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Improving the environmental sustainability of insect farming

In our recent study, Life cycle assessment of cricket farming in north-eastern Thailand, we found that cricket farming has fewer environmental impacts than broiler chicken farming. This finding does not come as a surprise since crickets are biologically and physiologically different from vertebrate livestock species, and other studies have drawn similar conclusions (see for example journal papers here, here and here). However, this study is the first of its kind to conduct a life cycle assessment on insect farming for human consumption on a commercial scale.

The results come at a critical point in time: companies and investors are hungry for data, and market analysts expect major growth in the insects for food and feed sector in the coming years. So far, only six other life cycle assessments on insect farming have been conducted, using data from laboratory experiments and pilot plants, rather than from operating commercial systems. 

A farmer in Khon Kaen Province feeds his crickets chicken-based feed, Photo: Afton HalloranOur study found that while crickets have an advantage over four- and two-legged livestock, there are components of their production systems that could be improved to further reduce the environmental impacts. This is particularly true as regards the feed provided to the crickets. In Thailand, many cricket farmers use commercial chicken feed. The feed we analysed in our study contained maize meal (51%), soybean meal (28%), rice bran (9%), fish meal (5%), palm oil (3%), calcium carbonate (3%), and salt (1%). However, these ingredients are also in direct competition with human food demands (more on this feed/food competition in three studies here, here and here), resulting in the inefficient use of land and water resources. 

The science behind formulating nutritionally balanced feeds for domesticated animals has been developed over the last century, but when it comes to the formulation of feed for farmed insects, knowledge is still very much in its infancy. This, nevertheless, presents an opportunity for improving the sustainability of feeds fed to farmed insects. A few published studies investigate different local plant species, by-products and waste streams that could be more environmentally sustainable and that do not compete on the market with human food demands. Aside from lessening the competition between humans and animals for crops, another motivation for finding alternatives is that commercial chicken feed is expensive and makes up the majority of input costs incurred by farmers. 

There are also other factors that will influence the selection of cricket feed ingredients in the future. Many countries and regions (e.g. Thailand and the EU) are currently developing food legislation to regulate insect farming. As such, farmers will be required to feed their insects approved feed ingredients if they are to legally sell them for human consumption. These feeds are generally selected based on their low-risk profile and acceptance as feed for food producing animals. This, in turn, will influence the environmental sustainability of insect farming as our recent study found that the production of feed ingredients contributes to the majority of environmental impact categories, including global warming potential, eutrophication and water depletion.

Image: Chicken feed provided to crickets in Thailand, Afton HalloranAnother branch of our research looks into the socio-economic impacts of cricket farming. The results of our study, Cricket farming as a livelihood strategy in Thailand, found that that cricket farming has improved the lives of many rural farmers in Thailand by enabling income diversification. Rural and urban cricket value chains have expanded and have, on the whole, positively impacted rural economic development, entrepreneurship and employment in Thailand.

In a balancing act between social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability, small-scale cricket production in Thailand provides an example of what sustainable agricultural production could look like. However, a major question remains: will these systems continue to have the same positive impacts on rural livelihoods in the future if expanded and taken to scale? While this is difficult to assess, a shift towards industrialised systems could marginalize small-scale farmers as they may not be able to meet the requirements of consistent production quotas and quality.

As in the case of all new agricultural innovations, time is a significant factor. Insect farming systems are relatively new compared to other kinds of livestock production. This means that there is a unique opportunity to continue to shape cricket farming as a component of sustainable food systems.

*Photo credit: Afton Halloran, GREEiNSECT

We welcome you to post your comments, input and questions on this post below. Some of the questions worth exploring might be:

  1. Looking beyond food crops intended for human consumption, what are other possible sources of feed for crickets that have not yet been explored?
  2. If insects are used as an animal feed do they represent a solution to feed-food competition or will they simply perpetuate highly intensive animal production systems that many would argue are problematic for animal welfare and other reasons?

We look forward to hearing your opinions in the comment section below. (Note that you will need to be logged in as a member to comment. Register here or login here).

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