The future of agriculture could well involve the farming of insects for animal feed. Abi Kay met insect farmer, James Wright, to find out more.
New farming entrant James Wright has taken an unusual path in life. Just over a month ago, he was looking for a long-term home for his 300-strong flock of New Zealand Romney ewes.
Now, he has found himself standing on the edge of a potential animal feed revolution.
This quiet transformation of the feed industry is being driven in the UK by Multibox, a Cirencester-based insect farming start-up, where Mr Wright works as a director of farming.
So how did he find himself with a job there?
He explains: “I sold all my sheep a few weeks ago. It was really difficult, but there were two big reasons. The first is we cannot get hold of land on long-term lets.
“We have tried to get tenancies, but when you compare me to a farmer’s son or daughter, why would you go for me?
“They have twice as much experience and the back-up of their family if something goes wrong. I just do not have that.
“The second big reason is Brexit. We had no idea come March next year what my sheep would be worth.
“It is very difficult for me to stay in a farm manager’s job because I can earn more money doing stuff like this.”
The ‘stuff like this’ Mr Wright refers to is breeding and killing millions of black soldier flies. At last count Multibox had 5.5 million.
The flies were originally native to South America, but are now found all over the southern hemisphere.
When they are farmed, they provide a number of different products, including a protein which can be used in fish feed, an oil which can be used in animal feed, an organic fertiliser and certain chemicals which can be used in the pharmaceutical industry.
At the moment, the insect farm Mr Wright works on is only a prototype – which means it is significantly smaller than a full-scale commercial factory, though the plan is to upgrade to a new, bigger, site in the next few months.
The company has taken advantage of a very recent change to EU law which allows insects to be fed to fish for the first time since 1998, when all processed animal products for feed were banned as a result of the BSE crisis.
In 2021, European rules will be relaxed again, allowing the protein to be used in feed for pigs and poultry.
But the insect oil – which is classed as an animal fat – can already be added to pig and poultry feed, providing massive benefits for both livestock and the environment.
“At the moment, pigs get the lactic acids they need through palm oil”, says Mr Wright.
“But palm oil is one of the most destructive things in the world and is cutting down lots of rainforest.
“If we can produce something similar in the UK at a reasonable price, this is an incredible benefit for food manufacturers in terms of their sustainability.
“We can also add additives which enhance the end product.
“For example, a Dutch-Danish trial found if you feed black soldier larvae on an iron-heavy diet, they come out with more iron.
“They were then able to produce a specialist pig feed for very early anaemic pigs. So, instead of injecting the pigs with iron, they were able to have very iron-heavy feed. This meant reduced handling, reduced stress in the pigs and reduced labour.”
Black soldier fly oil also contains anti-microbial peptides, which early research suggests could boost the immune systems of pigs, though this is not yet confirmed.
If subsequent studies show this to be true, it could be a huge boost for Multibox, but the company chose to breed black soldier flies for other reasons.
“There are six insect species approved by the EU which can be used for farming,” explains Mr Wright.
“The black soldier fly is the easiest to breed. There are better insects at converting food waste into protein, but they are harder to breed.”
The running costs of the farm are relatively small, thanks to brand new lighting technology which is low in energy consumption and targets the right frequencies for black soldier fly breeding.
Mr Wright says: “We consider what we have developed here to be the world’s best artificial environment for breeding black soldier flies.
“It is very hard to get them to breed under artificial light. That has been a big barrier in the industry.”
Feeding the flies is very cost-effective, too.
“We feed them food waste which would end up in either AD or incineration”, says Mr Wright.
“It all has to be pre-consumer waste. Things like potato peelings, brewers grain or pulp from wine production. But we cannot trademark our recipe, so it has to be kept secret, a bit like Coca Cola.”
Asked whether other farmers could diversify into insect farming, Mr Wright says it is ‘basically like intensive poultry’.
“It is very similar in terms of biosecurity, in terms of the attention to detail and the smell. It is exactly the same as an intensive pig or poultry unit.”
He also says the margins to be made are ‘not even comparable’ to sheep farming.
“Everyone is losing money on sheep. If you can sell a tonne of protein for £1,400 and you are feeding insects food waste which you are buying very cheaply, it is just not comparable.
“The problem is the set-up costs. To build a full-size factory costs millions. To buy a flock of sheep, it is £20,000.”
Because of these massive start-up costs, farmers would have to partner with big companies if they were to have any opportunity to manage insect farms.
Though Multibox owns and operates its farms, Mr Wright is confident that alternative business models could offer future opportunities for farmers as the UK industry matures and other companies enter the market.
In order for the industry to mature, however, it needs the right legislative framework.
At the moment, there is no official guidance for how to label insect protein, and companies are struggling to get answers because ‘all the manpower is on Brexit’.
And leaving the EU throws up a different set of problems because the industry is working to European timelines on when insect protein will be made available to pigs, poultry and ruminants.
It is not clear whether the UK will continue to operate to the same schedule after Brexit.
Mr Wright also believes the industry needs targeted Government support in order to reach its full potential.
He suggests a subsidy similar to the feed-in tariff (FIT), which paid householders to produce renewable energy, would be a viable model for the insect farming industry.
“If we had a subsidy-based tariff to encourage investment, in five years, the industry would be self-sustaining and we could be the world leader,” Mr Wright says.
Other legal problems faced by the industry are of a more basic nature. Local trading standards officers, for example, come to inspect the farm but do not know what they are looking for.
Ordinarily, trading standards teams work to identify animal welfare breaches, but there is no such legislation governing insect farming.
This has not stopped Multibox from working to its own set of best practice rules.
When it is time for the insects to be killed, a maceration method is used for welfare reasons, because it is the most instantaneous form of death.
“We base what we do on the five principles of animal welfare,” says Mr Wright.
“We would really like to develop a Red Tractor and a Soil Association standard for insect farming, because there is nothing in the legislation about animal welfare. We as an industry should be pushing that forward ourselves.”
But asked whether building a welfare framework for insects could have a potentially negative effect on the arable sector which uses pesticides, he says: “That is a really good question. I do not know the answer to it.”