Soy feed vs. insect feed for poultry – which one is better?

September 6, 2021

Soy feed is one of the most popular poultry feeds across the UK and the world. Few can reach its popularity and cost-effectiveness.

Yet many are looking for alternatives. Reason number one is the environmental impact of soy. A study by Promar International showed that on a free-range poultry farm, 85% of the carbon footprint is linked to feed. In the case of soy, often imported from areas linked to deforestation, that footprint is quite high.

As consumers become more aware of the impact of soy (and the fact that we use most of it to feed farmed animals), they also push for farmers and food producers to seek alternatives. 

And here come the new entrants – from algae to insect protein. We are an insect farming company, so naturally, we are going to talk about the latter. We will compare it to soy by using the following metrics – price, protein content, welfare, productivity, and sustainability. 

Is soy feed cheaper than insect feed?

It does not come as a surprise that soy feed is the winner here. It is cheap and effective, and it’s actually the world’s number one protein source for farmed animals. Soybean meal allows them to reach market weight in record times at an affordable price.

As different feeds emerge on the market, farmers are looking for alternatives that can match soy’s affordability. But at this stage of its market dominance, new entrants may struggle.  

Insects are still regarded as novel feed ingredients. And while their production has been steadily rising for the past decade, some time will need to pass before they get closer to soy’s level of supply, convenience, and price.

But the moment we factor in the hidden costs of soy, from deforestation to food miles, it becomes clear that it may not be the best choice, while other feeds provide a more environmentally friendly alternative.

Is insect feed sustainable?

Climate change is a rising concern for all farms nationwide and beyond. With British farming’s 2040 Net Zero goal, the pressure is on to optimise the way we use land and care for animals. After all, food production is responsible for about one-third of the global emissions.

Most of agriculture’s global impact is based on how the land is used, including land use change. In the worst-case scenario that would be deforestation – a practice often linked to the cultivation of soy. 

The UK imports over 3.3m tonnes of soy annually, with most of it going to animal feed. Over 1 million of it could be attributed to deforestation as it fails basic traceability requirements.

When it comes to land use, insect protein needs a fraction of the space that soy needs. Insects, especially the black soldier fly larvae, are more than happy to remain in darker and denser surroundings, making them perfect for a vertical farming infrastructure. This results in insects having a much better yield while using fewer resources.

Soy feed vs insect feed

And while most soy comes from abroad, insects can grow locally – even directly on the farm. This supports the idea of a localised food chain where local produce benefits local communities (if you want to read more on why we think the future of food is local, see this post).

Which one has more protein – soy or insect feed?

Soybean meal is a great source of protein, essential amino acids, and other valuable nutrients, which is why the poultry feed sector continues to use it in abundance.

Farmers consistently improve the quality of soybeans, resulting in crops that have more protein and oil. Soybeans contain up to 40% of protein and 20% of fat, making them a good source of nutrition. 

Black soldier flies spend their larval stage, which usually lasts from 10 to 28 days, mostly eating – so it’s no surprise that they transform into a fatty, protein-rich snack. When dried, they contain up to 40% of animal-grade protein. They also have a rich amino acid profile. They contain nutrients that make chickens healthier – more about this below.

Is insect feed good for poultry?

The UK prides itself on very high welfare standards and the poultry sector is no exception. British farmers care about their birds and are always looking for ways to improve their well-being. 

When we look at nature, one thing becomes clear – soy is not something a chicken would normally eat, while insects are. Chickens love foraging for grubs and will do so for hours if we give them the opportunity.

Chicken looking for insects

Being able to forage for insects improves the hens’ behaviour and wellbeing. They spend more time foraging and scratching, and less time pecking other hens. They become overall more active.

We can also see benefits in the birds’ health – particularly in their gut, which directly contributes to the number of antibiotics they need. During our trials, we also noticed an overall improvement in organ health, especially the liver, compared to the control group.

How does poultry feed impact productivity?

No sustainable innovation will truly take off if it is damaging to the productivity of the farming businesses. And part of soy’s appeal is its great pound-for-pound protein content and good feed conversion rate.

We were curious to see what impact insect feed would have on laying hen productivity. And we were happy to learn that insect-fed hens laid 4,5% more eggs. During our trial with Bristol University, insect-fed hens also laid fewer floor eggs.

The impact of insect feed on productivity

This is a metric we are incredibly proud of. It allows us to advocate for the use of insect feed knowing that it doesn’t just offer an eco-friendly certificate – it actually promotes growth, welfare, and yield. 

Soy feed is the status quo. Insect feed is an investment. 

Soy’s position within the poultry feed sector is undeniable. But while soy provides a good level of nutrition at an affordable price, there are other feeds on the market that provide unique health and welfare benefits.

It is time for alternatives to take over, either as an enrichment or a complete replacement of soybean meal. Insect protein offers welfare and environmental benefits that come at zero costs to productivity. We think it’s safe to say that soy is the status quo, while insect feed is an investment. 

Locally produced feeds are a part of the future, where instead of imports we focus on the resilience of individual communities.

See how insects can be grown directly on a farm, watch this video:

So you want to know more about insect feed?

At Better Origin, we have perfected the science of growing insects for feed – and we have put it to use in collaboration with farmers and supermarkets.

If you think insect protein could help your business, you can read more about our insect farm or reach out to us for a free assessment.