How does insect farming work?

October 11, 2021

You may have heard about farmers using insects as animal feed. Or maybe you spotted an article that projected we will all need to eat bugs in 2050. Insect farming is on the rise – but there are many questions you may have about it.

As certified maggot farmers, we hope to answer them extensively.

What is insect farming?

Insect farming refers to the breeding and cultivating of any insect species. Some insect farming is far from new – for example, humans have been keeping bees or silkworms for a long time.

Farming insects for pest control is also a longstanding practice. Organic farmers pay for ladybugs that they can release into their fields. It takes about 72,000 ladybugs to treat a one-acre crop – and it’s a great alternative to using pesticides.

Farming insects for food is also not new, with millions around the world indulging in crickets, locusts, and green ants. Insects have been especially on the rise in food-insecure areas such as Africa, delivering “the nutrition of meat at the price point of a plant.” As more areas of the world start to struggle with food security, insects are the solution we shouldn’t shun.

Why is insect farming on the rise?

Our food chain is facing several challenges. A recent UN land report highlights that human activities have already altered 70% of the Earth’s land surface, degrading up to 40% of it.

The food system we built accounts for 80% of deforestation and 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. It will need to change if we want to feed our growing population sustainably and securely. This is why scientists, farmers, and entrepreneurs are looking for new ways to feed the world. They look at algae, mushroom protein, regenerative agriculture, and cultivated meat. Insect farming is another one of those solutions.

What can we farm insects for?

Insects may just be the Protein 2.0 we need to take the pressure off the Earth’s resources. They can replace animal feeds such as wheat and soy, saving land and water. We can use them instead of fishmeal, which is a fish feed made from wild-caught species that contributes to overfishing.

Our pets’ meat consumption is also putting a strain on our planet. If US cats and dogs were a separate country, they’d rank fifth in the world for the meat they consume. By replacing the protein in pet food with insects, we can dramatically reduce emissions – at no detriment to our pets’ health or wellbeing.

Lastly, we can eat insects ourselves – and many people already do. It’s time we stopped seeing them as an oddity – and started taking advantage of the high protein content and versatility.

What species of insects can we farm?

As mentioned before, we have been keeping honeybees for centuries. They are one of the first insect species that come to mind when we mention farming. Humans have also been using silkworms to produce fabrics and cochineals to obtain a red dye used in food.

When it comes to farming insects for protein, popular species include mealworms, buffalo worms, crickets, and the black soldier fly larvae (BSF).

At Better Origin, we specialise in farming the black soldier fly. We see the most potential in its potential to convert food waste into food. Capable of growing 5,000 times its initial body mass in a couple of weeks, every BSF larva is like an upcycling machine. When used in animal feed, it delivers all the essential nutrients without the environmental cost.

Is insect farming sustainable?

Insects use a fraction of the land to produce the same amount of protein as chicken or beef. Although this depends on the species (but applies to the black soldier larvae), most insects thrive in densely populated areas.

Soy feed vs insect feed

Another large carbon saving comes from many insect species being able to feed on what we consider waste. By diverting food waste from landfill and feeding it to insects, we avoid emissions of methane – a gas 25 times more potent than CO2 in heating the planet.

Insects can also be farmed in vertical systems (e.g. shipping containers), closer to where they are needed. This will result in large transportation emissions savings and a more secure food chain.

How do I farm insects?

Insects are farmed in a variety of ways – from DIY operations in backyard compost bins to large factories. Both crickets and black soldier fly larvae are considered good insect species for beginners.

If you want to farm insects for animal feed or human food, the setup includes:

  • securing a regular supply of food and water
  • catering to species-specific needs for space and light
  • understanding the temperature and humidity levels required
  • if you are taking care of breeding, you will need a separate section for egg laying and hatching

This is merely some initial planning required to set up an insect farm. Needs will vary for different species – for example, crickets will need more space than the black soldier fly larvae.

Lastly, post-processing may be required depending on regulation, as live insects are not always allowed to be used as feed. They must then be dried or frozen, or processed into crude insect protein or insect oil. For EU legislation, it is best to refer to the IPIFF website. Luckily, both in the UK and the EU, live and unprocessed insects can be fed to poultry, aquaculture, pets, and pigs.

For farmers already taking care of other livestock, this knowledge needed makes it hard to enter the insect farming market. This is why we set out to make it as easy as possible by creating ready-to-deploy insect mini-farms.

How does vertical insect farming work?

Vertical farming – i.e. farming in containerised systems, often powered by Artificial Intelligence, is being developed for vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. Insects are no exception.

Farming insects in containers allows us to introduce them in various parts of the world. It reduces barriers to entry as farmers and food producers don’t need to learn about insect farming. They only need to supply food waste or other feedstock for the maggots.

Inside the Better Origin X1, black soldier fly larvae feed on food waste. They grow over 5,000 times their initial body mass. The container takes care of the temperature, humidity, and feeding times. Once the larvae are measured by AI to be big enough for harvest, the farmer is notified. By reducing food waste, the X1 mitigates over 280 tonnes of CO2e emissions a year.

You can see an insect farm in action here:

Our insect mini-farm is just one example of insect farming. Around the world, many large factories exist, producing insect products on a large scale. However, their commissioning time and transportation emissions are much bigger than those of a ready-to-deploy, localised container.

What are the benefits of insect farming?

Insect farming has the potential to take the pressure off our planet’s resources and become a new source of protein for animals and humans.

As animal feed, insects can:

  • replace land-hungry crops, including deforestation-linked soy
  • be grown locally instead of being imported from abroad
  • replace fishmeal and reduce overfishing
  • reduce feed consumption
  • reduce water use
  • improve animals’ immunity, health, and welfare

As a pet food ingredient, insects can:

  • drastically reduce the environmental impact of pets
  • cater to pets’ nutritional needs, especially to cats as obligate carnivores
  • provide a hypoallergenic food

So you want to know more about insect farming?

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.