Posts Agriculture, Climate, Economy, Food

Finland finally allows the growing and selling of insects as foodstuff. But how will Finland become the number-one insect economy country in the world?

The sale of insects as foodstuff is now permitted in many European countries, and Finland became one of them in autumn 2017. The edible insects market is small but fast-growing: according to predictions, the value of the global market will rise from the present tens of millions to over 400 million euros in the 2020s. In addition, using insects in animal feed presents a major future opportunity.

Finland is aiming to be one of the top insect economy countries in the world. Luke’s experts know what the next big steps in the industry to achieve that goal are.

1. Basic research today, not tomorrow

The insect economy is still so new in Finland that lengthy basic research has not been carried out. Senior Specialist Susanne Heiska thinks it should be started immediately, so that a solid research basis can be produced as quickly as possible.

“The health, nutritional and ecological effects of insects produced in Finland should be studied because we don’t yet know these about, for example, Finnish crickets. Research methods also need to be developed and standardised.”

Heiska would also like to see research on the wants and needs of consumers.

“If there are no people who buy insect products, neither will there be any production. The insect economy will become a strong industry when it is based on scientific knowledge.”

Mixed platter for lunch, anyone? Photo: Erkki Oksanen.

2. Finding out what a cricket eats

One clear-cut research topic is finding out exactly what insects eat. Insects are marketed as an ecological alternative, but sustainability is not self-evident. “The majority of crickets are currently being fed chicken feed, which contains imported soy and has a large ecological footprint. We need to get the insects’ nutrition into such a state that it redeems the promises of ecological sustainability”, explains Researcher Pertti Marnila.

Marnila is involved in a research project investigating the use of food industry side streams in insect feed.

“We’ve already tried potato protein and brewery mash, and next we are going to test peas and carrots. The preliminary results are good”, Marnila says.

In addition to being ecological, the nutrition fed to insects must obviously be nutritious as well. Nutrition affects the insects’ health, growth, protein content and offspring production.

3. Initiating selective breeding

Like other animals, insects should also be selectively bred in order to pass on and preserve their best characteristics.

“First we need to find out what the most important characteristics to improve in insects are”, says Senior Scientist Miika Tapio.

“Selective breeding also requires research. We have to examine the methods of controlling breeding and inbreeding, for example, and determine how big a problem inbreeding is.”

Mass production requires large and healthy insect populations with high levels of disease resistance. “We need a well-institutionalised animal for the production to be profitable”, Pertti Marnila says.

Susanne Heiska also believes selective breeding should be started immediately.

“To my knowledge, there are no selectively bred populations available anywhere in the world. No one knows the origin of bred populations. Healthy populations for the local production environments should be bred now.”

4. Getting production conditions in order

Insect farming in Finland is currently largely done by hand. Automating production would lower costs and also make insect products cheaper.“

Since insects need warm conditions to survive, farming takes a lot of energy. Pertti Marnila has a solution: insect production could be set up next to factories that produce waste heat, electricity and side streams that the insects could make use of.

Susanne Heiska agrees. “It would be great to have the industry constructed in such a way that you would have large insect factories that are part of agricultural symbioses. In addition to them you would have small and specialised actors, such as artisan insect producers.”

“At the moment, the industry is constructed so that everyone is repeating the same work chains from start to finish and doing overlapping work. For example, no one has yet specialised in egg production.”

5. Clamping down on risks

As production is still in its early stages, all possible risks are not yet known. According to Susanne Heiska, risk management is related, in particular, to production biology, hygiene and managing production conditions.

The pathogens – agents that cause diseases – of various insect species also still remain quite obscure.

“For example, a virus that can paralyse or destroy the entire population has been observed in crickets. Then you may have to change species, and increasing the volume of production population to full capacity may take a year in a big facility”, Heiska explains.

+1: Value-added products and cleaner waste

Value-added products in food production can be derived from insects. For example, chitin shell can be processed into chitosan, which lowers cholesterol, among other things. The chitosan currently sold in health stores originates from crustaceans.

Pertti Marnila believes insects could also benefit the society outside of food production.

“Insects could be used in waste processing. It has been discovered that insects reduce, for example, hormone and pharmaceutical residues in municipal waste. However, EU regulation does not currently permit feeding waste to an insect species defined as edible, even if the intended purpose of use is entirely different.”

“If insects were used in waste management, they would go straight to a glue factory. But the regulators couldn’t have conceived of such a use when the regulation was being written.”

Research-based solutions give a boost to insect economy.

Text: Reetta Rönkä