A Dutch-Danish consortium believes Europeans and northern Americans will soon eat insects again like the Romans. Eureka spotted a sector worth gambling on.
Would you snack on a locust or wolf down a bowl of beetle stew? One group of Dutch and Danish professionals predict that will be as natural in the near future as dining on pizza or steak, and no stranger than eating prawns or snails. Eureka’s Eurostars project team wasn’t squeamish about the idea, becoming one of the first organisations to take a gamble on the potential market for eating insects, helping to kick-start an incipient European sector.
Since the Eurostars project SUSMEAL completed, investment has begun flowing for research into ways to rear insects and evaluate the extent to which they can feed the world’s growing population as resources like water and land come under pressure. “When we got the grant for SUSMEAL in 2014, it was a real breakthrough for this young industry - there hadn’t been many research projects of over a million euro,” says Lars-Henrik Lau Heckmann, a biologist and Head of Section at the Danish Technological Institute (DTI). “It helped build knowledge on how to handle rearing insects on an industrial scale.”
On SUSMEAL, the DTI worked with Dutch business Protifarm and the Danish mechanisation company Hannemann Engineering to see how buffalo larvae (lesser mealworm) can be best fed and reared cost-efficiently. Legislation on feeding insects to humans and to poultry and pigs is still evolving, but the partners are convinced they will play a role in feeding the world’s population, expected to grow to 9 billion in 2050 from the current 7.4 billion, which includes 827 million undernourished people.
“Buffalo larvae are really efficient and environmental. They need very little water and they convert their food into biomass five times better than cows,” says Lau Heckmann. The SUSMEAL consortium believes further research into insect feed can make them even more efficient.
SUSMEAL’s partners experimented feeding buffalo larvae by-products from breweries and bakeries, analysing the best diets for them to process and the optimal ratios of protein and carbohydrates. They discovered buffalo larvae preferred less pre-treated bakery products.
Protifarm, which has produced insects since 1981 when it was founded as Kreca (a combination of the Dutch word “cricket” and the founding family “Calis”), gained valuable knowhow in reducing production costs. Hannemann, a newcomer to the insect sector, developed a handling machine to harvest buffalo larvae. “Hannemann joined us because they were convinced insects were the new black in food production,” says Heckmann. Hannemann built conveyer belts and machines for storing, transporting, and emptying boxes of insects effectively. DTI’s robotics department developed a vision system for box inspection to substitute daily human inspections. The advantage of insects is that, like plants, they can be vertically farmed, producing far greater quantities than cattle.
SUSMEAL was the “first step” into vital research in the sector, says Heckmann.
An estimated 2.5 billion people in the world already eat insects, including Mexicans who eat about 500 species, and the consortium is convinced Europeans will return to eating them, as they did in Roman and Medieval times.
Products on the market in Europe are so far limited, but the now 15-strong team insect research team at the DTI practise what they preach. Heckmann eats insects produced by companies like Protifarm on a weekly basis, even feeding them to his seven-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. “Children eat them instinctively. Millennials are very keen on them because they are open-minded and care about the environment,” he says.
He eats them in “stealth products” like pasta, but also whole, locusts, crickets and beetle larvae, which are sold roasted, freeze-dried or ground. “People always ask if I eat them alive. No! I don’t eat chicken alive either,” he laughs.