Rearing insects for food, feed and pharma in ‘insect hub’ Limburg

The Insect Protein Innovation Platform in Limburg sees a future where insects will form a much bigger part of our lives. Insects will provide humans and animals with proteins, and the pharmaceutical industry with useful substances. One of Europe’s biggest ‘insect hubs’ is located on Dutch soil.

The need to eat insects

Eating insects is nothing new. One third of the world’s population has been eating insects on a daily basis for centuries. The thing is, the insect-eating people live in Latin America, Africa or South-East Asia. In these regions, insects are widely available. In Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia, on the other hand, most people are disgusted just by the idea. Get used to it though: we will also be eating insects in the near future.
The world’s population is growing and by 2050 there will be nine billion people inhabiting Earth. Because all of those people will have to eat, the need for high-energy food sources, especially proteins, will increase at alarming rates. It will be difficult to fill those needs by rearing more chickens, pigs and livestock, so using insects as a protein source is becoming more and more interesting.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) stressed the importance of insects as a protein source during the ‘Insects to feed the world’ conference in 2014.

Recently, even the Dutch government said that the people of The Netherlands have to eat more insects.

But there is more. Insects, be it live, fried or grinded, can serve as feed for many animals, such as chickens, pigs, livestock and fish. Additionally, insects might offer substances for the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

Insect rearing in Limburg

In the south-east of The Netherlands, in the region of North-Limburg, livestock and pig farmers have seen tumbling their profits for several years now. Relocation of production to low-income countries is a reality here, as have been several outbreaks of animal diseases like foot-and-mouth disease and swine pest. So, a group of farmers and other entrepreneurs went looking for ways to turn the tide, while boosting the local economy at the same time.

Stimulated by the imminent need for more protein sources, they partnered up with seven municipalities in North-Limburg and started the ‘Protein Innovation Programme’. Within this programme, people are researching alternative ways to produce proteins, using plants, algae or insects. They decided to focus on insects for now and the Insect Protein Innovation Platform (IPIP) was created.

North-Limburg is a suitable region for the ‘insect industry’ for several reasons. Firstly, the current high density of intensive pig farms here, means there are many suitable locations to rear insects. Secondly, this is also a mushroom (champignon) growing region, which means there is lot of knowledge about climate control systems. Finally, several large food-processing businesses are located in the region, such as Fresh Park Venlo, which could provide insect farms with plant-based substrates.

Insect Protein Innovation Platform

IPIP is a partnership of several entrepreneurs, governments and research institutions. Running operations at IPIP is Eric Michels. He is Project Leader Insects at Vivara, originally a company that specializes in bird houses and bird feed. One of the feeding products for birds, as well as for pet reptiles, is mealworms. Vivara is rearing around 20.000 kilos of mealworms each week in their own facility in the town of Vierlingsbeek, located between Nijmegen and Venlo. This is just the beginning.
Michels: “Our mission is clear, the southeast of The Netherlands has to become the centre of the European insect-rearing business.”

To achieve this, the former Floriade area near Venlo will be transformed into an ‘Insect Campus’. The campus will serve three goals:

– As a showcase for everyone to see what is possible with insects
– For research and education
– To rear insects

Insects will be reared on a relatively small scale, to learn the tricks of the trade. Later, interested entrepreneurs can build bigger insects farms (in the region or elsewhere), using the knowledge that has been gathered at the Insect Campus. Michels: “The insects can be reared in Poland or in China, or anywhere else when needed, but the knowledge is gathered here, in Limburg.”

Universities are highly interested in the Insect Campus. The University of Maastricht currently has a second campus in Venlo, housing 200 students. This number will increase to 800 students over the next five years. They will be doing a lot of research on the subject of AgriFood and insects. The University of Applied Sciences in Den Bosch and Venlo (HAS) is doing their own insect research at their ‘growth campus’ and has interns working with insects at Vivara. Wageningen University, historically an important university for insect research, is also a partner. Several other universities, from The Netherlands as well as Belgium, showed interest at the insect congress that was organized on January 21 in Venlo.

Challenges and opportunities

Using insects for animal consumption is currently facing rigid EU-legislation. Because of the problems with animal diseases in the past, it is not allowed to feed proteins of animal origin to chickens, pigs or livestock, though research is carried out to help change legislation.

It IS allowed however to feed live insects and oil derived from insects to chickens, pigs and livestock. And for fisheries, legislation is less rigid: fish can be feed proteins of animal origin. Currently, most fisheries use fish meal. Meal derived from mealworms, buffalo worms or black soldier flies might replace that in the future, as using insect proteins has important advantages: less need for using antibiotics and reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses.

Humans are probably not going to eat black soldier flies. Crickets and grasshoppers might be ‘easier’ alternatives, though processed food derived from insects might form the most important product for human consumption. Michels: “Grinded mealworms or buffalo worms can used in pasta, for example, which is something that is relatively easy to integrate in the human diet.” Eventually, insects could replace soy.

Then there is the cost of producing insect proteins. Currently, most insect products are still too expensive. Wageningen University conducted research to learn what a future insect rearing facility will need to produce a commercially viable product. They found that the two most effective ways to lower production costs, are to increase the scale and to automatize the process. These are things that will be taken care of at the Insect Campus.

Startups dealing with insects

In The Netherlands at least three companies are active in the insect industry.

Protix, a startup from Brabant, was founded in 2009 and is rearing insects for use in aqua culture (fisheries) and to feed chickens, pigs and livestock. They are now venturing in the area of insects for human consumption, together with the German Institute of Food Technologies.
Protix was awarded as a technology pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2015.

Insect Europe BV, a startup based in Flevoland was founded in 2013. The owners of Insect Europe have a web shop, called Delibugs, where they sell insects as novelty food since 2011. In 2014 Insect Europe received a 100.000 euro investment through crowdfunding platform Symbid.

Protifarm, ‘The Protein Company’, from Ermelo was formerly known as Kreca. Protifarm, like IPIP, is also concentrating on food, feed and pharma.

Michels knows the founders of these companies personally and doesn’t see them as competitors, but as partners.
Michels: “The founder of Insect Europe even gave a presentation at our congress last January. We have to work together to make this something big.”

Several startups, mostly from the USA, but also from Iceland, are offering insect-derived products for human consumption. Exo is making protein bars out of cricket flour, while Icelandic startup Jungle Bar is making a similar product. Six Foods turns cricket flour into chips, Hopper Foods into crunchy granola and Critter Bitters into cocktails. All of these startups hope to normalize human consumption of insects.

It will be interesting to see if the Insect Campus will inspire Dutch startups to launch innovative insect products. And let’s hope they will be more innovative then the next protein bar.

Image by Paul Arps