Jul 06 2020

Feeding Animals Insects

The current world population is 7.8 billion people. We are expected to reach 10 billion by 2057, which, let’s face it, is right around the corner. That is a lot of people to feed. We don’t produce enough food now to feed that many people, and we are already using almost all the available arable land (this is a complex topic, but I go over it in detail here). What are the possible solutions?

Some argue for population control, and there is a reasonable argument to be made for leveling off and stabilizing human populations, even allowing them to drift down a bit. I don’t want to go into detail on this issue here, just to quickly say I reject arguments for radical population control, or things like allowing mass starvation to occur. But I support efforts such as lifting people out of poverty and affording more rights to women, both measures being shown to reduce population increase.

Another offered solution is to reduce food waste, and this is a noble effort. However, there is no magic wand we can wave to make this happen. Food waste is built into the system, and a major cause is the limited shelf life of food. It spoils. But there is unnecessary waste in the system, and we can do a better job of making sure as many calories end up consumed (by people or animals) as possible, and the rest is recycled as fertilizer. But this isn’t going to solve the problem.

This leaves us with food production – we need to produce more calories of food in order to meet growing demand. This is going to require a global effort, and the introduction of new technology. I have argued for the necessity of GMOs in order to meet growing demand for food while minimizing land use. But we have to produce not only more food, we need to produce food smarter – making sure that our resources (especially land) are being used optimally.

This leads us finally to the main topic of this post – the effect of meat production on the overall efficiency of our food production. There are those who argue that if we just eliminate meat consumption altogether, we would solve (at least for now) our food production problem. This is because we have to grow many more calories to feed the animals than we get out of them, so there is an inefficiency in the system. But the story is not as simple as plants good, meat bad. There is a lot of complexity in the web of food production that needs to be taken into consideration.

First, animals can eat calories that humans cannot, so they can become a method of converting calories into human food. Grazing animals can graze on land that is not suitable for growing crops. And animal manure is an important contributor to fertilizer worldwide (about 55%). We have to think of the whole system.

But efficiency, in terms of millions of calories produced per acre, is not always a clear win for plants. Remember – we are talking about protein. Most plants do not provide significant protein, but animal meat does, so we cannot compare cows to corn. Look at the following table:

Food         Million calories per acre
Wheat        6.4
Corn           12.3
Potatoes    17.8
Soybeans    2.1
Beef             1.1
Pork            3.5
Chicken      1.4

So yes, plants are generally more efficient than meat, which is why things like wheat and corn are staple sources of calories. But look at the plant on the list that is a significant source of protein – soybeans. This is down in the meat range of efficiency, and is actually less efficient than pork. So it’s not fair to compare cows to corn in terms of efficiency, when in reality cow meat will be replaced by soy protein or something similar, not corn. Analyses do show that industrialized nations are probably consuming more meat than is ideal, both for the environment and for health. But this does not mean reducing meat to zero. That would actually not be the most efficient course of action.

(As a total aside, because this always comes up when I write about meat, I am not discussing here the ethics of meat consumption and the treatment of animals. That is a separate issue.)

The table above also assumes that the animals listed are fed entirely with corn feed. This is not standard procedure. Cows, for example, are often grazed for a time, then finished in a feed lot with something like corn. But what if we could find an efficient protein source, something that maybe many humans would not be keen on eating, that is more efficient than corn? That is the subject of a recent study looking at two alternate food sources – insects and algae. They fed chickens either soybean meal, black soldier fly larvae meal, or spirulina (algae) and then compared the resulting meat. They found no difference between soy fed and insect fed chickens. The spirulina fed chickens has a somewhat “more intensive colour and flavour”. I don’t know if that was good or bad. Neither group had any negative effects on the quality and safety of the meat.

The insect option is particularly interesting. Insects are already being microfarmed for human consumption. This also is an option, and would be more efficiency than feeding the insects to animals then eating the animals. But acceptance and quality of life is also an issue. If we instead fed the insects to animals that would ultimately be used for human consumption, how would that compare in overall calorie production efficiency? It depends on a lot of variables. Many current insect farms in developed nations use high quality plant feed (like soy) for the insects. This is not going to be efficient.

If, however, insects are fed on food waste (because, why not?) then this could be a huge efficiency advantage. Potentially insects have the highest land use efficiency, if we don’t also use extra land to grow food just to feed them. Again, it would be more efficient to just eat the insects, and we will likely be doing more of this in the future. You probably wouldn’t notice, for example, if you consumed food made from insect flour. But there is likely an efficient system we can develop that raises insects on waste food then feeds them to animals for human consumption. We could, potentially, take crops out of the loop for animal production, and that would be a huge benefit to the efficiency of the food system.

The big picture here is that we want to convert calories that people cannot or don’t want to eat into high quality calories for human consumption, and to do this as efficiently and sustainably (and I will add, as humanely) as possible.


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