Is insect breeding the food of the future?


Dried mealworms provide protein for poultry, pigs and commercially farmed fish (all photos by D. Cahill)

The mealworm was once known only as a pest that destroyed stored grain, but the modest mealworm is now in the spotlight as a sustainable high protein food source. Mealworms are not only fed to backyard chickens, wild birds, and domestic animals, such as reptiles and captive birds, but they are also a source of protein for pigs, poultry, and fish. breeding commercial breeding.

Humans eat farmed fish, and the parts that we don’t eat, the byproduct of fish, are dried and ground into fishmeal and fed to pigs and poultry as well as farmed fish. Fishmeal is also used as a fertilizer to grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts. So the mealworm is already playing a role in our food supply chain.

As with mealworms, fishmeal is a high protein food source, but it can contain heavy metals or other contaminants. When organic farmers raise mealworms, they can control the insect’s diet and environment to remove chemicals and contaminants.

Mealworms are not worms at all. These are the larvae of Tenebrio molitor, a species of mealworm. The beetle has four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult beetle. The larvae go through several larval stages, or stages of development, before reaching a final length of 2.5 cm to 3 cm. Adults are shorter, around 1.25 cm to 1.8 cm. Adult beetles live for several months. Females lay about 500 eggs in their lifetime.

In the wild, mealworms eat vegetation, dead insects, and their own skin envelopes from all of these developing molts. In captivity, mealworms eat food waste.

Mealworm business model
Northwestern company Beta Hatch, in conjunction with Indiana University, is taking mealworms a step further with a genetic breeding program to produce bigger and better insects. Beta Hatch’s new flagship hatchery in Cashmere, Wash. Is in the final stages of construction.

“This is the largest mealworm rearing facility in North America,” said Aimee Rudolph, vice president of business development for Beta Hatch. “We are currently in the process of amplifying our population of mealworms and the insects have started to take up residence in their new grow rooms. We expect to be online and at full capacity in March 2022. ”

Mealworms are part of the annual pet food market of four to five billion dollars.

By 2023, Beta Hatch plans to contract with a network of insect breeders.
“We use a hub-and-spoke approach to production and expansion,” Rudolph said. “The Cashmere facility is designed to function as a hatchery. The eggs will be shipped to insect ranches. These ranches will be co-located with raw materials for insects, finished food produced, end users for manure or other key stages in the supply chain. In this way, we can further reduce the environmental impact of food production.

Beta Hatch’s flagship hatchery is designed to support at least a dozen ranches and is already looking for ways to expand. Besides dried mealworms, Beta Hatch also sells excrement. Mealworm droppings (insect droppings) are a 2-3-2 fertilizer and USDA certified organic soil amendment. It is also OMRI listed.

Raising mealworms
Mealworms are raised sustainably. In addition to eating agricultural waste byproducts, mealworms require minimal water and grow 500 times the yield per acre of soybeans, according to the Beta Hatch website (soybeans produce an average of 50 bushels per acre.)

Mealworms are a popular treat for backyard chickens, pet birds, and reptiles.

“The larval stage is when we use mealworms for food. It’s also the stage of life that produces excrement, a natural fertilizer, ”said Rudolph. “We have this wonderful circular system in which insects eat byproducts of industries such as harvesting fruit and processing grain. The whole insect is then used as a food ingredient, with food production reflecting the way it functions in nature.

“Raising insects can be a stable source of income,” said Rudolph. “You don’t have seasonality with mealworms. That’s predictable income all year round to complement a diverse crop portfolio.

Mealworm (cultivated mealworm).

Food revolution
Humans eat the chickens, pigs, and fish that were fed mealworms, but what if we avoided the middleman and went straight to eating the larvae?

Many other crops are already eating insects. The act of consuming insects by humans even has a name: entomophagy. In Brazil, ant queens take flight in October and November. Ants have a minty flavor and are often dipped in chocolate. In China, bee larvae are available as an aperitif. Chinese street vendors sell assorted insects on skewers on sticks. In Denmark, ginger root and mixed grasshoppers are mixed with apple juice for a special drink. In Ghana, up to 60% of the protein in the diet of rural Africans comes from insects; termites are an important survival food.

Japanese chefs prepare fancy dishes using fried silk butterfly pupae and fried grasshoppers. Insects in Mexico can satisfy a sweet tooth, either fried and dipped in chocolate, or added to candy. Some Mexican cooks soak ant eggs in butter before serving. In Thai bars, patrons can munch on stir-fried crickets, grasshoppers and larvae while enjoying their favorite alcoholic beverage. In the United States, there is a California company called Hotlix, which offers fancy edibles for insects, such as suckers with scorpions embedded inside and mealworm snack-sized wrappers and of fried crickets in assorted flavors including bacon and cheddar, Mexican spices and salt and vinegar.

Stages of development of mealworms.

For those who want to grow a sustainable source of protein in their home or office, Livin Farms based in Austria and Hong Kong provides office mealworm hives. The beehive looks like a plastic tote with drawers. Mealworms are reared inside drawer compartments, fed daily and harvested weekly.

Mealworms are over 50% protein and around 25% fat and can live on food scraps, like what the home gardener might throw in his compost bin or feed his backyard hens. Leftovers such as fruits and vegetables, and grains such as oats and bread, will allow mealworms to grow and thrive in the mealworm hives at Livin Farms. Worms in beehives should not be fed fatty or spicy foods, liquid foods, like soup, or anything rotten or moldy. Dry and wet foods should be balanced to avoid odors.

The optimum temperature for mealworms in captivity is around 82 degrees F. They need around 60% humidity. After harvesting the worms when they are about 3cm long, they can be humanely killed by freezing them. They are then ready to be fried, baked or ground into protein powder for human consumption.

In addition to being rich in protein, insects have minimal impact on the environment. The question is: will Americans ever be able to overcome the “ick” factor and willingly eat insects other than as a novelty? Only time will tell.


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