the idea of ​​some scientists to reduce their environmental footprint

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Ironies of food, the future of livestock may go through the same worms that farmers have been fighting for decades in the form of pests. Not figuratively. Not literally. There are companies that already look at the larvae as a “lifesaver” in the face of the challenges facing the sector. It can still be disturbing for us to find a good plate of tenebrios on the table, but the truth is that they are a food rich in protein and can help farmers to raise their cattle without grazing. a huge impact on the environment.

The challenge now for its production to gain pace and to be able to offer increasingly competitive prices is: How to achieve fat, nutritious and, above all, fast-growing worms?

And above all, is the change so important?


The grassland challenge. The livestock industry faces the future with an important handicap: its environmental impact. And at least one part is related to feeding animals. According to the Food Organization of the United Nations —FAO, for its acronym in English— the sector consumes some 6,000 million tons of fodder, grains and feed every year. It is estimated that one third of the world’s cereal production is devoted to livestock. In practice, these figures have a consequence: they require extensive farmland.

A report published by Science reveals that between 2000 and 2019 the fields of corn, rice and other crops have gained more than one million square kilometers globally, especially in Africa and South America. Half of that land grew at the expense of trees and natural ecosystems. By displacing forests, savannahs and jungles, farms “take” spaces that previously stored carbon. Not everything is dedicated to cattle, of course; but this one does take a part. Soy derivatives, one of the crops that are motivating the change in land use, represent 4% of animal intake.

Food, measured in CO2. The FAO estimates that livestock generates 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions of human origin, a percentage that some studies raise even several points. How is it generated? The majority (62%) originates from cattle, mainly with the methane it produces during digestion, behind 44% of emissions. Another 10% is related to manure management and 5% to energy consumption.

The remaining 41% is directly related to the animals’ own feeding; that is, the carbon dioxide (CO2) attributable to grasslands, feed production, the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides with which the land is treated, and the transport of the merchandise itself. Land use change alone explains approximately 5% of all CO2 emissions.

A problem with signs of growing. The challenge, in addition, can be aggravated. Despite the rise of alternatives such as plant-based or laboratory-based meats, the OECD and FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021 report forecasts that the global supply of meat will increase to 374 million tons in 2030. Specifically, its authors forecast a rise in production in China, Brazil and the United States and an increase led by poultry production.

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And then the bugs came. Against this background, there are those who see insects as a clear alternative to supply livestock. A study published in 2019 on Animals cites among the most “promising” species the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), the yellow mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) and the common house fly (Musca domestica) to feed poultry, pigs and fish and outlines some advantages, such as their nutritional value, the low level of greenhouse gas emissions generated by their production or the limited space required to raise them.

Other authors highlight among the strengths of insects their high protein content, which is part of the natural diet of birds, pigs and fish, their immunological advantages, the low greenhouse gas emissions they generate — “Only 1% compared to ruminants” , stand out—, or the very possibilities of its cultivation. “They can be raised on a wide range of substrates, such as agricultural streams and food waste. They can be the missing link towards greater circularity in agriculture and the food industry.”

Food for animals… and humans. Insects are not only outlined as food for livestock. In the world there is already over 2 billion people that include worms and beetles on their menu and there are voices that affect its advantages, including the same ones that make them an option for chickens and pigs: they are nutritious, produce body mass at a good rate and can be eaten practically whole, with little waste. All this, added to the saving of land occupied during breeding and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

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Companies that already exploit the market. Today there are already firms, such as Ÿnsect, Buggy Bix or Tebrio, in Spain, which exploit the potential of breeding insects for food. The sector has an important business niche in pet food —in Australia they sell pumpkin cookies and worm for dogs; and in Europe Tomojo commercializes sweets supplemented with larvae—, but its production is very low when compared to other sources of protein. According to data from IPIFFa European organization that defends the interests of the sector, in the EU today there are “a few thousand tons” with a global investment that exceeds one billion euros and the generation of more than a thousand jobs, both direct and indirect.

The sector, which expects to shoot up its figures reaching 30,000 jobs by the end of the decade, received a key accolade last year by accepting the European Commission (EC) insect meal as a source of protein to feed pigs and poultry. The progress is added to what had already been achieved four years earlier, in 2017, when authorized to feed fish. The decision opens a gigantic market to the sector. In Spain alone it is estimated that there are more than 88,400 pig farms and 20,700 poultry farmsa figure that has been achieved after years of growth.

The great challenge: adapt and gain efficiency. The problem for the sector is that it still has to adapt if it wants to meet a greater volume of demand. What recognized the Efe agency in 2021 Jorge de Saja, general director of the employer’s association Cesfac, producing insect meal at an industrial level “can have a very significant impact on the sector”, but requires more R&D. Gaining efficiency is also the goal of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming —CEIF, for its acronym in English—, a recently created organization based in the USA.

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Lower costs to gain attractiveness. Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is to lower its cost. As Wired specifiesthe low levels of production in which the sector still operates keep insect prices high, which represents a challenge when it comes to competing with soybeans, cereals or other traditional alternatives for feeding livestock.

How? Achieving fleshier insects that grow faster. beta bugs, a Scottish startup, is working on more productive versions of the black soldier fly. “What we have is a kind of raw material that can then be improved through selective breeding,” she tells Wired. “The insect’s accelerated life cycle, which is ready two weeks after hatching, makes that task easy. Although it has been farmed commercially for the last decade, the black soldier fly has not yet been genetically enhanced for large-scale production.” , annotate on your website.

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Relying on genetics. The French company Ÿnsect, in full expansionannounced in January the Ÿnfabre program, which he presents as “the first industrial genomic selection program applied to mass breeding of insects”. The program, developed with the CEA-Genoscope center, and with funding of 4.34 million euros, makes use of phenotyping and genotyping tools and seeks to generate “resistant and high-yielding” mealworms.

It is not the first step of Ÿnsect to achieve copies with features that help you improve your business and gain efficiency. For example, the French company has already identified a strain of buffalo worm with a growth rate 25% faster than the original strain, an advantage that, recognize“increases farm output as well as resource efficiency.”

Image | Pascal Debrunner (Unsplash) and Harish Shivaraman (Unsplash)

Ironies of food, the future of livestock may go through the same worms that farmers have been fighting for decades…

Ironies of food, the future of livestock may go through the same worms that farmers have been fighting for decades…

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