Buzzing: Insects for pets
This week in Buzzing:
Miley & me: insects in pet food
The Q&A: Virginia Emery, Beta Hatch
Test corner: BeoBia’s Re_ mealworm growing kit
Hello everybody, how are you all? Last week, I attended the Insects to Feed the World virtual conference. Held every two years, it’s the biggest conference in the sector, with presentations on literally everything and anything to do with insect protein. One in particular caught my attention: Bruce Jowett’s presentation on consumer attitude towards insects in pet food.
Bruce Jowett is marketing director at Enterra, a Canadian company that produces Black Soldier Fly, and he started his presentation with this: “It does feel a bit weird to talk about dogs and cats at an entomology conference but I know that there is probably going to be a connection with a number of you because 73% of you either own a dog or a cat.”
Enterra’s research showed that most people consider their pets a beloved part of their family and are concerned about what they feed them. Insects are nutritious, natural, hypoallergenic and a more sustainable source of protein. As a dog owner (and lover) myself, switching my dog’s usual food to food containing insects is something I’m keen to do. A 2017 study by UCLA found that meat-eating by dogs and cats in the US creates the equivalent of about 64 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which has about the same climate impact as a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars.
At the moment, pet food containing insects is still very niche: it’s not widely available and tends to be sold as premium rather than mainstream pet food. Being based in the UK however, I do have access to one of the few mainstream insect pet food brands currently on the market: Yora. I did look into it when it launched last year but it is prohibitively expensive: a 12kg bag of their all breeds dog food is £71.99, compared to £18.79 for a 15kg bag of our usual pet food. I love my dog, just not enough to pay five times more for her food. Sorry Miley.
The premium placed on insect pet food will come down with time. The recent announcement that Nestlé’s Purina was launching a new line of cat and dog food containing insect protein is a sign that we’re moving towards a mass market.
But my concern about price and sustainability may not be shared amongst other pet owners: for some, nutritional quality, allergies or having a “natural diet” may be more important considerations. The beauty for the insect protein sector is that insects seem to tick most of these boxes. All they have to do now is tell consumers about them.
Over the course of their research, Enterra found that only 23% of respondents said they’d consider buying insect-based pet food. But after a brief 45-second presentation about the benefits of insects in pet food, this proportion increased to 36%. Whoever wrote that factsheet definitely deserves a payrise. As Jowett concluded, “we can move the needle quite drastically quite easily.” Given that the pet food market is worth $30 billion in the US and $24 billion in Europe, I have no doubt insect protein producers are going to zero in on that market.
I’ve not worked out yet how much more I’d be willing to pay for my dog’s food, but what about you 73% of Buzzing readers who own a pet? I’d love to know whether you’d feed your four-legged companions insect-based food and why. Just reply to the newsletter or comment on this post.
The Q&A: Virginia Emery, founder & CEO of Beta Hatch
Virginia Emery has always worked with bugs. She has a PhD in entomology from the University of California, Berkeley and five years ago, she started growing mealworms in her (climate-controlled) garden shed to explore how insects could reach their full potential as a protein source. “People grow bugs on their kitchen all the time and they think it's quite easy,” she says, “but it actually requires a lot of science and technology.” So Beta Hatch was born to develop the know-how and technology required. Fast-forward to 2020 and Beta Hatch will soon be the largest producer of mealworms in North America. It has also published the genome for the mealworm on an open-access basis.
Mealworms can be consumed as food: why focus on animal feed instead?
There's plenty of opportunity in both directions, but the opportunity in feed is much larger from an economics standpoint, but also from an impact standpoint. It’s a lot easier to take an existing, widespread and unsustainable practice and change that into something more sustainable than to create a whole new market. Insects as food aren’t very popular in the western world.
Also, I do think people are still going to want to eat meat, so how can we produce it more sustainably? When you look at the environmental impact of meat, feed is the single largest contributor. So if we can change that, we’re not just changing one beef burger for an insect burger, we’re making all these animal products more sustainable.
You sequenced the genome of the mealworm and made it available publicly. Why?
We're not the first to have the genome: it used to be equivalent to rocket science, but now it's a little bit more straightforward. We felt however that it was really important to make it a public resource because for the industry to succeed, we need to have public-private partnerships and we need to accelerate research for industry.
There are plenty of things that we want to learn and understand about the mealworm, but that don't commercially make sense for my company to pursue. We really need other partners to delve into more functional work, which can create value for industry.
You argue that the insect protein sector has big co-location opportunities: could you give some examples?
There's a data centre next door to our facility. They produce a lot of heat but it's low grade, which is not very valuable for recapture. So they just vent it into the atmosphere. But it’s perfect for us to precondition the air in our facility and reduce our needs for electricity. There is a several megawatts potential advantage there. We, in turn, make CO2 and there are plenty of indoor plant producers who need CO2 as an input. So I do think that there's a multitude of opportunities: co-location shortens travel distances and reduces transportation impacts, making insect farming more sustainable.
Test Corner: BeoBia Re_ mealworm growing kit
A couple of weeks ago, I received my BeoBia Re_ mealworm growing kit. I promptly ordered 300 adult beetles to kickstart the colony. The beetles arrived one Saturday afternoon, to the excitement of the kids: it’s not often you receive a package labelled “live animals inside”.
In principle, growing mealworms sounds pretty straightforward. In practice, I have a lot of questions: how much do they eat? Can they escape? Why on earth are they all crawling out of their beetle tray and crowding into the mealworm tray beneath? Where will I find the eggs? Most of these questions are answered in the product manual but for some reason, I find myself wanting a little more hand-holding. I’m vaguely terrified that I’ll do as poor a job as with the house plants and kill the lot.
I suspect that as with most things, you learn on the go and find what works for you. One thing I am keen to explore is what I can feed the beetles. I find the idea of feeding them stuff we humans would eat defeats the purpose of trying to produce sustainable protein. Mealworms were originally stored grain pests so their base diet has to be grain. Beobia recommends oats; bran may be a more sustainable substitute. We have a number of artisanal breweries in our neighbourhood so spent brewer’s grain may also be an option.
Teething issues aside, it’s been fun to see how interested the kids are in the beetles. They regularly ask to see them and feed them, and they know we’ll be eating the larvae. We’ll see how they feel when it comes to it: it’s not like eating your pet rabbit but there might be still be some reticence (and not because they’re insects – I’ve seen them eat them straight from the packet). I’ll let you know in a few months’ time once we’ve got our first batch 😊
Note: I do not accept freebies and buy all the products I try.
Hi, I’m Emilie Filou, a freelance journalist. I specialise in business and sustainability issues and have a long-standing interest in Africa. If you liked Buzzing, please share with friends and colleagues, or buy me a coffee. My funky cricket avatar was designed by Sheila Lukeni.