic waste.

Due to the high costs of labor and construction of rearing facilities, industrial production systems for edible insects are unfortunately still too expensive today.

For example, if mealworms were to be used to feed chickens, the cost of producing this food would be 5 times higher than the price of conventional chicken feed.

Entomoculture for human consumption

According to the FAO, ” quality breeding is essential for the widespread use of insects as food for humans”.

Small animals intended for human consumption must be fed with food (plants, cereals, etc.) free of pesticides and antibiotics. In addition, feeding them with organic waste is prohibited. This is to minimize the risk of illness among consumers.

In Europe, in order to ensure the safety of insects intended for human consumption, production systems are subject to strict sanitary standards, called the “Hygiene Package”.

In short, to be successful, raising insects for human consumption requires a very good knowledge of biology, optimal rearing conditions, as well as high quality food for the insects.

Entomoculture and its many advantages

This sector has many advantages:

  • Nutritional: depending on the species, insects can be very good sources of proteins, minerals and vitamins.
  • Economic: Harvesting and breeding insects can generate employment and income for families. Used as an alternative to meat as a source of protein, insects also contribute to the reduction of food waste, as they feed on little. Their feed conversion rate is high compared to that of small and large livestock (2 kg of feed produces 1 kg of insects, while 8 kg of feed are needed to produce 1 kg of meat).
  • Environmental: insects require little space, little water and little food to grow. And their dejecta can be used for organic farming. Compared to other methods, entomoculture generates less greenhouse gases or other pollutants, and less waste.

However, the success of the entomoculture sector will depend on its ability to implement a reliable production chain, and to produce food of consistent quality, with high nutritional value for animals and for humans.

Regulations governing the breeding of edible insects

In France, there is no specific regulation for the breeding of edible insects.

However, the possession or acquisition of animals of non-domestic species (also called captive wildlife) is governed by the Environment Code (articles L. 413-1 to L. 413-5) and its application texts.

These regulations distinguish between two types of wildlife keepers:

  • The breeding of pleasure farms.
  • Livestock establishments.

The breeding of pleasure farms

This category of breeding concerns amateur breeders who keep a limited number of insect species in captivity.

This type of breeding must:

  • Concerning non-domestic, non-protected, non-harmful insects.
  • Be a non-profit organization.
  • To be conducted for personal use and in small numbers.
  • Do not concern the presentation to the public.

If these conditions are met, no specific administrative steps are required for insect breeding.

Livestock establishments

The professional breeding of insects is governed by the decree of August 10, 2004, specifying the general rules of operation of breeding facilities for non-domestic animals.

This decree indicates in particular that the professional breeder must obtain two additional administrative authorizations provided for in articles L. 413-2 and L. 413-3 of the environmental code:

  • A certificate of competence, which attests to the competence of the establishment to manage its animals.
  • An authorization to open, focusing on the conformity of the facilities.

If the establishment holds species that are protected or dangerous to humans, it must also have a permit to hold them.

All these authorizations are issued by the Prefect.

The European regulation

New European legislation on novel foods, also known as ” Novel Food”, came into force on January 1, 2018. As insects are defined as “Novel Food”, new opportunities are opening up for operators in the European Union member states who want to start producing and marketing insect-based products for human consumption.

Note that as of July 1, 2017, in accordance with the Regulation (EU) 2017/893 of 24 May 2017The European Union allows the use of protein from 7 species of insects (2 species of soldier fly, 2 species of darkling beetle and 3 species of cricket) to feed fish from fish farms and aquaculture.

However, the substrates on which these insects are reared must not contain liquid manure (a fertilizer composed of a liquid mixture of urine and excrement from farm animals) or kitchen waste.

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