Breeding insects on an industrial scale could meet the increasing demand for feed for cattle.
With the Netherlands leading the charge in insect-rearing, Dutch designer Aagje Hoekstra is already thinking a step further: what to do with the waste the insects produce on this industrial scale? Aagje had the idea to make plastic out of their armour. She calls the bio-plastic Coleoptera, named after the largest order of animals on the earth, the beetles.
It is estimated that a 70 percent increase in feed for cattle will be required by 2050 to meet the global population growth and the growing demand for meat and fish. This will put enormous pressure on traditional ways of collecting feed for livestock, which today accounts for one third of the total amount of fish caught and an average of 40 percent of the global grain production. Industries worldwide are getting ready to meet the increasing demand for meat and fish by rearing insects rich in protein, and turn them into cattle feed. Although the process of producing insects as substitutes for meat is a hot topic in the debate on food security today, I believe it is important to question its environmental impact. As any other industry, rearing insects brings waste. But insect waste has the extraordinary value of being turned into new materials such as plastic.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), about 70 percent of the total amount of agricultural land is currently used for livestock food production. In order to feed future generations, more land is necessary. Rearing insects instead of growing grains is considered part of the solution. The FAO has outlined the most important advantages of insects over cattle and fish:
- insects have a high feed-conversion efficiency, meaning the kilogram of feed necessary per kilogram of weight gain
- they can be reared on so-called ‘organic side streams’, meaning they add value to waste since they can be reared on manure or compost
- they require less water than cattle
- insects have a lower risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases
- insects emit relatively fewer Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) and ammonia
- insects have fewer welfare issues, however it is unknown to which extent they experience pain
Obviously there are other protein-rich alternatives, such as cultured meat, beans, seaweed and funghi. However, industrial development is steering towards setting up insect farms to rear them on a larger scale (meaning producing a minimum of 1 tonne per day). Several industrial companies have emerged in different parts of the world, such as AgriProtein in South Africa, EnviroFlight in the United States and Protix Biosystems in the Netherlands.
In case of the beetles, only their larvae are used for production of animal feed. The beetle naturally dies after laying its eggs and is usually thrown away meaning that the use of beetles for animal feed comes with a higher ecological footprint than when rearing other insects. According to designer Aagje Hoekstra, insect farms in the Netherlands are throwing away 30 kilograms of dead beetles weekly. She wants to give them a ‘new life’.
To make plastic out of beetles, Aagje peeled the shields from the beetles as these contain the substance chitin, an organic polymer similar to cellulose. In a chemical lab, she transformed the shields into pure chitin and converted this into chitosan. By pressing the chitosan together, she made her bio-plastic, Coleoptera. The paper-thin material is waterproof and can have contact with boiling water up to 200 degrees Celcius.
The production of bio(degradable) plastic is not new and is still undergoing a rapid development. From waterbottles made out of plants to surfboards made from mushrooms and packages from corn, or compost, the innovative ideas for new ways to substitute conventional plastic seem endless. The organic material chitine used by Aagje can be found in many other insects, including funghi and lobsters. Chitosan is already used for innovative applications. The industry gets it from the shields of shrimps and lobsters and uses it to give more solidity to products such as paper, clothes and cosmetics.
However, the work of Aagje’s Coleoptera, I believe, is interesting since she recycles the beetles by using their shields after they are processed by the industry. Her Coleoptera contributes both to a more sustainable approach towards the emerging insect farms and as an alternative to plastic.