Kenya: Meat that's creating a real “buzz”

September 23, 2016
Mélissa Guillemette, Québec Science

When Professor Monica Ayieko fries up some termites or crickets in the laboratory at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology in western Kenya, everyone on campus salivates because of the aromas. “Not only is the smell incredibly pleasing, but it tastes just as good!” explains the head of the food security department.

The problem is that these nutritious bites disgust many people, including in Kenya, where only certain tribes enjoy them. Although these proteins offer a simple way to address the food requirements of an ever-growing world population, the majority of humans turn up their noses at insects.

Animals, however, do not. “When a fly goes by, my dog doesn't ask questions: he eats it!” says Ayieko. This is why her team is studying the possibility of feeding six-legged critters to livestock, a roundabout way of using insects to improve food security on a worldwide level. 

In fact, the concept isn’t new in Kenya or in other African and Asian countries, where populations already know a thousand and one tricks for catching insects and feeding them to animals. When Ayieko was little, for example, she learned to make termite traps. “We used inverted pots and grass to attract them and then gave our captives to the chickens,” said the professor when she was interviewed last March at the International Conference on Legislation and Policy on the Use of Insects as Food and Feed in East Africa, in Kisumu, a city near her university. Today, this tradition has inspired a wide variety of researchers and entrepreneurs around the world. Some one hundred of them even came to the Vic Hotel Kisumu—not exactly right next door for most of them—to discuss the topic.

Like humans, livestock and fish need proteins. But as it stands today, we are competing with them for proteins. For example, fish meal is an excellent source of protein to integrate into feed for hogs, chickens, and dairy cows, among others. Obtained after the oil is extracted from fish, this meal is made up of 40-70% protein, depending on the quality, and has a significant amount of amino acids.

“Worldwide, about 16 million tonnes of fish are processed into fish meal every year,” says Paul Vantomme, specialist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) entomophagy file, who traded his dress shirt for a bug-patterned t-shirt following the conference. “It's an excellent product, but we generally give animals foods that we ourselves can eat, such as sardines and anchovies. This is not a sustainable practice.” The supply is declining and prices are on the rise.

Soya (approximately 45% protein), another food that humans consume, is also a product largely used by stock farmers. Somewhat less complete than fish meal, it is much less expensive. However, there is a limit to the amount of land available for growing soya. In comparison, insects can be raised in small areas, and dependent on the species, they can pack up to 70% protein!

Behind the university where Ayieko works there is a reeking reservoir the size of a wheelbarrow. It is full of plant waste collected from the market, where black soldier fly larvae (approximately 48% protein) feed, before leaving the heap when they are ready to become nymphs. At this stage larva isolate themselves and fall through a duct to the bottom of a bucket: harvest time has come.

“This kind of system is one that a simple farmer could have on his farm,” explains Nyakeri Evans Manyara, a doctoral student under Ayieko's supervision. He is currently conducting his field work at Sanergy, a company in Nairobi that supplies shantytowns with public toilets, and then uses larvae to transform their contents into fertilizer. “Sanergy also hopes to market these larvae for animal feeding,” says Evans Manyara, who is trying to find the ideal combination of waste (human waste, table scraps, fruits and vegetables from the market, banana peels, and brewing waste) for the larvae to thrive.

For Kenyan farmers, the idea is not to replace fish meal; they don't buy it because of its high cost, and they tend to let their chickens scavenge for food. But if they raised their own flies, they could fatten up their animals without spending a cent. “If they don’t give their chickens any protein, they won't get much in return,” says entomologist Komi Fiaboe, in the lobby of the Vic Hotel. This means fewer eggs and less meat to feed their families.

This native of Togo works at Kenya's International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and co-directs a vast research project, INSFEED (Insect feed for poultry and fish production in sub-Saharan Africa), financed by Canada's International Development Research Centre and the Australian government.

INSFEED researchers prepared a freely accessible inventory that lists the nutritional properties of indigenous insects. They also assessed the risk of contamination (fungi, bacteria, heavy metals) and strategies for avoiding them. Finally, they determined the economic potential for farmers of raising or catching insects to feed their animals, or even selling them to the animal feed industry.

Catching insects? Since it was founded in the 1970s, ICIPE has specialized in the management of insect pests. “The same substances used to attract pests to a deadly trap could be used to collect edible insects,” says Komi Fiaboe. “For example, we’re using pheromones to draw fruit flies (from 43-60% protein, depending on the species and the stage of development) toward pesticides in order to protect mangoes. We can do the same thing to collect insects to feed poultry. Obviously, we don't want to feed chickens with flies that have been contaminated by pesticides, so we are seeking a method for killing them, once they've been caught, without poisoning them.”

Almost one hundred companies are already trying to break into this immense market. Entrepreneurs think that they can not only supply insects, either whole or ground, at a lower price than that of fish meal, but that they can also ensure constancy of production.

