AS THE tide turns against importing soya for animal feed, the idea of using locally reared mealworms as a sustainable bulk protein source is gaining ground.

Gram for gram, mealworms contain more protein than steak, and are rich in the amino acids, minerals, fats, vitamins and energy that form the basis of feed for poultry, aquaculture and pets. But crucially, the insects can yield all these nutrients on a diet of organic food waste, while using minimal land and water.

With a background in rearing insects for use in research, Olivia Champion set up Entec Nutrition in 2018, aiming to create a cost-effective feed source by maximising the desirable traits of mealworms, like short rearing times and increased protein content. The company is currently in the research and development stage, investigating the best conditions for mealworm production, including optimising nutrition and growth rates.

But why are mealworms better than other insects like soldier flies? Entec's Emma Theobald explained that the answer lies in density: “You can’t rear soldier flies as densely because they are flying insects, but mealworms are comfortable in close proximity and can be densely packed in, which means that they can be vertically farmed. Though products are already with a small number of partners to test, commercial roll out will require development of production facilities which we are focussing on in 2021.”

One key target is to supply as much of the mealworms’ diet as possible with industry by-products, and the company is now refining methods of using brewers spent grains as a substrate to feed insects. It may also be possible to feed and rear the mealworms differently to produce different nutrient profiles to suit different end markets. For example, aquaculture requires low fats while poultry need more.

Research funding has also gone towards exploring packaging, shelf life and potential contaminants – aspects that are essential to getting any products to market. Ms Theobald said: “The industry needs to know how to safely store mealworm products and how long they will last."

The next hurdle to cross will be regulatory conditions. At present, EU regulations place serious restrictions on what can be fed to animals that are going into the food chain – which limits what mealworms can be fed. There are also limitations on the form in which mealworms can be fed to other animals like pigs and poultry – but if insects get approval for poultry feed in the UK, Entec expects the market to be so undersaturated that demand would far outstrip supply.