Bugs for Breakfast: A Whole New Kind of Agriculture

Building Indiana Business

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The more one studies agriculture in Indiana, the more surprises pop out of the soil to astonish and amuse. Lots of unique products are bred and grown here, and all kinds of scientific advancements are being made every day. Lately, an entire new aspect of agriculture has been wriggling its way into the mainstream. Humanity’s multi-legged neighbors are becoming an important food resource.

As creepy as it may seem at first, insect farming has become a new focus of research in the Hoosier state. One day, these new products might even find their way into your diet.

Researching Insect Farming

Farming as we know it has limits. As our world population grows and changes, the existing means of producing food will likely fall short of human needs. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that traditional agriculture will fall about 40% short of the world's needed food supply by 2050. That’s not very far ahead in our future, which is why alternatives are being sought today.

Here in Indiana, scientists at IUPUI, the Indiana University School of Medicine, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, Mississippi State University, and numerous industrial partners have teamed up to explore the use of insects as food and feed for livestock.

This new partnership has been titled the Center for Environmental Sustainability Through Insect Farming. It is being funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Over 30 companies from the U.S. and abroad will be involved with this partnership, including major food suppliers such as Mars and Tyson Foods, and well as insect farming organizations such as Aspire Food Group, Protix, and Beta Hatch Inc.

The partners are conducting research into using bugs as food as a response to overpopulation, climate change, and a shrinking food supply.

"This center will address a pressing need for alternative protein sources that are environmentally sustainable," said Christine Picard, an associate professor at the School of Science at IUPUI and one of the university’s lead researchers on this project.

The Protein of Tomorrow

Simply put, insects may be a reasonable answer to many of the world’s emerging food problems.

According to the leaders of the new partnership, insect farming can provide a practical, economical, and sustainable path for producing high-value protein and reducing agricultural waste -- addressing issues related to climate change, environmental sustainability, socio-economic development, and agriculture.

A good example of the benefits of bugs is their ability to convert agricultural byproducts into protein, which has the potential to eliminate organic waste in farming. Those proteins can then be used as a suitable feed for livestock like fish, poultry, and swine in addition to being an ingredient in pet food or many different human foods.

Several counties in the world, including the U.S., have already approved certain insect proteins for food, including black soldier flies for animals and crickets and mealworms for people.

"These insects represent a circular economy," Picard said. "Their use in agriculture will limit our impacts on the environment – with less land or water needed for production and reduced greenhouse gas emissions – as well as potentially reduce, or even eliminate, the demand for fishmeal and other agricultural products used in aquaculture and protein production."

Multi-Specialty Research

There is a lot of variety to the specialties involved in this research, including advanced sciences and even policymaking. Each university participant in the center will contribute its unique expertise to address issues that currently hamper the expansion of insects as food and feed.

Partners will be engaging professional, regulatory, and governmental bodies to enhance public understanding and adoption, and they will also be conducting lab and field experiments in chemistry, engineering, food nutrition, genomics, microbiology, physiology, and vertebrate biology.

IUPUI will focus on genetic aspects of insects as food and feed. Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Mississippi State University will target optimization and quality assurance matters related to microbiology, respectively.

By bringing all of these heads together, the partners will advance new knowledge and technologies that will fill critical scientific and industrial gaps related to the use of insects for food and feed.

Coming to a Table Near You

It’s not really a question of if, but how soon will insects become a more regular part of our diets. The need for alternative food solutions is only projected to grow, and bugs are going to become an increasingly preferred option. The research happening here today is going to result in the acceleration of insect farming in livestock and aquaculture, as well as for human consumption, and could very well put Indiana at the forefront of a rapidly growing agricultural trend. All good things for our bellies and our state.

By Nick Dmitrovich with information from IUPUI.

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