For Insect Farming to Work, Scientists Need to Build a Better Bug
Faster-growing, fatter critters could provide the protein needed to raise more climate-friendly livestock and pets.
Christine Picard’s search for a better bug to feed the world starts with dead bodies. Well, not the corpses themselves, but the blow flies, flesh flies, and other squirmy, wriggly things that wing their way to corpses in the minutes and hours after death. Picard, a forensic entomologist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, studies why some insects grow much more quickly than others. This is important for criminal investigations, because the maturity and type of insects found on a body can help nail down exactly when someone died. But Picard’s research on corpse-munching flies is starting to have an effect way beyond autopsy reports: Now her focus is on food.
Don’t worry. It’s (mostly) not for you.
The booming insect farming industry is becoming extremely interested in what makes some larvae grow faster and fatter than others. In 2021, Picard became one of the lead researchers at the Center for Environmental Sustainability Through Insect Farming, a new US-based research center that wants to make farming insects much more efficient. Although the industry is growing, by pure numbers it is still relatively puny: European farms only produced a few thousand tons of insect protein in 2020, a drop in the ocean compared to other sources of protein. These small production numbers keep the price of farmed insects high. One way to solve the problem is to selectively breed fatter and faster-growing bugs—the same approach that the livestock industry has used for centuries to make farm animals more productive.
“What we have is effectively a very kind of raw material which can then be improved through selective breeding,” says CEO Thomas Farrugia.
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