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Could insects represent an alternative resource for animal feed?

Insects are rich in proteins and fats, and they constitute the basis of the diet of many animals. They have been used in Asian cooking for hundreds of years and today are used by the food industry to produce ingredients that enter into the composition of everyday food products. The cochineal (also known as scale insect or mealybug), for example, produces the natural dye used as a colorant in certain sweets. In a context of increasing scarcity of resources, insects - so far underexploited as a commodity - could be a source of raw materials. This, at least, is the postulate of the Desirable project, which has been funded by ANR since 2013 under its Sustainable Food Systems programme.

Countering the protein shortage with insects

Given the present context of growing demand for meat and short supply of cultivable land, the stock market value of proteins for animal feed has greatly increased over the last few years. These resources have thus come to represent very real economic stakes for the feeding of animals and hence for the feeding of humans. This situation is compounded by technical hindrances to the use of certain vegetable flours and, in Europe, consumer suspicion of processed animal proteins obtained by the transformation of animal by-products (fish, poultry and pork).

The recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) to feed the world in 2050 include the development of protein production and notably "Protein-Rich Materials" (PRM) obtained from insects and used in livestock rearing and the food industry. Insects do indeed seem to be a credible and ecological solution to counter the shortage of PRMs. The aim of the Desirable project, coordinated by Samir Mezdour of AgroParisTech (GENIAL Laboratory), is thus to evaluate the performance of the larva of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) and mealworm (Tenebrio molitor) for feeding fish and poultry. The project also includes a social and environmental study of the impact of the insect route as a food resource (for animal feed).

The promises of an ecological solution

As well as representing an ecological solution with little environmental impact, insects have the advantage of being naturally present in the diets of fish and poultry. They moreover have true nutritional qualities on account of their high levels of essential amino acids, vitamins and interesting fatty acids. This solution also seems to hold high potential for economic valorisation, given the competitiveness of insects as a source of PRM, capable - according to the project principal investigators - of leading to European self-sufficiency in this area.

An integrated vision, from farming to market

The ambition of the Desirable project is to cover the entire new industrial sector of the insect, from the harvesting of organic waste to feed the insects, which will be transformed into PRM, through to final consumption in poultry and fish farms. The ultimate objective is to design an insect biorefinery capable of supplying not only the livestock farmers but also biomaterial producers and the pharmaceutical and cosmetic sectors. Laboratory and pilot unit tests shall be carried out for each of the biorefinery components, namely insect farming, insect transformation and end-product formulation. This goal requires the associating of numerous skills, both academic and entrepreneurial (entomology, food technology, animal feeding, sensory analysis, life-cycle analysis, farming, transformation technologies). Consequently, the Desirable project brings together nine French laboratories from five public research centres (AgroParisTech, INRA, CEA, CNRS, IRSTEA). The project partner SMEs provide useful skills in farming and transformation technologies. They include two companies, IPV Food and Ynsect. The latter company, founded in 2011, has been integrated into the Parisian incubator Agoranov with the aim of industrialising insect farming and production. 

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