The British farm livestock of the future may have six legs rather than four. Jonathan Wheeler reports.
With the ethics and environmental costs of red meat production under increasing scrutiny, raising insects for food could play a significant role in the future, believes Lincolnshire farmer Adam Banks.
And he is now rearing the house cricket (Acheta domesticus) to produce a protein-rich food ingredient that has a remarkably good environmental profile.
Changes to EU legislation due to be made later this year could relax some of the rules around the business and expand the range of insects that can be farmed.
Mr Banks runs Instar Farming, which raises crickets for human consumption at a farm in Lincolnshire.
He points out that insects are already a staple foodstuff across much of the planet and that there is a plethora of facts and figures highlighting a range of health, nutritional and environmental benefits.
He first became interested in the subject when on a work placement in Mexico.
He explains: “Eating insects is totally normal there, as it is across most of the planet. Most of those they eat are wild harvested. Grasshoppers, ant larvae and worms are every day food items. Around the world some 200 species are eaten.”
There are some threats to the supply, he says, due to over-harvesting of some species.
And some other species are threatened by development and, ironically, modern farming practices.
But he says insects make much better use of earth’s resources than conventional livestock and could help reduce the industry’s environmental impact – a point he expects will attract consumer interest.
He adds they could also rectify some of the livestock sector’s most immediate problems by replacing protein sources that are under pressure such as fishmeal or soya.
They could also greatly reduce the pressure on land.
Annual global meat consumption has risen from 75 million tonnes to 335mt in a generation and is projected to reach 455mt by 2050.
That is occupying a huge portion of the land available for farming, as well as huge amounts of resources. Mr Banks says: “Fifty per cent of all habitable land is used for agriculture and 77 per cent of that land is used to produce livestock, either in the form of grazing or arable crops that will be consumed by animals.”
Much meat production is very inefficient compared with rearing insects, he says.
“Chickens typically consume between 2kg and 1.7kg of feed to produce a kilogramme of meat.
“For very young crickets on a high energy diet food conversion rates can be 1:1. In laboratory conditions crickets can achieve about 1.4kg.
“On-farm we achieve typically achieve 1.8-2.1kg feed/kg meat. But we eat just 60 per cent of the chicken – we can eat 100 per cent of crickets.”
He also says some of the nutritional benefits over products like beef are significant too.
“Crickets contain 67 per cent protein – much higher than beef – and are also a complete source of amino acids.
“They are also high in mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids, a good source of dietary fibre and rich in bio-available micronutrients such as iron, magnesium, zinc, riboflavin and biotin, as well as containing important vitamins like A, E and B12.”
With that in mind, the idea of using insects as food is gaining credibility and farming them makes sense.
One key issue is persuading nations that do not currently eat insects to start doing so, which means dispelling what he refers to as the ’yuck factor’.
The key, he suggests, is learning from the many countries where eating insects is commonplace and starting with children.
“We need to start be exposing young people to the idea of easting insects, because our dietary preferences are formed early on.
“If it is ever going to be completely normal for Europeans to eat insects that is the way we have to go, because at the moment it is not normal.”
Promoting the health benefits could help, he suggests. “Regular consumption is recognised to have a beneficial effect on human gut microbiota and help reduce inflammations among people with related health issues.”
Raising crickets has much in common with conventional housed livestock systems, albeit with some different dynamics when it comes to livestock numbers, feeding, watering and health.
The key requirement is a well-insulated building in which the temperature can be kept between 29degC and 33degC, with well managed humidity, to replicate the species natural tropical habitat.
Providing insulation is efficient, power bills are not excessive, he says, especially as the crickets generate some heat themselves.
They are fed on poultry rations milled to a fine powder. “That makes it easier for them – especially new hatchlings – to eat it. We start them on a 22 per cent protein diet, which is reduced to 17 per cent protein as they mature.”
Water provision is an issue because, while the insects need it, newly hatched crickets are barely the size of an aphid and can drown in something as small as a droplet of condensation.
Mr Banks is working on developing his own system by adapting poultry drinkers.
The crickets are kept in plastic pallet boxes measuring 1.2m by 1m and 70cm deep, inside which he positions moulded egg trays to maximise the perching surface for the animals.
Each box contains some 25,000 animals, which go from hatching to maturity in 35 to 40 days. He currently has 77 boxes in the building and ‘harvests’ them on a rotation.
With that many animals in an enclosed space he has to keep a close watch for disease problems, with the main issues being viruses that could spread quickly.
He explains: “Bacterial and fungal pathogens, as well as mites, can be managed with proper climate control of the rearing area.
“Most cricket farms maintain a relative humidity of under 55 per cent, which is sufficient for the crickets to thrive, moult properly and not become dehydrated, but too dry for fungi to proliferate.”
One input he says cannot be avoided is management time. The system is labour intensive, but he adds 77 boxes each containing 25,000 crickets means he is spending all his time tending the needs of 1,925,000 animals.
Crickets are slaughtered by starving them for a day and then freezing them, which shuts down their systems. Mr Banks says: “They are cold blooded and cannot regulate their own body temperature, so they go into a state of diapause as their systems shut down.”
He currently sells his produce to a food company for processing. “Most of what we produce is ground into a flour that gets used in protein bars and shakes, pasta doughs or biscuits.
“The taste depends on how they are processed, but they naturally have a mild nutty flavour with a mushroom-like aspect to it.”
He has also started selling packets of the ground product direct via the internet as an alternative route to market.
In many parts of the world options such as whole roast crickets are regarded as a delicacy, so there is scope to expand the range of products in future.
Beef - 34.6
Lamb - 17.4
Pork - 6.35
Chicken - 4.57
Crickets - 1.85
Beef: 25 – 6
Lamb:15 – 6
Pork: 6.4 – 3.8
Poultry: 3.3 – 1.7
Crickets: 2.5 – 1.3
Beef (extensive/grazing): 164m2
Beef (indoor/feed-lot): 22m2