Keys to understand the still very unlikely Insects’ single market

The demand for food is growing, in parallel to the increase in the global population and the expansion of the middle class in emerging economic and demographic potencies. As a result of that, meat consumption has increased 20 fold over the past 40 years. This trend is expected to accentuate, as it is estimated that, by 2030, there will be around 9 billion human beings on our small planet. How can food security be ensured in these circumstances?

The situation is complex. First of all, the possibilities of expanding cultivation areas are limited, mainly due to increasing urbanization and land-pressure. The effects of climate change, such as exacerbated drought or floods, impacts agriculture and therefore, the supply of crop food for both animal feed and human consumption. The depletion of fish stocks adds  to the dilemma of sustainability. Given this scenario, groups of experts have started to point at the generalisation of insect food as one of the necessary ingredients of food security, either for feeding livestock or for introducing them into people’s diets.

After all, bugs are everywhere; they reproduce themselves quickly and breeding them has a very small environmental impact. More importantly, edible species of insects are rich in nutrients. They represent a natural source of high quality proteins, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, as well as unsaturated fatty acids (healthier than those in beef!). Thus, it is not surprising that these invertebrates are already part of the diet of millions of people in the world, especially in tropical countries, where edible insects abound. In light of this, the disgust that entomophagy triggers among Europeans does not seem to be a rational behaviour, but rather a cultural issue.

Insects for feed

EU Chicken Source Dr Fitches

More than 80% of the protein sources required for livestock rearing in the EU, such as soya and fish meal, are imported from non-EU countries.  This is problematic, as it can lead to market fluctuations and price rises in the final products. The incorporation of insects in animal feed would reduce the dependency of the EU upon external protein sources to feed its livestock. However, this is not contemplated by EU law (with the exception of its usage for fish or shellfish feed).

The EU is exploring new possibilities, and has financed a research project that aims to facilitate the use of insects as an alternative source of protein for animal feed. The project is called PROteINSECT and it will focus on producing two species of fly larvae for fish, chicken and pig feeding, alongside safety and quality checks.  Ironically, these animals would naturally consume flies and other insects, which are banned on European farms.

The PROteINSECT’s coordinator, Dr Elaine Fitches, explains that the project has another interesting dimension related to waste management: “The consortium will examine the potential for rearing fly larvae on organic waste substrates as a means of both converting low-value wastes to high value protein and as a strategy for reducing waste volume”.

So far, the project has been running for eleven months during which it has developed new rearing technologies for the housefly and Black Soldier fly. “We are just about to begin an analysis of the safety and nutritional quality of insect material produced by our partners”, highlights Dr Fitches. When asked about the possibility of this project providing a boost for a policy change, she says: “We very much hope so! It is critical that we provide evidence of the safety and quality of insects to provide a strong scientific basis for changing policy”.

Insects for food

Source Dr Grootaert

In the same way as insects for feed, the use of insects for human consumption is not contemplated by EU law. In fact, the European Commission started a consultation process with Member States, asking whether or not they were aware of insects used as food by their national citizens.  Even when Member States found that there is occasional consumption of insects as food, they could not name any species that was the subject of significant human consumption before the entrance into force of the Novel Food Regulation. This means that, to date, the European Commission considers edible insects as ‘novel food’, but there are no clear guidelines on which species are to be authorised for marketing nor on how mass-rearing of insects would have to work.

While the EU has not adopted a final position regarding entomophagy and the topic is far from seeping into, and gaining importance within the EU portfolio, Belgium has taken the lead by legalising in December 2013 the commercialization and consumption of ten different insect species. This turns Belgium into the first EU Member State where this is officially allowed. Therefore, the insect market that is shyly emerging is, for the moment, not harmonised.

The Belgian entomologist Dr. Patrick Grootaert welcomes the new national legislation that will enable Belgians to purchase fresh insects in specialized shops. He is well aware of the health and environmental benefits of entomophagy, but understands that public authorities tread carefully. He explains: “In Europe, there is no tradition of consuming insects and it is only recently that international organizations such as FAO started to promote insects as food and feed”.

Dr. Grootaert says: “Food safety is a very important issue and quality control is a must. At first only reared insects will be allowed for consumption in Belgium, and high standards will guarantee food safety”.  Following the reasoning of this renowned entomologist, it is expected that the consumption of insects will contribute to ensuring food supplies worldwide in the years to come, also across Europe. However, it seems that, before finding new paths to address food security in the future, the European authorities will focus on ensuring food safety in the present.


Learn more:

Check the full questionnaire to Dr Elaine Fitches here

Check the full questionnaire to Dr Patrick de Grootaert here

Watch a BBC documentary on entomophagy here

Check the regulatory frameworks governing the use of insects for  food security here