Climate Tech

When fish feed runs low, insects step up to lighten the load

Players like Cargill-owned EWOS use insect feed to help supply the aquaculture industry.
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· 5 min read

The indoor-farming industry grows primarily leafy greens in massive warehouses, with the goal of either supplementing or outright replacing traditional outdoor growing. The industry has also experimented with crops like herbs, wheat, and tomatoes.

But there is another indoor-farming industry, one that specializes in the kind of critters you most likely wouldn’t want to eat. Thousands of racks lead insects through their life cycle, where their protein is harvested to make feed for animals, and sometimes humans. Companies like Ynsect and Innovafeed, two major players in the industry, provide insect feed to pet-food companies and fish-farming operations in the aquaculture industry.

The aquaculture industry is heavily reliant on fishmeal, which is made from smaller marine life. Fishmeal supply is unstable due to factors including overfishing, pollution, and a decrease in fish catches, according to the scientific journal Animals. That is a whale-sized problem for aquaculture demand, which has increased 30% from the average in the early 2000s globally; it accounted for 7% of domestic seafood production by weight in 2022, according to NOAA.

If fishmeal stock struggles to keep up with demand, it could hinder a growing international aquaculture industry. That’s where insects come in: Insect-feed companies are hoping to meet that demand with supply, mixing their feed with fishmeal (or replacing it) while maintaining a similar nutritional profile.

“Insect meal is a high-quality protein ingredient. It’s in line with a lot of other ingredients we have that we can then use as we see fit. We have some customers that want to have low- or high-marine ingredients in their feed; we have some that might want to have a lot of insect [feed] because they really believe in insects,” Marianne Koch, sustainability manager at Cargill Aqua Nutrition, told Tech Brew. “The challenge right now is that the industry needs to scale up in order to be able to have those kinds of [insect] levels in the feed.”

A bug’s (work) life

Innovafeed centers its operations around the black soldier fly and its larvae, which it uses specifically for its high protein and short 45-day life cycle. Innovafeed harvests 95% of all black soldier flies while in their early or larvae stages to create its insect feed, according to Sean Madison, director of North American business development at Innovafeed.

Ynsect’s insect of choice is the mealworm, which it uses for similar reasons and harvests everything but an average of 5% of its mealworms for insect feed, according to Antoine Hubert, president, co-founder, and CEO of Ynsect.

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Madison said Innovafeed works with partners like EWOS, which is owned by Cargill, Skretting, and BioMar to provide fish feed, while Ynsect has partnered likewise with Skretting. Cargill first partnered with Innovafeed in 2019 and extended the partnership in 2022 from three years to 10.

Both companies are expanding or have expanded operations into the United States, with Ynsect operating a production site in Omaha and Innovafeed breaking ground on a facility in Decatur, Illinois, scheduled to operate on an industrial scale by 2025.

“Insects are really nature’s most powerful upcyclers. And they have an incredible ability to take low-grade, low-value items and turn them into very high-value ingredients. Insects are kind of in this nexus between these upstream issues to solve and these downstream issues to solve,” Madison told Tech Brew.

Light's out

A notable difference between other indoor-farming setups that rely on plants and insect farming is the lack of the need for a lot of LED lighting, as both mealworms and the black soldier fly go through certain portions of their life cycle in darker conditions.

Additionally, where in leafy-green farming plants are shuffled from germination rooms to large growing rooms where they remain until harvest, the insect trays are constantly shuffled from larvae to be fed, grown into maturity, reproduce, or be harvested into insect feed, according to Hubert.

“It’s like a traffic jam. You have this big conveyor, you have the trays stack like cars moving or trains. They need to avoid traffic jams on the way there. They need to be fed at a good time. You have barcodes on all trays, so we know the edge, know what they have eaten, when they need to eat again,” Hubert told Tech Brew. “Every two or three days they need new feeding. If you’re late you lose productivity because then the larvae will grow more slowly to their target size.”

Today, the insect-farming industry is a niche component of both indoor growing and the aquaculture industry, but the hope is that as it scales up, it can serve either as a supplement within 10 years, according to Koch, or as an eventual replacement for fishmeal over a longer timeline, according to Madison.

“The industries we’re selling into are making millions and millions and millions of tons of feed. You couldn’t possibly be a full replacement until maybe 20 years from now,” Madison said. “The reality is you have to be a compliment. And that’s just the way that the dynamics will work out.”

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