More and more people are interested in starting insect farms in Aragon. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) published at the beginning of 2021, in the midst of the COVI-19 pandemic, the first complete evaluation of an insect-derived food product as a novel food. This new food is the larva of Tenebrio Molitor (the mealworm) in its two consumption variants: both the complete dry insect and in powder form.
What barriers do insect farms face compared to other types of livestock farming today?
They are mainly barriers derived from being an innovative initiative: legislation still in evolution regarding some issues, lack of history on breeding processes, absence of history on improved or optimized work processes, as well as a cultural barrier regarding to include insects as part of the diet in humans.
The high protein index provided by insects is one of the most positive parts of this livestock, but as a business, what other advantages do they present?
Insect farming, compared to other farms, actually has a number of advantages. Insects are a nutritious food source, rich in protein, but also in other compounds of interest. Its production has, forgive the redundancy, a higher productive yield because insect farming has a better conversion rate than other livestock. The conversion index is a value that indicates the efficiency with which the animal is capable of transforming the food it ingests into body mass of the animal. In addition, this livestock has a lower environmental impact in protein production, it is more sustainable, for example, in terms of water footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.
The breeding of insects can be used as a food resource to produce them with vegetable by-products as a food source, although the use of waste of animal origin is prohibited at the moment. What is needed to breed these insects?
An adequate space for breeding is necessary, with adequate temperature, humidity and air quality control conditions. Human resources are also necessary to attend to production, and intangible assets such as interest, enthusiasm, time, patience, and significant resilience, among others.
As we said before, interest in starting up insect farms is growing in Aragon and in the rest of Spain. Is there any kind of support for this production by the markets or the public administration?
Some interest is perceived, on the part of some sectors that depend on protein, to identify new alternative protein sources for the future. Population growth forecasts force us to “think” and “work” to ensure sufficient and safe protein for the people and animals to come. From the point of view of public administrations, there are programs and calls for aid, mainly related to issues of innovation, research, improvement of the environment, promotion of the circular economy, etc., which have collected and continue to collect interest in researching the opportunities offered by insects as an alternative protein source.
In the fauna there are many kinds of insects. Which are the ones that are being implanted more in Aragon for their breeding and why?
The insects that can be raised for animal and human food are specific and are described in the legislation. There is a website of a European platform of insect farmers, https://ipiff.org/general-information/, who are supporting the EU in promoting and assisting in the development of insect farming. It is a good place to learn for those who are interested in insect production. In Spain, in general, the insects that are being worked on the most are: the house cricket, the black soldier fly and the Tenebrio Molitor.
A few years ago, together with his partner Eva Gavín Nogués, they launched Insectopia 2050 with the aim of producing different products for both animal and human consumption. At what point is this initiative and how has it worked?
We are an entrepreneurial project that, to date, has carried out research through two cooperation projects/groups, in which we have received financial support from the Government of Aragon. At the present time, we are in the product development phase and the growth of our production capacity.
One of the ways is the use of insects to feed animals. At what point is this production?
Here the market opportunity is great, but so is the barrier to entry. For insect protein to become a reality in the animal feed market, large facilities are needed that can ensure the supply of a minimum amount of product, on a ton scale.
The other route is entomophagy, that is, the insect for human consumption. Have we advanced in the culture of eating insects?
It is clear that there is still a cultural barrier, but I think that overcoming it is a matter of time, as has already happened with other types of food. Also, there are many ways to ingest insects in the human diet and not all of them have the same resistance. Furthermore, eating a whole insect is not the same as eating a product that contains insect flour in a percentage of its composition, for example, an energy bar or pasta. In the short term, the consumption of insects for human consumption will take place in some very specific market niches.
Emphasizing the human consumption of insects. What is still the reaction of people to a dish with a visible insect as the protagonist?
From Insectopia 2050 we organize a blind food tasting and, through it, we evaluate the degree of acceptance of a group of people to different dishes. All of them had insects in their composition: one plate with the entire insect “in sight”, and the rest, with the insects integrated into the composition of another product (a paste, a scold, and a sponge cake). We measured the conscious response and the consumer’s assessment of the different dishes, and also their unconscious response, controlled through a sensor placed on the fingers, which measured heart rate and sweating. The response was good and comparable with a product without insects in those dishes in which the insect was processed and not visible. In the case of the dish containing “whole” dehydrated Tenebrio larvae, the response was worse.
Do we react in the same way to the sight of the insect as its ingestion?
It’s funny, but no. During this process we monitored two moments: the moment of discovering the plate and seeing what it contained, and the moment of eating it. And, interestingly, the largest average impacts were had at the moment of seeing what was going to be eaten, rather than at the moment of ingestion itself.
However, he assures that normalizing the consumption of insects is a matter of time and also of education.
As a curiosity I will put the following example. My daughter loves the Lacasitos. When she was 2 years old, she asked me for “totos”, which was what she called this sweet. One day, she had some dehydrated barbecued tenebrio larvae, from a brand that already sold them in a large supermarket, and I offered them to my little girl saying they were insect bugs. She, without prejudice or any cultural barrier, ate them wonderfully and then asked me for insect totos.
As an expert, why should we include insects in our diet?
If we are interested in consuming some products enriched in protein, or we are concerned about the environmental component of the production of the food we consume, insects can be a nutritious, healthy and sustainable alternative for us.