In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has not yet approved any insect-based products for livestock use. CFIA is not divulging the number of businesses currently engaged in the approval process, but confirms that several have inquired about the procedure for submitting a request concerning the use of insects as a “new food” for livestock. Paul Vantomme finds it unusual that insects are deemed a “new food” both here and in Europe. “We haven't invented anything! This isn’t nanotechnology!” says the man nicknamed the “ento-mentor”.

Four years ago, Brad Marchant became the first Canadian entrepreneur to undertake these steps. The black soldier flies produced by his company, Enterra Feed, based in Langley, near Vancouver, are already feeding fish farmed by our neighbours to the south—where the company obtained certification in 10 months. Certifications for poultry and seafood should be granted soon. In Switzerland, where Enterra Feed products for fish and poultry have already been approved, certification took about six months.

Every day, 100 tonnes of fruit and vegetable waste from the food industry end up at Enterra Feed's facility. In four hours, it completely disappears. “It’s particularly impressive to see a pile of food waste melt away!” says Brad Marchant, the company's CEO, who hopes to supply shrimp and hog producers. “We are eager to be allowed to sell in Canada; after all, we use local fruit and vegetable waste and it would be more logical to resell the proteins here too.”

He emphasizes that an increasing number of regulations in North America dictate that the industry must stop sending organic waste to dump sites. “That’s great, but simply letting these nutrients decompose is a huge loss. Instead, we convert them into another form of food. Saving nutrients will be more and more important as the Earth's population increases.”

The idea has also caught on in Quebec. In collaboration with Professor Grant Vandenberg, of Laval University's Animal Sciences Department, the Centre de développement bioalimentaire du Québec has just initiated a two-year pilot project with houseflies and black soldier flies, divided among 24 cages. “RECYQQuébec intends to eliminate all putrescible residues (residues with a likelihood of rotting) from landfills by 2020, and this project represents one of the ways to upgrade these residues,” says Marie-Pier Aubin, coordinator of the centre's agricultural sector based in La Pocatière, Quebec. “If we can develop low-cost, standardized protein production, when feeding is the biggest financial burden for livestock production and aquafarming, we'll solve two problems.” In addition to fruit and vegetable waste from grocery stores, spent brewery grains will be tested for use as larva feed.

The Quebec company Larvatria has gone even further by completing the research phase of a project for producing houseflies fed on dairy-cow manure! Instead of allowing piles of cow excrement to decompose on farms for months, with all the methane fumes that this involves, President Gilles-André Bouchard suggests using larvae to compost it within three or four days in Larvatria's future factory. “With our procedure, we eliminate 300 kg of CO2 per tonne of manure that we have consumed in this way,” says the businessman, who left the computer industry in favour of the bug business. “In the end, we hope to be able to sell carbon credits.” Add this to larvae, which are more than 68% protein!

“In 2026, we're going to ask why we weren't already doing this in 2016,” said Marcel Dicke, the Dutch entomologist and author of The Insect Cookbook: Food for a Sustainable Planet, during an interview at the Vic Hotel bar. But isn't it equally foolish that, as is the case with sardines and anchovies, we are giving animals insects that we could be eating? “Not all insects can be used to feed humans,” he warned. “I once tasted cookies made from black soldier flies. I don't think they'll be winning over any consumers.”

According to Paul Vantomme, despite the exciting progress we shouldn’t go buggy over insects. “We often hear slogans like ‘insects are going to save the planet’. I don't believe that; they are only part of the solution. In reality, convincing people in developed countries to eat less meat would have a much greater impact than the benefits insects could offer.”

Now who wants to taste Monica Ayieko's fried crickets?

YOU'RE ALREADY EATING THEM

Are you disgusted by the thought that the chickens, hogs, and fish that end up on your plate have eaten insects? Well, you should know that you’re already eating up to 500 grams of insects per year! Tofu, cheese, ground coffee, raisins, pepper, mushrooms, and figs: so many products can contain tiny amounts of insect fragments, or even whole ones, while still complying with Canadian Food Inspection Agency standards. Bon appétit!

THE CHAMPIONS

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the most promising species for animal feed are:

> the black soldier fly
> the housefly
> the silk worm
> the yellow mealworm

INSECTS INSTEAD OF ANTIBIOTICS?

More research on the subject is needed, but it may be that chitin, a molecule present in insect and crustacean exoskeletons, stimulates animal immune systems. In a 2013 report, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations even wrote about a “promising option for replacing the antibiotics currently used for livestock.” “In the past, scientists believed that humans and animals could not digest chitin,” explained Marcel Dicke, professor at the Netherlands' Wageningen University and an international authority on entomology. “Chitinases (enzymes that can break down chitin) have been detected in human populations exposed to insects. In addition, chickens that have eaten insects appear to be healthier. But for now, there is very little literature on the subject.”

THE BEST ENEMY

Insects are often regarded as nuisances. We invent all sorts of techniques to trap them: fly swatters, poisons in aerosol cans, and sticky tapes, among others. However, of the one million insect species  scientifically described to date—and there may be more than 6 million species—only 5,000 are truly harmful. Something to think about when lighting a citronella candle!

This report was made possible by the Québec Science-IDRC bursary. The original French version of this article was published in the June-July 2016 issue of Québec Science.